Group preserves affordability at Washougal complex

Collaborative effort keeps rent from increasing despite renovations to apartments, property

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

Learn More About Reach

<a href="http://reachcdc.org">http://reachcdc.org</a>

Learn More About Reach

http://reachcdc.org

WASHOUGAL — You could call Towne Square Apartments the anti-Courtyard Village.

At what was Courtyard Village Apartments (now renamed Parc Central), a 151-unit low-income complex in Rose Village, a new landlord forced all tenants to leave — or reapply to stay — in advance of building renovations paid for with private money. Rents jumped significantly, leaving hundreds of Vancouver’s most vulnerable people with no options except to go hunting for new apartments in the tightest rental market anyone can remember. For the most part, the tenants were given the bare legal minimum, 20 days’ notice, to get out.

City leaders, social service providers and real estate experts have called the episode the tip of an iceberg: a growing crisis in housing affordability for low-income people that’s spread from such big cities as New York and San Francisco to smaller ones such as Portland and even Vancouver.

Similar situations are happening elsewhere across town.

At the Towne Square Apartments, a 40-unit low-income complex on H Street in Washougal, renovations happened over the winter, but rents didn’t rise a dime — because the nonprofit developer and new owner, Reach Community Development of Portland, worked with government agencies and other financing partners to build 30 more years of guaranteed affordability into what’s been a subsidized property since it was built in 1977.

Nobody had to leave; as renovations rolled through the complex, most residents were put up temporarily up at a nearby, higher-rent property. Reach paid the difference.

New roofs and siding, new windows, and new heating and ventilation systems aimed at energy efficiency and lower resident utility bills are a big part of what happened at Towne Square, according to Reach’s director of housing development, Jessica Woodruff. Individual units got some interior upgrades as needed, too, she said.

Also added were lifestyle improvements such as a new playground alongside a concrete pad that’s perfect for parents hanging out, set-aside space for resident gardens, and a new community room with kitchenette, TV and communal computer.

But the main focus of the renovation work was accessibility and safety for a resident population that includes many elderly and disabled people, Woodruff said. All ground floor units are now wheelchair “visitable,” and two are fully accessible, she said. Exterior wooden stairs that used to be rotten and slippery — there have reportedly been some bad accidents — have now been replaced with sturdy and better-lit concrete staircases.

The central parking lot, previously a crumbly swamp whenever it rained, has been rebuilt. Flooding is no longer an issue when you’re trying to get to your car, said resident Nina Hamilton, who’s lived here for three years.

“It definitely needed this. It’s awesome,” Hamilton said last Friday morning as she took a smoking break outdoors. All interiors at Towne Square are entirely nonsmoking.

“The windows are wonderful. So much more light. Love the kitchens,” said Diane Underwood — who works there every day as the personal caretaker for a resident. Underwood was quick to point out the things she doesn’t like, too — in fact several residents said they aren’t crazy about the always-running fresh-air exchanges, which get a bit cool and breezy — but Woodruff said that most of these new features are simply standard for new construction.

Federal dollars, which are invested in this project, also come with specific standards for items such as landscaping, energy efficiency — and humane treatment of temporarily displaced people, Woodruff said, which is what provided for the higher-priced temporary rentals at nearby Lookout Ridge.

“Anything with federal money attached is very regulated,” said Woodruff. “We worked with a relocation consultant.”

Preservation

The cost of this acquisition-and-rehabilitation project was a little more than $7 million, which came from a variety of sources. The majority, $4.1 million, came from the state of Washington and its State Housing Finance Commission, which issued a $3.55 million bond and authorized the sale of federal housing tax credits worth $1.76 million.

Numerous other private and public partners invested or contributed, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program, the Washington Community Reinvestment Association, Clark County, Wells Fargo, North Cascades Bank, Reach itself, and even Nike, which provided a small grant.

All of which, Woodruff said, have helped only to prevent the worsening of the current affordable housing crisis — not to solve it.

Towne Square was first built in 1977 with USDA Rural Development money and a rental subsidy contract that limited the rents to 30 percent of tenants’ incomes, as is standard for most government housing-subsidy arrangements. But the contract was about to expire, Woodruff said. A private developer seeking a return on investment could easily have bought the place and “flipped” it one way or another — either as condominiums for sale or as market-rate apartments.

“Either way, that would be a problem for the people who are here,” Woodruff said. “They’d have nowhere to go.” The median income of people at Towne Square is $8,500, according to Reach, and some of the tenants have been there for a decade or even two.

Now, as part of the complex financing behind this project, Towne Square’s affordability — its subsidy contract through the USDA Rural Development program — has been locked into place for another 30 years. That means that nearly all residents will continue to pay just 30 percent of their incomes toward rent — and the rent range is $637 to $670. Two of the 40 units are not subsidized.

Woodruff said that Towne Square Apartments came to the attention of Reach because it was on the radar screens of Affordable Community Environments, a homegrown Clark County housing agency that merged with Reach a few years ago, as well as Clark County and the city of Washougal. All were aware that the subsidy contract was about to expire and all those affordable units would be lost.

Preserving affordable housing is “mission critical” for Reach, Woodruff said. “We track all potential preservation projects. When there are expiring subsidy contracts, we want to go after those pretty aggressively. We were pretty worried about what would happen to this one,” she said. Longtime owners who want to cash out may be more interested in selling to private buyers who invest a little in upgrades, hike the rents and then take out a lot in profits, she said.

Portable subsidies that tenants can take with them and go apartment hunting on the private market are not a panacea for them, she added. Rents are rising everywhere, and many landlords don’t like taking government subsidies.

“That’s why preserving the affordability of whole projects like this one is really important and really basic,” Woodruff said. “I wouldn’t say it’s solving anything. It’s just preventing loss. We have to start by preserving what we’ve got.”