Real Change: From advocate to lawmaker

Real Change: From advocate to lawmaker

Real Change vendor Lisa Sawyer interviews Rep. Nicole Macri

I knew Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, before she became an elected state representative. She was involved with so many homelessness issues before she became a lawmaker. Today, she continues to work at the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC) while legislating in the state House of Representatives in Olympia.

I met Macri in my first year of lobbying on Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day in Olympia in 2014. I’ve seen her testify at Seattle City Hall and elsewhere, trying to speak for everyone. I got to know her more after I was nominated Real Change Vendor of the Year, and when she offered me a housing voucher, ending five years of homelessness.

I spoke with Macri at the annual Conference on Ending Homelessness in May and wanted to learn more. We spoke by phone to discuss housing, homelessness and the Seattle mayoral race.

What made you decide to run for the Washington Legislature?
I decided to run after my predecessor, Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, decided to run for Congress. The seat opened up, and I really felt like our city and state were facing some urgent issues, particularly around housing affordability, and that I could bring some passion and expertise to help solve those problems. And I really felt like the state could be a better partner with local communities, particularly Seattle, in working to solve those problems and everything that makes our city livable. Everything from making sure people have access to health care to excellent public schools. But my most immediate drive was around the urgency of the affordable housing crisis and the growing crisis of homelessness in our city.

What is it like moving from DESC into lawmaking?
It’s an interesting transition, for sure. In my work at DESC, I work in a basement office where above my office DESC operates day services and outpatient mental health care; and above that, 270 beds of emergency shelter; and above that, 190 apartments of permanent supportive housing for people who have experienced homelessness for a really long time, and are living with pretty serious challenges, including a lot of complicated disabilities.

So I feel that houses many, many people who are both in need of a lot of help, and who are also offering a lot of help to folks in need, and also folks who are making pretty dramatic changes in their own lives because of the opportunities that they receive here at DESC. And I see that every day behind hundreds of people engaging with one another, striving to make improvements in their lives.

And in Olympia — and I know that you have been there — you know there’s a lot of marble, and a lot of people walking around in business suits, and it is easy to forget about the urgency of the challenges that people in our community are facing. So that for me has been a big transition.

What’s the biggest issue that you have faced as a representative?
The biggest policy issue that I have been focusing on this session is around our statewide resource for addressing homelessness. So, making sure that we continue our investments in communities to help reduce homelessness and respond to the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and to give the communities the opportunity to raise additional dollars to put to work to address homelessness. Our main source, statewide, for doing that is our real estate document recording fee and the revenue from that. The majority of that fee is set to sunset in 2019, so I’ve been working on a bill this session to both eliminate that sunset and give that fee to our community. We haven’t, yet, passed it fully out of the Legislature. We passed it fully out of the House at the end of May.

The bill is meant to eliminate the sunset on our document recording fee revenue, which is our major source of funding for homelessness response. The bill allows local counties to increase the fee at the local level and keep those dollars in their home communities to respond to homelessness. And we saw in the news, just this week, that the statewide numbers of people experiencing homelessness have gone up. We knew that — in King County we got that news a week or so ago — but we now know that the crisis of homelessness is growing throughout the state.

So I’ve been working very hard on that bill, and learning to work with a variety of stakeholders, including my colleagues in the House, both Democrats and Republicans as well as state senators, and then some various people from across the state. And I’m just so delighted and grateful to hear from so many people across the state who care deeply about this issue. I was visited by the mayor of Tacoma, the mayor of Walla Walla, and I received emails from just hundreds of people about the need, not only in my own district in Seattle, but across the state for these resources. So, I continue to work hard on it. We’re in our second special session, and this issue hasn’t yet been resolved, and so I continue to talk with my colleagues about it. Passed it on in the House and now I’m working to convince the Senate to also pass it.

When I come down and advocate in Olympia every year, it seems like things move very slowly. Is there anything else that I could do?
Progress in Olympia moves slowly for a number of reasons. Two reasons, maybe. The first one being that Washington is the state with the largest population that has a part-time legislature. So, what that means is that our issues, the issues that our state struggles with, or needs to address, over time this has become more complicated as we have a growing population. The second reason that drives some of the slowness is that we are pretty politically divided in Olympia. Essentially, in the House there is a two-vote majority of Democrats, and in the Senate there’s a one-vote majority of Republicans. So that means that every decision essentially has to be a compromise or consensus decision with agreement from Republicans and Democrats in order for something to pass. It’s not like one party controls what happens in Olympia. And so with any consensus decision-making, it takes a lot more time when more than one interest group is in charge. That makes it hard.

I think continued advocacy is so essential because hearing from constituents really has a big impact on decisions that lawmakers make. I know that’s true for me. When I know a policy is coming up that I’m familiar with, I will search on my email to see who I’ve heard from. I will talk with my legislative assistants to hear who has called in about issues, so I know where my constituents stand. So I always encourage people to not hesitate to contact their legislators multiple times, even if they think that their lawmaker knows their position or even if they know that that their lawmaker’s position is aligned with their perspective. So the only thing I can encourage you to do is to keep at it. It makes a difference. It’s great when you can get down to visit Olympia, but not everybody can do that, and so reaching out in other ways, making calls and sending emails, sending post cards, all of that makes a huge difference.

What do you think about the results of the Count Us In, originally the One Night Count?
I’ll say I wasn’t surprised to see an increase in the numbers, because we’ve been seeing it with our eyes in our city and across our county. We just see more and more people outside. I know because I work in homelessness services that many people, many more people are coming to ask for help. And many people who we try to help at DESC struggle to find housing to move into even if we do help them with support of our vouchers.
There are some interesting things in the Count Us In around the rate of racial disparity for people of color who are struggling with homelessness, the number of LGBTQ folks, particularly young people, but not only young people who are homeless. And so I think it’s helpful to see the data. But it wasn’t that enlightening in the sense that I learned very much new information, because I have been aware that this crisis of homelessness is growing, it’s just very apparent to us.

What is the cause of homelessness?
The main cause of homelessness is the fact that people can’t access housing, and the most common reason why people can’t access housing is because housing is not affordable for too many people. And I think we need to really stay focused on that. There’s a lot of data, including from the Count Us In, that demonstrates that that is the main reason why people experience homelessness. Now many people need a lot of other support in their life, and not just housing that’s affordable. But the reason why people become and remain homeless is because they can’t get into housing. Some people have trouble accessing housing for other reasons, like landlords will refuse them when they apply for housing because of criminal histories or bad credit, so that also is a challenge, but the main barrier is housing costs. And a lot of the reason why people can’t afford housing is because people’s incomes have been relatively flat over time while the cost of housing has just gone up dramatically.

When we think about what are the strategies that help end homelessness, we need to stay focused on helping people access housing by making housing more affordable, creating more housing, including creating a lot of housing with public support. Housing that isn’t subject to the whims of the private rental market where rents can go up, you know, $50 a month or $500 a month or more like we’ve heard in Seattle the last couple of years. And providing people with the kind of support that they need to maintain their housing, be that job support or mental health support or child care support, or whatever it is.

Who do you support for mayor?
I have endorsed Jessyn Farrell for mayor. She was a colleague of mine in the House of Representatives, and I think she really has progressive values, really cares about equity in our community, and I think she has the skill to really move our policy forward, particularly around affordable housing and making sure that we have the infrastructure to support a growing population in Seattle. I’ve worked with a lot of mayors over the years through my role at DESC, and I think we have a lot of strong candidates in the race, but I think Jessyn has that kind of combination of both experience and skill in bringing a variety of folks to the table and really listening to people. That’s been my experience with her in the Legislature, to make fair and equitable decisions for the future of our city.

What do you think about the city sweeping tent encampments?
You know I’ve been really upset and concerned about the city’s policy around sweeps of people who are trying to survive outside. You know, I don’t know what the intent is. It’s been said the intent is to disperse people because there’s a lot of problems with trash and debris and other challenges when people are living in encampments. But what I’ve seen is that the policy to move people around, to scatter them around town, has resulted in really harmful disruption of people’s lives, disruptive placement. And not really even meeting this goal of dispersing people.

People tend to reconcentrate in other areas. And we spend a lot of money as a city, just chasing people who are homeless around town, and in doing that, people have lost a lot of their possessions and the level of stress has increased dramatically. In my work at DESC, we see how some of this plays out in terms of the stress level that people who are surviving outdoors are experiencing. People in general seem a lot more on edge now than before. The experience of homelessness, particularly unsheltered homelessness, is such a traumatizing one, and it really is concerning to me that we have public policies that exacerbate that stress.

What do you think about the rapid rehousing program?
I think rapid rehousing is a fine idea. It was created, though, to address the needs of a relatively small group of people. I mean, originally, it was created to address the needs of a small group of people to return them really quickly to housing.
I think rapid rehousing has ... good application as an alternative to shelter. Instead of, necessarily, scaling up mass shelters, we should continue to think about other opportunities to help people return to housing who just need some short-term support.

The problem with rapid rehousing that I’m seeing is that we have gone really overboard in using that end-all, be-all solution for too many people. What we have heard from a lot of people is that they can’t find housing so they supposedly get a rapid rehousing voucher or support, but they’re still living unsheltered or living precariously in shelters. They’re sort of marked as having been assisted by rapid rehousing, but for some of the people, you know, they get that short-term support and once that support ends, their stability, their ability to maintain their housing ends because the housing is just too unaffordable to maintain without support.

I’m a big proponent of adding more long-term rent assistance to our array of options to address homelessness. So, this has been a cornerstone of our homelessness response for years, including using the Section 8 rent subsidy program, which is a federal program. But over the years housing costs have gone up, but the federal government has cut housing support, and so fewer and fewer people have access to the Section 8 program than they have before. So I think both state and local governments should think about using their own resources to implement long-term housing subsidies for folks, going back to my original point that the main challenge for people is the ability to afford housing.

by Lisa Sawyer | June 28th, 2017

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Nicole Macri

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