VHA has big plans for Skyline Crest

Renovations, Boys & Girls Club, new community center could break ground this year

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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The Vancouver Housing Authority wants to bring $11 million in renovations, including a new community center and an adjoining Boys & Girls Club, to its aging public housing neighborhood in Vancouver Heights. The Boys & Girls Club would serve many students at neighboring schools, not just kids who live at Skyline Crest.

Most of the renovations would be to exteriors of units in the public housing project, but four residential buildings would be razed and rebuilt elsewhere on the site to make way for the new community buildings. These would help the housing agency step up delivery of social services to its residents — everything from case management and employment assistance for the adults to homework help and character development for their kids.

“We have great hopes of making this the flagship VHA property and the hub of services that will become even more important for our residents,” said Roy Johnson, executive director of VHA.

Skyline Crest, a 20-acre development built in 1963, now consists of 150 units in 58 standalone duplexes and fourplexes. After the renovations and new buildings, Johnson said, there would be 170 units. There would be one larger residential building with 33 units. The number of individuals housed at Skyline Crest would rise from 400 to nearly 450, Johnson said.

New exterior siding with rain screens and diverse colors, new exterior and interior doors, new interior wood trim for doors and windows, new vinyl floors with a residential wood look, new plywood pantry shelving and new bathroom countertops with built-in sinks are all proposed for Skyline Crest’s residential units.

“They will have a warmer feel,” Johnson said.

The current Rise & Stars Community Center, the heart of Skyline Crest, would be replaced. After numerous additions and remodels across the years, it has become a maze of narrow hallways, tight offices and tired community spaces on the inside; on the outside it is a mossy, unappealing gray block. Johnson said some thought was given to renovating the building, but it was decided simply to start over.

The new community center building, estimated at approximately 5,800 square feet, would share a wall with the new Boys & Girls Club.

Boys & Girls Club

The Vancouver Housing Authority and Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington have agreed to share the cost of the new clubhouse, envisioned as 13,000 square feet near the entrance to the development, at Council Bluffs Way and Wichita Drive, just off Andresen Road. At a Jan. 23 meeting, VHA commissioners expect to approve spending $1.5 million on the clubhouse, contingent on the Boys & Girls Clubs organization raising everything else it needs to build and operate the new clubhouse. VHA would own the building outright and lease it back to the Boys & Girls Clubs for 30 years, with extensions possible, at the nominal price of $1 per year.

The clubhouse project is expected to cost approximately $3.25 million, according to a fact sheet provided by Boys & Girls Clubs executive director Elise Menashe. The estimated annual operating expenses are $310,000. Menashe said her organization has barely begun its new fundraising campaign for this project.

The club would serve not just young people at Skyline Crest but the surrounding neighborhood, too. Menashe said it would cater to as many as 1,000 students at three nearby elementary schools with largely low-income populations: Harney, King and Marshall.

“There are not any other affordable daily after-school programs for the kids in the area,” she said. “We don’t want them home alone after school. We want to give them something positive to do.”

She said the three schools in question are part of a school-district-defined “Opportunity Zone” that aims to help bring greater resources to needy families so they have a better chance to climb out of poverty. The Boys & Girls Club fact sheet applauds VHA’s efforts to “go beyond the provision of housing assistance and invest in an approach that changes children’s lives so that they may not need subsidized housing later in life.”

“We like to be part of those wraparound services,” Menashe said.

Money stream

Money for the Skyline Crest renovation would come largely from state-approved low-income housing tax credits that are sold to private investors, Johnson said. Income from those tax credit sales allow a project like this to pay its expenses in cash and avoid taking on debt.

This month, VHA will apply to the state Low Income Housing Trust Fund for tax credits that can be sold to private investors, Johnson said. Johnson said he expects to get an answer in April. If the answer is yes, the renovation and construction project could begin in autumn 2014.

Johnson said VHA has wanted to bring these improvements to Skyline Crest for years, but that the constantly changing rules of the federal government and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have been a real roadblock. “As soon as we get near the finish line they change their policies,” he said.

The renovations would come along with an underlying technical change to the nature of the neighborhood and the money stream that runs through it. Johnson said all of Skyline Crest would shift from public housing to what’s called “project-based” Section 8 subsidized housing, with individual vouchers tied by long-term contract to individual housing units. That frees up the housing agency to work with private investors and private money on what’s still essentially publicly owned housing, according to David Overbay, VHA’s federal programs manager.

Overall, Overbay said, the change from public housing to project-based Section 8 should mean little or nothing to most residents of Skyline Crest. “Ideally, the tenants should be able to go to bed one night in public housing and wake up in project-based subsidized housing, and they don’t know anything has happened,” he said.

“It should be that easy, but it never is,” Overbay added — because tenants will have their income and eligibility freshly assessed and have to sign a new “raft of forms,” he said. Changes in their own circumstances that come to light during that process may result in changes to what tenants pay in rent, but the rent formula itself won’t change, Overbay said. It’ll remain 30 percent of income, minus paid utilities.

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