Vancouver Housing Authority votes to pursue housing for homeless

30-unit apartment building would be near Share House

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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The Vancouver Housing Authority will pursue building a 30-unit apartment building for chronically homeless people. The building, to be called Lincoln Place, is proposed for property right across the street from Share House on West 13th Street, and the idea is that case-management staff at Share would be able to serve the building tenants conveniently.

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At a meeting Wednesday morning, the agency's board of commissioners voted to loan $110,000 to a subsidiary called Vancouver Affordable Housing, which will pursue the project -- beginning with an application for low-income housing tax credits issued by Washington state. There's no guarantee the state will approve the proposal, VHA executive director Roy Johnson said. The application needs to be complete by mid-January, he said, with an answer likely by April.

The original loan amount was going to be $300,000, but Johnson said at the meeting that $100,000 would be sufficient for preliminary design work that the state needs to consider the application.

Commissioner Greg Kimsey then amended the $100,000 proposal to add $10,000 — in order to add an adjacent day-use facility to the design. Johnson said the day-use facility would be easy to build but expensive to operate — as much as $200,000 a year — and there's no certainty about where those operating funds would come from.

Kimsey and fellow commissioner Joan Caley pushed the day-use addition because downtown has needed a daytime place for homeless people to go, Caley said, ever since Share lost government funding for two outreach trailers it used to operate on the same property.

"When we shut down those portables," Caley said, the complaints about homeless people wandering around downtown really increased.

The project cost is estimated to be $4.7 million, with $3.5 million coming from those tax credits, which can be sold to private investors, reducing the project's debt and providing the investors with a 10-year tax benefit, Johnson said. All 30 units in the building would be considered public housing.

Rent would be heavily subsidized and held down to 30 percent of each tenant's total income. Some of the people for whom the facility is intended may have government benefits or other meager income, Johnson said, but others will have no income at all.

Housing first

The thinking behind this proposal is "housing first." That means speeding chronically homeless people into housing regardless of their problems or self-defeating behaviors, including drug addiction and mental illness. Placing them in housing and then bolstering them with intensive services — rather than requiring them to jump through hoops while still homeless — means a better future for them and cleaner downtown streets for everyone, Andy Silver, the executive director of the Council for the Homeless, has said.

The approach turns decades of conventional wisdom on its head, Silver said, but it also makes sense. It is more solution-oriented and less expensive to society at large than paying for the other services that chronically homeless people tend to need — like 911 calls and police response, emergency room beds and jail space.

The council and Share were the original proponents of the project, Johnson said. A multiagency, 10-year strategy to end homelessness has long included a housing first element for the most difficult-to-help people -- many of whom are already downtown, Johnson said.

Some objections have been raised to siting yet another human services facility in downtown Vancouver — but Johnson said the project would qualify for state help based partly on its location in a low-income, downtown census tract.

"We have to do it here or probably not do this project," he said. "The individuals are already here (downtown). It's just a matter of having a place that's a better home for them every night."

Johnson agreed that the public needs to learn more about this proposal. That could mean presentations to neighborhood associations and the Vancouver City Council — even though council approval is not needed for the project, since the land is already zoned appropriately.