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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Sen. Cleveland targets affordable housing

Vancouver Democratic pushes bills aimed at easing crisis

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer
Published: January 18, 2016, 5:48pm

Southwest Washington is in the midst of an affordable-housing crisis, Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Vancouver Democrat, said Monday.

“It’s something we can’t ignore this session,” she said in a telephone interview from Olympia.

Cleveland is pushing several measures aimed at easing the crisis. One bill, which was heard by the Senate Committee on Human Services and Mental Health and Housing on Monday, would give local governments the ability to give a property tax break to landlords who offer affordable housing. To qualify, at least 25 percent of the units would need to be affordable. The exemption would last 15 years.

Andy Silver, the executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said any measure giving local jurisdictions more tools to create and preserve affordable housing is crucial.

Emergency shelters are at capacity locally, Silver said, and the council is searching for more options.

“By far the biggest barrier and the biggest problem with our local homeless system is the housing market,” Silver said.

And it’s clear, he said, local cities and counties are struggling with solutions.

Several of the emergency shelter’s residents have jobs, Silver said. The problem is the lack of affordable inventory.

“Many of our working families in our community are making incomes where they can’t afford market rent these days,” Silver said.

The Vancouver area has been socked with some of the fastest-growing rents in the nation. According to the University of Washington, a one-bedroom unit here rented for an average $837 per month in September; a two-bedroom, two-bath unit cost $1,146.

But Southwest Washington isn’t the only region in the state experiencing an affordable housing crisis. About 36 percent of the state’s residents are spending more than 30 percent of their paychecks for housing expenses, according to information from the Affordable Housing Advisory Board. The board found the state has a deficit of 327,136 affordable-housing units.

The proposed measure is not a mandate, lawmakers stressed during the hearing.

“(Local governments) don’t have to use it if the local economics don’t work for them,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, also a sponsor of the bill.

Most of the testimony during the hearing was in favor of Senate Bill 6239, but an official representing county governments voiced concern that a city’s decision to grant a property tax break would cost the local county government, whether it supports the housing project or not.

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Silver, with the homeless council, is hoping this measure could provide incentive to preserve more affordable housing units.

A measure like this could convince someone who buys a complex such as Vancouver’s former Courtyard Village Apartments to preserve the low rents, rather than flip the property to make more profit, Silver said. At Courtyard Village, new owners booted low-income tenants and remodeled the tired complex, then substantially increased rents.

The city has tax incentives it can offer new developments to create affordable housing, Vancouver City Councilor Alishia Topper said, but this measure would allow the city to preserve current affordable housing.

“It’s a lot quicker to offer existing affordable housing than build new units,” said Topper, who co-chaired the city’s affordable housing task force.

Cleveland also plans to introduce a measure later this week that would increase the notification requirement landlords give tenants from 20 to 30 days before evictions.

“We’re facing a lot of challenges in our state,” Cleveland said, adding the state also must find a solution to the chronic under-funding of public schools. “But I see our housing crisis just as emergent as the education funding crisis.”

Columbian Political Writer