Over the past few years, the Vancouver Housing Authority has jettisoned dozens of small scattered sites and a handful of large older buildings that generated meager rental income but were expensive and difficult to maintain. The public housing agency says its plan is to realize some economies of scale by consolidating its residential real estate holdings into larger multifamily buildings.
“This means cost savings and being able to keep up our properties more efficiently,” said Roy Johnson, executive director. “All those smaller, scattered sites really eat up our maintenance time.”
The overall number of rental units that VHA owns has decreased by hundreds, according to Johnson, but the total number of local households receiving housing support has held steady. All public housing residents received portable Housing Choice Vouchers they could choose to use on the private rental market, he said.
Across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration led to VHA’s reducing the number of vouchers it paid for in 2013, Johnson said, but that number is creeping back to where it used to be. Plus, there are 130 vouchers that are dedicated to military veterans.
In all, there are 2,169 non-veteran Housing Choice Vouchers now in use in Clark County, Johnson said.
Johnson said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s prorated support for depreciating public housing stock doesn’t keep up with capital expenses. Overall support VHA receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for public housing is approximately 50 percent less per unit than the subsidy per Section 8 voucher, he said.
So VHA won approval from HUD to be flexible with its public housing properties. It has sold 173 public housing units in sites all around Clark County, netting $17.4 million. It also converted 122 more units from public housing to a different, nonportable Section 8 subsidy — where the money is tied to the unit, not the tenant.
That technical change allows VHA greater flexibility, including securing state-sponsored low-income tax credits or taking on private debt that could pay for rehabilitation. Thirty more units will go this way as VHA converts the Fruit Valley Commons Apartments on West 31st Street, and 150 more with the conversion of the entire Skyline Crest public housing neighborhood in central Vancouver.
VHA has major renovation plans on the horizon for Skyline — including the addition of a Boys & Girls Club on the grounds — and longer-term interest in redeveloping the Fruit Valley apartments.
As many as 152 new subsidized units are expected to open up in a large eastside complex called First Street that’s now under construction, and 30 more in a proposed downtown building for chronically homeless people called Lincoln Place.
It’s all part of a strategy, Johnson said, to develop more large-scale “workforce” projects for low-income working people, and more small-to-moderate-sized developments for special-needs populations such as veterans, the elderly and homeless people. VHA is looking for more places where affordable housing is needed and land and development costs aren’t prohibitive, Johnson said.
A financially viable subsidized multifamily building should contain 120 to 180 units, Johnson said. Those numbers don’t hold for special-needs populations that may be tough on buildings or require special services, he added.
Meanwhile, VHA has used the $17.4 million from its sale of those 173 public housing units for several purposes. New subsidized housing or replacement public housing came to Camas Ridge, a 51-unit apartment building, and to Vista Court, a 76-unit senior citizen building in downtown Vancouver; nearby senior citizen building Van Vista Plaza got some renovations; and more money was also dedicated to subsidies at First Street and to all 30 subsidized units in Lincoln Place.
Cash is just one result of the property sales. VHA also received portable Housing Choice Vouchers from HUD for all occupied public housing units sold. Tenants used the vouchers to find rental units on the private market; some chose to stay where they were and pay their new landlords with their new vouchers, Johnson said.
“It’s desirable to be able to shop around. People like to have choices,” Johnson said. If they decided to move out, VHA provided some relocation assistance too, Johnson said, so there was no built-in disadvantage to leaving VHA properties.
“People with vouchers tend to find places. Our payment standard is consistent with the local fair market rents,” Johnson said. “So, those who have vouchers do OK.”
Two large apartment buildings in Hazel Dell that were not subsidized — Maple Knoll and Parklane, both north of the Stockford Village area on 99th Street — have sold to private owners but remain rent-restricted due to state Low-Income Housing Tax Credit financing, Johnson said. And one smaller building in Vancouver’s Ogden neighborhood, Somerview, remains affordable thanks to its own downscale appearance, he said.
Those properties, which netted VHA $11.5 million, “were old when we purchased them,” Johnson said. They served a purpose by housing low-income people and providing cash flow for VHA, he said, but at this point, “They’re just not up to what we want them to be if our name is on them.”
VHA also acquired seven foreclosed single-family homes from Fannie Mae in 2009, and is now in the process of selling them in a much healthier real estate market, Johnson said. The proceeds will be folded back into resources for more local low-rent housing.
Pinewood Terrace, a 25-unit complex in several buildings north of Mill Plain Boulevard on Kauffman Avenue, is the latest VHA property to head for the exit. The northern group, 11 units that are not rent-restricted — other than by the downscale neighborhood where they’re located — “might as well be on the private market,” Johnson said. So the building is for sale. Jack Harroun, a contractor and neighbor with a track record of remodeling downtrodden properties — and keeping them affordable — has made an offer. VHA is expecting to net $515,000 from the sale.
Craig Lyons, who used to lead the Council for the Homeless and now works for Key Property Services, manages the complex and said he expects to continue after it changes owners.
At least one persistent critic of current VHA leadership has complained that Pinewood Terrace has been allowed to deteriorate into “a dump.” That’s Ceci Ryan Smith, a former VHA board chairwoman, who lives in the Hough neighborhood and notices its condition regularly.
Johnson responded that Pinewood’s “rents have been well below market rate and therefore doing significant upgrades as single projects has not been financially feasible.”
The 14 units in the southern Pinewood Terrace building will remain with nearby charity Open House Ministries, which houses people there who are in transition from homelessness. Johnson said VHA is getting ready to replace the siding and roof on that building now — with funds pulled from other sources.
Special populations like that are coming into sharper focus for Vancouver Housing, Johnson said, and the agency is interested in working with partner developers and social service agencies to build appropriate housing, staff it with appropriate services — and spin it off as soon as possible.
VHA wants Second Step Housing, a smaller sister agency, to take over a family-style clean-and-sober Oxford House for men recovering from addiction, and a group home for women who are emerging from jail. VHA is also considering selling a group home for youth now operated by Janus Youth Services.
VHA was acting as a “conduit” when it bought those properties in the 1990s, a time when few nonprofits in Clark County owned housing, Johnson said. Nowadays the nonprofit scene has blossomed — spurred by exploding social problems of all sorts, from domestic violence to addiction — and VHA sees no point in retaining real estate that’s more appropriately owned and managed by the service providers who work with residents there.
On the other hand, VHA has instituted several broad social service programs of its own in recent years, aimed at increasing the independence and improving the lives of its tenants. These include work-readiness training and employment support for adults, school-readiness for young children and families, and a community health program for everyone.
While local use of portable Housing Choice Vouchers is “very successful,” the fact remains that there aren’t nearly enough vouchers for everyone who qualifies, Johnson said.
While there are 2,169 Housing Choice Vouchers paying rents and keeping families housed in the community now, the wait for vouchers is over a decade long and the list was closed to new sign-ups in 2006. There are 747 households on the list this month, down from many thousands a few years ago, Johnson said.
“The next applicants to be pulled from the list to receive vouchers have been waiting since December 2003, over 10 years,” Johnson said. “The list had grown to an almost unmanageable size. Now it’s down to under 750 applicants, a number that will still last us for a few more years in all likelihood.”
Plus, there are thousands more on wait lists for specific properties or for general public housing.
“There just aren’t enough vouchers. We are very short, without a doubt,” Johnson said. “We need to come up with local strategies to make a bigger impact, because the money from Washington is not going to improve. Cities are getting less. The state Housing Trust Fund is pretty well nonexistent. We need to be looking at local remedies.”