When I moved to Europe in my early 20s, my father gave me a Rick Steves' travel guide to Germany. I scoffed.
Growing up in the Puget Sound in the 1990s, I was well-acquainted with Steves, the unfailingly polite and, at times, painfully hokey author, lecturer, radio personality, money belt purveyor and host of “Travels in Europe with Rick Steves,” and later, “Rick Steves’ Europe,” two popular television series that seemingly aired nonstop on my local public television station. (A graduate of the University of Washington, Steves’ travel empire is based in his hometown of Edmonds, a small city located just north of Seattle in Snohomish County.)
At the time, Steves’ vision of European travel wasn’t exactly the one I was interested in. My priorities didn’t include cathedral-hopping across France, attending a cheese tasting in the Alps or observing a traditional yuletide celebration with a rural Norwegian family. I understood the appeal of his advice-heavy, culturally enriching “back door” travel philosophy but knew it wasn't for me, someone with interests learning more toward avant-garde design, nightclubs and places to score cheap designer denim.
Years later, Steves is kind of my idol.
And this isn’t just because the folksy, bespectacled European travel authority has since published a blog post titled “Cassoulet Must be French for Big Bowl of Farts.” It’s Steves’ tireless and somewhat surprising political and social activism that has won my respect and admiration.
A genial TV personality with an activist streak
An outspoken advocate for the legalization of marijuana, Steves also made headlines earlier this year when, on Inauguration Day, he announced that every dollar spent on books, DVDs and other merchandise at his website would be matched with a donation to the American Civil Liberties Union. Needless to say, traffic on his site was through the roof that day and resulted in Steves cutting a check to the ACLU for $50,000.
Locally, Steves, 61, is well known for throwing his weight — read: his considerable wealth — behind anti-homelessness initiatives. A practicing Lutheran, Steves’ largesse is legendary in and around Snohomish County, which is why his latest act of do-goodery should come as little surprise: he’s donating a $4 million apartment complex in the city of Lynwood to the YWCA as a means of providing safe, secure and affordable housing to low-income women with limited housing options.
Steves has actually owned the 24-unit Trinity Place since 2005 and has operated it as a transitional housing project in partnership with the YWCA Seattle King Snohomish and the Edmonds Rotary Club since the beginning. However, Steves, who owns several apartment properties as retirement investment properties in the area, had initially planned to will Trinity Place to the YWCA. Now, he’s decided to deed it over while he’s alive.
Calling the move a “complete surprise,” YWCA spokeswoman Annalee Schafranek tells the Puget Sound Business Journal that the donation gives the organization “the stability of ownership.”
Mary Anne Dillion, executive director of Snohomish County Services with the YWCA, says in a press release that “having reliable housing options like Trinity Place is not only crucial — it’s a matter of life and death for families in our community.”
The nonprofit reports that the number of displaced people living in Snohomish County has doubled since 2013. Last year, Trinity Place, which also provides on-site job training and and mental health services to its residents, provided shelter to 60 of them, primarily single mothers and their children. (In addition to transportation assistance, Trinity Place also provides residents with vouchers for local child care facilities.) With the ultimate goal of graduating to permanent housing, the residents of Trinity Place pay 30 percent of their income toward rent.
Reacting to 'greed-is-good' governmental ethics
Steves’ decision to donate his $4 million nest egg to the YWCA years earlier than planned was largely prompted by the election of Donald Trump and the rise of what he calls a “greed-is-good ethic in our government.” Mostly, much like with his donation to the ACLU, Steves felt compelled to support a marginalized population that he believes has been left even more vulnerable since Election Day.
“I don't think it's particularly loving or saintly to house people,” Steves tells Seattle NBC affiliate KING-TV. “I just think it’s enlightened. I want to get a return on my money.”
He adds: “I get huge joy out of going to bed thinking 'Hey I'm helping house 70 people that would be in cars or motels or in people's basements scrounging around.’”
While I’m inclined to get mad about the gap between rich & poor, I’d rather make a difference. You too? Here’s how: https://t.co/9pWNiH9QJ1— Rick Steves (@RickSteves) April 19, 2017
Steves elaborates in a lengthy and impassioned blog post:
Twenty years ago, I devised a scheme where I could put my retirement savings not into a bank to get interest, but into cheap apartments to house struggling neighbors. I would retain my capital, my equity would grow as the apartment complex appreciated, and I would suffer none of the headaches that I would have if I had rented out the units as a landlord. Rather than collecting rent, my 'income' would be the joy of housing otherwise desperate people. I found this a creative, compassionate and more enlightened way to 'invest' while retaining my long-term security.
With the election of our president and the rise of a new, greed-is-good ethic in our government, I want to be more constructive than just complaining about how our society is once again embracing 'trickle-down' ethics, and our remarkable ability to ignore the need in our communities even as so much wealth is accumulated within the top one percent of our populace. I’m heartbroken at how good people, dedicating their lives to helping others (through social organizations and non-profits across our society), are bracing for a new forced austerity under our government of billionaires.
So, inspired by what’s happening in our government and in an attempt to make a difference, I decided to take my personal affordable housing project one step further: I recently gave my 24-unit apartment complex to the YWCA. Now the YWCA can plan into the future knowing this facility is theirs. And I’ll forever enjoy knowing that, with this gift, I’m still helping them with their mission.
The gap between rich and poor in our country continues to widen. And I believe needs — such as affordable housing — will only increase as budget cuts are implemented. Organizations like the YWCA will need to pick up the slack. If our country truly wants to be great, we need creative thinking connected with our hearts. And it’s my hope that love and compassion can trump values of crass commercialism, greed, and "winners" beating "losers."
While my circa-2000 self decided not to take a literal page from Steves’ European guidebooks in favor of something more hip and youth-oriented, the philanthropic deeds of a man once described as having "a nice voice that soothes the fears of people who never leave their backyards" are something that I aspire to — and we all should.