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Affordable Housing Fund ahead of schedule in helping people

Two completed projects two years in are a good start, with several others in the works

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: November 27, 2018, 5:52pm
3 Photos
The Meriwether Place apartments opened in mid-July, the first completed project that received Affordable Housing Fund money. It provides 30 apartments to formerly homeless people, plus access to behavioral health services.
The Meriwether Place apartments opened in mid-July, the first completed project that received Affordable Housing Fund money. It provides 30 apartments to formerly homeless people, plus access to behavioral health services. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s been two years this month since voters in Vancouver agreed to tax themselves to help pay for the construction and preservation of affordable housing. What is there to show from the Affordable Housing Fund so far?

In two years, two construction projects have been completed, and more are in the works.

Meriwether Place, located off Fourth Plain Boulevard, has been open since mid-July, and all 30 apartments are leased primarily to people who used to be homeless. Most tenants are in substance abuse recovery. Leah Greenwood, executive director of the nonprofit behind Meriwether Place, Columbia Non-Profit Housing, said it’s been rewarding to watch residents move in and take ownership. A group of tenants is trying to start a resident council that will make some decisions around the facility’s policies and programs.

One man moved to Meriwether Place after leaving prison and within his first week there got a job and met with U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, at the facility’s grand opening, Greenwood said. She also said that no one has been evicted thus far, though one tenant died from a medical condition.

Receiving $500,000 from Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund prevented the project from needing traditional loans, which would have translated to less money for programs, Greenwood said. For instance, there’s a resident advocate at Meriwether Place who gets residents involved in community activities.

“That’s generally the position that goes when you don’t have enough money,” she said.

Planning for Meriwether Place began in 2015, and two years later it got a piece of the initial $5.61 million distributed to 11 housing projects in the city.

Community Services Northwest was also part of that initial funding round and used $100,000 to renovate a triplex and a fourplex that both house formerly homeless people.

Executive Director Bunk Moren said the money was used to address long-term maintenance and improve the condition of the units. He said the Affordable Housing Fund allows his agency to make ongoing improvements, such as replacing the roof and redoing the plumbing, while keeping rents low.

“We think the community needs more mission-driven landlords,” he added.

Housing assistance

Peggy Sheehan, the city’s community and economic development programs manager, said the number of people helped by the Affordable Housing Fund is ahead of schedule.

“We have a huge amount of people served with the rental assistance,” she said.

About $1.2 million in 2017 and another $250,000 this year went toward housing assistance, the amount of which varies depending on the household’s needs.

Vancouver Housing Authority said 21 families who received rental assistance through the Affordable Housing Fund have leased units and another 12 families are searching for properties to lease.

The prevention consortium, a partnership involving Council for the Homeless, Share, Janus Youth Programs, Impact NW and Vancouver St. Vincent de Paul Society Conference, had collectively helped 132 households with rental assistance as of September. The goal is to help 240 households be stably housed by April.

The Affordable Housing Fund provided $628,237 to improve homeless shelters Share House, Safe Choice and Valley Homestead. Improvements have to be made before the end of 2019, though Sheehan thinks they’ll be done sooner. Also, two low-income homeowners each received $25,000 to rehabilitate their homes. The city aims to help 15 homeowners with a total of $384,213 in funds.

Funding requests for the second round total $8.9 million and include a mix of new construction and renovation projects. The fund generates about $6.1 million annually from property taxes. Sheehan said she’s excited about the next funding round, in particular the projects submitted by for-profit developers and organizations that are new to the affordable housing scene.

“We all know there’s not enough public money to help everyone,” Sheehan said. “If you have a for-profit developer, they don’t have to go through as many hoops.”

Bellingham’s model

Vancouver’s affordable-housing levy was modeled after the Bellingham Home Fund, which was recently extended. Voters in Bellingham approved a replacement of the fund set to expire at the end of 2019; it will collect a maximum of $4 million annually.

According to the city of Bellingham, the fund has helped 5,935 people with rent assistance, created 215 units of housing and preserved 299 housing units.

“These local dollars have proven crucial in bridging the gap between what housing costs and what low-income residents can afford,” said Samya Lutz, Housing and Services program manager for Bellingham.

As in Vancouver and Clark County, homelessness and a shortage of affordable homes are persistent problems in Bellingham and Whatcom County at large. The county’s Point-in-Time count, a single-day census of the homeless population, was 493 people in 2012. This year, 815 people were counted. Vancouver has also seen a rise in the homeless population, though not as dramatically as Bellingham.

“We simply don’t have the supply to bring that down yet,” Lutz said. “That homeless count number would be much, much higher if it weren’t for the services that have increased.”

She said there is fear that increasing services attracts people from outside the community. Galen Herz, who managed the Bellingham Home Fund’s renewal campaign, said urban areas such as Bellingham and Vancouver attract people of all kinds. However, homeless counts have consistently found that 70 percent of Whatcom County’s homeless population is from Whatcom County.

Lutz said she wishes the city could clone the housing projects they’ve done so far.

“It’s a heavy lift to build that development capacity,” she said. “We still have gaps. We still have types of housing that we need here that we aren’t providing.”

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While there is a stream of new housing units on the way, Bellingham’s population is growing, too. It’s similar to what Vancouver and other areas across the state are experiencing. Bellingham’s population was 82,234 in 2012 and grew to 89,044 by 2017, according to American Community Survey estimates from the U.S. Census.

Herz said that 66.7 percent of voters agreed to renew the fund because they saw that it brought stability to their neighbors’ lives.

“The home fund has been our biggest success, and I can’t imagine where we would be without it,” Herz said, adding that Bellingham’s ongoing challenges are not unique. “Everyone needs a safe, healthy and affordable home.”

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Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith