After months of discussing the affordable housing crisis, the Vancouver City Council took its first look Monday at specific numbers for a proposed property tax that would generate $6 million a year for seven years to support the city’s very low-income families.
At a rate of 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the levy would cost the owner of a $250,000 home an extra $7.50 a month, or $90 a year. All of the money — $42 million over the seven-year life of the levy — would be used to support families earning a maximum of 50 percent of the area’s median income, which is $33,750 a year for a family of four. In Vancouver, 13,855 rental households fall into that category.
Implementing the tax would require majority approval by city voters in an election.
City staff came up with the numbers after examining the city of Bellingham’s affordable housing property tax levy.
Here’s how the money would be spent across seven years:
• 67 percent of the funding would go toward building and preserving 790 affordable housing units for low-income families.
• 25 percent would go toward preventing homelessness for 1,500 families. It would provide rental help and stability services for families who are homeless or at risk of eviction, and it would build temporary housing for the homeless.
• 5 percent would be for helping 42 first-time homebuyers with down-payment loans. The homes would be held as affordable housing for future generations of buyers.
• 3 percent would be designated for the program’s implementation costs.
On Monday, roughly 60 people, wearing red clothing to silently show their support for the levy, packed city council chambers. Because it was a workshop, the council did not invite public testimony.
All councilors seemed to be in favor of a ballot measure except for Bill Turlay, who was concerned that if the city created an attractive program, it would draw more low-income people to town who wanted to take advantage of its offerings.
Turlay, acknowledging that he had not attended any of last year’s Affordable Housing Task Force meetings, wondered whether there was an option besides city involvement. He asked whether there was a nonprofit that could raise money for affordable housing, adding that he’d be willing to write a check.
“How about that? How many people would be willing to write a check here?” Turlay asked.
No hands went up.
Councilor Jack Burkman said the people he’s talked to about an affordable housing property tax told him, no, the city could not reach into their wallets to fund other families. Burkman advocated for waiting until 2017 to put the issue before voters because the campaign didn’t have a simple, clear message that would resonate.
“To me, the worst-case scenario is something goes to the voters and they say, ‘that’s crazy,’ and shut down, and vote no,” he said. “We’ve got one good shot at this.”
Councilor Alishia Topper agreed the message wasn’t ready but that an outside committee would develop it.
“The time is now, and from the numbers in this room today, the need needs to be met now,” she said.
Mayor Tim Leavitt said the council needs to be able to say it’s addressed everything possible without raising taxes before it can go to voters. That means moving forward quickly with some of the Affordable Housing Task Force’s other recommendations, such as inclusionary zoning and property tax exemptions, he said.
Topper pointed out that the property tax levy was the one task force recommendation that would provide relief to the lowest-income residents.
“This is going to accomplish what none of the private market can do on their own,” she said. “That’s what we can tell the voters.”
The city is holding a series of community sessions about the proposed affordable housing fund this month and in June, dates and times to be determined.
The Affordable Housing Task Force formed last year after public outcry over mass notices to vacate at apartment complexes left tenants scrambling to find housing. Despite rents skyrocketing 16.7 percent, Vancouver’s rental housing market has had less than a 2 percent vacancy rate for about 18 months. From May 2015 through this March, Vancouver was listed in Apartment List National Rent Reports as the No. 1 city in the United States for fastest rent growth. Last month, the city dropped to fifth place, said Peggy Sheehan, the city’s Community and Economic Development program manager.
This year’s median rents in Vancouver are $990 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,070 for a two-bedroom unit. But the monthly amount a very low-income household can afford for rent is $643 for a single person, $734 for two people and $916 for a four-person household, Sheehan said.