OLYMPIA, Wash. — Fifteen years ago, professional caregivers in Washington were paid 10% more than what was considered a self-sufficient wage at the time. Today, those same professionals are paid 21% below a self-sufficient wage, according to data from the Community Residential Services Association.

A direct support professional is someone who works directly with people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. They assist with myriad tasks, including helping cook or clean around the home, providing transportation and administering medications. Statewide, these aides serve about 4,500 people, most of whom receive 24/7 in-home support.

The average wage paid to direct support professionals today is $19.51 per hour — less than the starting wage at many fast food joints and grocery stores, including Dick’s Drive-In ($20/hour) and Fred Meyer ($20.06/hour).

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On a recent Wednesday afternoon, dozens of protesters stood out in the rain on the steps of the state Legislative Building in Olympia, holding signs that read “DSPs DESERVE LIVING WAGES” and “QUALITY CARE COSTS MORE THAN MINIMUM WAGE.” Many of those in attendance were lobbying in favor of a bill that would raise a tax on expensive properties for programs aimed at affordable housing and helping people who have disabilities.

Janell Rollins, of Stanwood, was one of the speakers at the event. Rollins told the crowd that she depends on others for help taking showers, cooking and getting places.

“I want you guys to keep the money coming,” Rollins said.

The crowd cheered and clapped. Katie McCall, Spokane-area director for the nonprofit Alpha Supported Living, was one of the people who braved the rain for the rally.

Alpha Supported Living serves residents living in King, Snohomish and Spokane counties. Right now, the nonprofit serves 36 people in Spokane County.

Compared to the other counties the nonprofit serves, organizers told The Spokesman-Review that their staff in Spokane has seen much higher rates of turnover in recent years.

In 2023 alone, 74% of the direct support workforce in Spokane County left their jobs. And the year before that, 79% left.

“We’re doing our best to fill the spots,” McCall said. “We hired some, but not all the spots. So then the staff that we did have were working overtime, because at the end of the day, we do have to continue to meet the individuals’ needs.”

Across Washington, the number of people served in supported living has dropped by nearly 300 people over the past four years. And the waiting list of people who need in-home support continues to grow.

This year, advocates for direct support professionals and people with developmental disabilities are asking the state Legislature to pass a law that would use state tax dollars for a newly created developmental disabilities trust account.

The proposed law, sponsored by Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, would raise the ceiling for the when a seller of a property has to pay the real estate excise tax (commonly called REETs) from $525,000 to $750,000, beginning Jan. 1, 2026.

Real estate excise taxes are a tax on the sale of many types of property. The seller of a property typically pays the real estate tax.

Starting in January 2026, Berg’s proposed bill would also place a new real estate excise tax of 1% on the value of real estate sold for more than $3.025 million on top of any other real estate excise tax paid on the sale. The bill would earmark revenue from the taxes toward low-income housing support, Berg said.

“Household income increases for families with moderate, and lower incomes have not kept pace with rent and purchase price increases, leaving more and more families at risk of homelessness,” Berg said last week at a state House Finance Committee Hearing. “This problem is particularly acute for lower and fixed-income households, including seniors, veterans, farmworkers and people with disabilities.”

Fifteen percent of the new revenue from the tax changes would go to the developmental disabilities trust account to be used for providing grants and forgivable loans to housing programs to support people with developmental disabilities. Other revenues would be divided up and go toward a state affordable housing trust, a low-income farmworker housing trust and more.

Berg testified that her bill would accomplish two things:

It would lower the cost of selling a property for the majority of Washingtonians, and it would provide a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing in the state.

“Every taxpayer selling a property under $3.025 million will either see a tax cut or no changes to the taxes they pay under the bill,” Berg said.

Scott Livengood, the CEO of Alpha Supported Living Services, testified in support of the proposed law at last week’s hearing.

“You have a workforce, and you’re paying them a little bit above minimum wage,” Livengood said. “Not just with personal care, but also with people with challenging behaviors, mental health diagnoses, it can be a little stressful. So it’s easier sometimes for staff to go and get a job at McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Home Depot.”

A few of the people who testified spoke out against the bill.

Brent Ludeman testified on behalf of the Building Industry Association of Washington. He acknowledged the state is facing a housing affordability crisis, but contended Berg’s law was not the way to solve it.

“Let’s not take a step back by increasing taxes and costs on real estate transactions needed for density in our communities,” Ludeman said. “We can’t make housing more affordable by making housing more expensive.”

Washington state’s real estate excise tax is the third-highest in the nation, said Emily Shay on behalf of the Association of Washington Businesses. If the bill passed, it would bump the Evergreen State up to second place in that category.

William Shadbolt of the Washington Business Properties Association argued the bill would make Washington less attractive to investments from market-rate builders and cause an undesired consequence in the state’s property market:

Shadbolt said the bill “creates kind of an incentive for existing apartment owners to convert their buildings into condominiums and sell the units off separately, because they would typically get the lowest rate as opposed to the highest rate.”

If the bill clears the House Finance Committee, it will move to the state’s house floor for a vote.

© 2024 The Spokesman-Review
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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