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Ideas for affordable housing pique county councilors’ interest

Longtime advocate’s pitch invokes new state law, zoning changes

By , Columbian political reporter
Published: July 22, 2019, 6:00am

Longtime homelessness advocate Andy Silver appeared before the Clark County council last week with a simple pitch: The county can help address its affordable housing problem through two relatively straightforward policy changes.

While Council Chair Eileen Quiring and Councilor Julie Olson were absent from the July 17 work session, the three councilors present were interested enough to begin moving forward with Silver’s ideas, which involve changes to zoning and using a new state law that will let the county keep more sales tax revenue.

Previously, Silver headed the Council for the Homeless before becoming the CEO of Housing Initiative, a subsidiary of the organization that develops affordable housing.

During the work session, Silver cited research from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University that found that between 2012 and 2017, the cost of an acre of land in Clark County increased 72 percent from $280,100 to $482,400. As a result, the Portland-Vancouver metro area lost 57 percent of its “low-rent” apartments between 2011 and 2017.

Silver presented two ideas aimed at fixing the problem. First, he called on Clark County to enact a policy similar to one adopted by the city of Vancouver earlier this year that allows affordable housing developments in areas zoned for commercial use. These developments must be within 1,000 feet of high-capacity bus routes and aren’t required to have a commercial component. He said the change has the potential to help both “mission-driven” affordable housing providers as well as “market-driven” providers.

“We often have these long commercial corridors in our community, and not every piece of that corridor is going to be a great fit for commercial,” said Silver. Areas that don’t work for commercial use might be a good fit for housing if they weren’t required to have a commercial component, he said.

Silver said that Housing Initiatives is using Vancouver’s new provision to build The Elwood, which will have 46 units.

He proposed that the county allow multi-family housing developments with no commercial components in commercial zones if 40 percent of its apartments are affordable to people who make 60 percent of the area’s median income. The current median income in Clark County is $74,747.

Rents that cost no more than 30 percent of an individual’s income are considered “affordable” — which works out to $1,121 a month for someone making 60 percent of the area’s median income.

In areas zoned for residential use, Silver proposal suggests giving developers a “density bonus” allowing more units in exchange for making at least 40 percent of their apartments affordable to people at 60 percent of the area’s median income. He also called on reducing parking requirements for developers in exchange for making more units affordable.

The council indicated that they would discuss the topic at a future council-time meeting. Councilor John Blom asked county staff to produce a map of potential sites. He also asked about recently Minneapolis’ move to end single-family zoning, which proponents have argued will help with housing affordability. Silver described that development as exciting.

Silver also discussed how the county could implement Senate Bill 1406. Passed last legislative session, the law would allow Clark County to keep 0.0146 percent of sales tax revenue collected in the county that would otherwise go to the state. This money could be used to acquire, rehabilitate or construct affordable housing, including units for people with mental health or substance abuse disorders.

He said that the county could start collecting the money as soon as this fall. He said the council must first pass a resolution signaling its intent to use the law following up with an ordinance. He said that the new law won’t generate a “huge amount” of funding and there are complications in how it could be used. He said it could be used to secure a bond for a larger project or leveraged for grants.

Director of Community Services Vanessa Gaston noted that the small cities in Clark County could also choose to use the law, meaning the county wouldn’t be able to keep sales tax revenue generated in those jurisdictions. Lindsey Shafar, senior legislative assistant, suggested the council begin reaching out to city councilors.

Blom, as well as Councilors Temple Lentz and Gary Medvigy, expressed interest in using the new law, and a resolution could come as soon as August.

“This is a rare event where Olympia is allowing us to control some of our own money,” said Medvigy.

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