Sen. Cantwell touts housing bill in Vancouver visit

She promotes tax credits as most effective funding tool in building affordable housing

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act

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U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell stopped in Vancouver on Friday to promote a bill she introduced last month that’s projected to create an additional 4,288 affordable housing units in Washington over a 10-year period.

The Affordable Credit Improvement Act of 2016 expands low-income housing tax credits by 50 percent. Tax credits are one of the funding tools — the most effective tool, the Washington Democrat said — used to build new affordable housing.

“Without using tax credits, we aren’t likely to make a dent in this issue,” Cantwell said, referring to the housing crisis. “This is one of those steps we shouldn’t wait another year to take.”

In total, Washington would have an estimated 35,216 new affordable housing units built over 10 years. Clark County’s estimated share would be an additional 120 units, on top of the 1,748 units that would be created with the current tax credit allotment, for a total of 1,868 units.

Cantwell and other affordable housing advocates talked about the bill and Clark County’s housing needs at 1st Street Apartments in east Vancouver, a Vancouver Housing Authority project completed in 2015 using $6,493,522 in tax credits. The total cost for the 152-unit complex was $28,958,892.

Seventy-five percent of the units are set aside for people earning 60 percent of the area median income or less, which comes out to $43,980 for a four-person household.

Resident Amanda Hinkle and her two teenage boys were homeless for nine months before getting an apartment at 1st Street. The single mother is trying to get on Social Security and uses a rental assistance voucher through Share’s ASPIRE program — Achieving Self-sufficiency, Personal Improvement and Resource Education — to cover rent.

“If it wasn’t for these coming open, me and my kids would probably still be on the street right now — only God knows where, doing what,” Hinkle said. “It’s a hard fight. I’m so thankful for these apartments.”

Hinkle had two days left at a homeless shelter when she filled out the application for 1st Street, which resulted in a 30-day extension at the shelter before the family moved. She said during her three-month search for an apartment, every place had a waiting list and many complexes looked down on her voucher.

With more tax credits, Vancouver Housing Authority executive director Roy Johnson said, the agency could do more.

“I think we’re underutilized,” Johnson said, referring to the housing authority and its partners, such as Second Step Housing and Reach Community Development.

“We would like to be able to do a development every 18 months or 24 months,” said Debby Dover, executive director of Second Step.

Dover is excited about her upcoming project, a development off Fourth Plain Boulevard that will house 30 households, but wants to do more, bigger projects.

Johnson would also like to experiment with income averaging, which refers to raising the income requirements at a subsidized housing complex. Places like 1st Street are restricted to people earning 60 percent of the area median income or less. With income averaging the restriction could be raised to 80 percent, but the whole complex would still have to average out to 60 percent; so, there could be a mix of people who earn 80 percent of the median income and people who earn 40 percent, said Kim Herman, Washington State Housing Finance Commission executive director.

“It’s a way of making the program more flexible,” he said.

Housing plus jobs

Since the low-income housing tax credit program was created 30 years ago, it’s helped build nearly 2.9 million rental homes nationwide, including 75,400 units in Washington, according to a report Cantwell released. Investors buy credits, which results in them paying less money in taxes while the money gets used to build affordable housing. Johnson said 1st Street would not have been built without tax credits.

Nationally, the 50-percent increase in low-income housing tax credits would cost an estimated $4.1 billion over 10 years. The increase would be phased in incrementally.

“It can be the lifeline by which people move forward with their lives,” Cantwell said. “It can also be a tool by which the community can revitalize.”

She referred to jobs created through the construction of affordable housing projects. Low-income housing tax credits support approximately 70,000 jobs annually in Washington state, the report said. One study that looked at homeless, hospitalized people with chronic illnesses said that supportive housing results in over $6,000 in annual savings per person; that’s because people are spending less time in hospitals, emergency rooms and nursing homes.

Cantwell has been touring cities around the state, touting the bill. She visited New York City and plans to stop in other major metropolitan areas. Her next stop will likely be in Portland, where she’ll visit Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the bill’s co-sponsors. The bill is also co-sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.