Affordable apartments coming to downtown Vancouver

Building with 120 units will rise on wedge of land downtown

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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An apartment building for people who earn substantially less than the local average will start rising this year on a wedge of land between 15th Street and Mill Plain Boulevard, just west of Columbia Street, in downtown Vancouver. An existing office building on the southeast corner of the property, at Columbia and Mill Plain, will remain.

Portland developer Walter "Skip" Grodahl, doing business as DBG Properties LLC, will build 15 West Apartments, a building with 120 studio and one- to three-bedroom apartment units. The building will be permanently affordable to people who earn no more than 60 percent of the area median, with rents ranging from $671 to $977 monthly.

"We have a shrinking middle class," Grodahl said during a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning. "But a lot of jobs are being created at the lower end of the income spectrum." This building is intended for "individuals and families who are working hard" for relatively low incomes, he said.

The project is only feasible, according to consultant Kurt Creager of Otak Inc., because the city of Vancouver agreed to 12 years of property tax abatement and a reduction in the number of parking spaces that are required for the tight triangle of land.

Vancouver community development director Chad Eiken said property tax abatement is available to multifamily housing projects that fulfill certain affordability requirements. After the first 12 years, Creager said, the development will generate millions of dollars in property taxes for the city.

And, Eiken said, the city center zone is flexible about parking spaces due to the availability of public transit and bicycle infrastructure. Normally, a developer must provide one parking space for each unit, he said, but in this case the city approved a 25 percent reduction in that requirement. Lots of bike parking will be included.

"This has been vacant land for a long time," Creager said. It's been for sale as a possible office development, as well as housing, but nothing ever came together there until now.

Grodahl owns and manages approximately 9,000 units of affordable housing through another Portland affiliate, GSL Properties LLC, which will be the property manager for 15 West Apartments when it is completed. That's expected to be in June 2015.

The value of the project is $17.4 million. Among the private and public agencies that have had a hand in making it happen are America First Multifamily Investors LP of Omaha, Neb.; Sterling Bank of Clayton, Mo.; U.S. Bank National Association; Affordable Housing Partners of Los Angeles; First American Title Insurance Company; the Washington State Housing Finance Commission; and the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Otak, based in Vancouver, provided professional services including engineering, architecture and financial advice.

To help qualify his project for Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Grodahl made a charitable donation of $25,700 to Affordable Community Environments, a local affordable housing builder, and its Portland partner REACH. ACE's local project manager, Leah Greenwood, said the donation will help build an affordable project for senior citizens in central Vancouver, as well as provide human services for children and others at existing ACE properties in Clark County.

Two of 15 West Apartment's 120 units will be ground-floor live/work spaces on Columbia Street that would be perfect, and very affordable, for local artisans, Creager said.