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In Our View: Put Housing Tax on Ballot

Measure would spark talks in Vancouver, county about solutions for homeless

The Columbian
Published: June 20, 2016, 6:03am

As the Vancouver City Council discusses the issue of affordable housing tonight, it is worth reiterating some of the talking points surrounding the issue:

• Vancouver has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the country. The laws of supply and demand dictate that this gives landlords plenty of leverage when it comes to setting prices.

• Less and less available housing has contributed to more and more homeless people throughout the county. In this regard, Vancouver is a midsized city experiencing a big-city issue.

• Many cities have attempted to increase housing availability and reduce their homeless populations in recent years, with mixed success.

• Simply throwing money at the problem has proven largely ineffective, demonstrating the need for a multipronged approach from several angles.

These are the issues facing the Vancouver City Council tonight as members ponder whether to place an affordable housing tax on the ballot — perhaps for November. The proposal on the table would create a new property-tax levy expected to generate $6 million a year for seven years. That money would go to a fund for the purchase, construction, and preservation of low-income housing, in addition to homelessness prevention through rental assistance and other services.

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While it would be imprudent to form an opinion about the proposal before seeing its final form, we urge councilors to place a measure before voters. Solutions are needed, and robust debate will help assess the efficacy of any proposals. The Vancouver City Council has been active in trying to deal with the complexities of the issue, and an affordable housing task force provided the impetus for the tax proposal.

Meanwhile, other proposals from around the country are worth mentioning. In Portland, developer Homer Williams is trying to put together a $100 million compound along the Willamette River to provide transitional shelter and long-term residential and health services. In San Antonio, a local billionaire led the way in funding a facility called “Haven for Hope,” which has been credited with helping to reduce that city’s homeless population by 80 percent.

In addition, The Seattle Times recently examined efforts in San Francisco and Houston in a desire to inform Seattle’s fight against homelessness. San Francisco has opened an experimental Navigation Center where residents come and go as they please, and pets and partners stay with them; Seattle is planning to copy the model. In Houston, efforts started out by focusing upon housing for homeless veterans and then moved on to target other specific homeless populations. The key there seems to be how the city has drawn different service organizations together to coordinate efforts, and one official stressed the need to “put ingredients together to function as a system.”

While it is difficult to compare Vancouver with a city of 2 million people, that notion of a coordinated effort is applicable to our county. This is not solely a Vancouver problem; it is an issue throughout Clark County, and county government should eagerly join forces with city officials to address the problem.

And it is, indeed, a problem. While some people might prefer to ignore the issue of affordable housing and homelessness, increasing housing to meet the needs of a growing population will require a countywide effort. Vancouver’s leaders are considering taking the first step, but the journey will be long.