Sen. Maria Cantwell visited Vancouver on Wednesday to advocate for increases to a federal program that encourages construction of affordable housing units.
Speaking at subsidized apartment complex Caples Terrace — which she last visited for its ribbon cutting two years ago — Cantwell called for a 50 percent increase to the nation’s Low Income Affordable Housing Tax Credit program, as part of the country’s upcoming infrastructure package.
“Affordable housing is a crisis in the United States of America, and a crisis in our state,” Cantwell said. “What we know about the Affordable Housing Tax Credit is that it is a great solution: That it basically helps build more affordable housing in our communities, and just like Caples Terrace, they can be unique. They can be tailored to the community, and the needs of the community, and the population that they are trying to serve.”
In April, Cantwell introduced the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, which would pump resources into the existing tax credit program. If adopted, her staff estimates the bill would stimulate the development of 66,000 subsidized housing units across the state.
The program has been around since 1986. It grants states the authority to issue approximately $8 billion annually in tax credits for low-income housing. According to a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the tax credit has been used to build 49,449 projects and 3.34 million housing units between 1987 and 2019 (the most recent available data).
Expanding the program has been a longtime priority for the Democratic senator, who also introduced earlier versions of the bill to increase the total tax credit amount in 2016 and again in 2019.
The housing shortage has grown especially dire in the Pacific Northwest due to a growing economy that continues to draw workers to the region, Cantwell said at Wednesday’s press conference.
“First and foremost, housing and affordable housing must be part of our nation’s infrastructure package,” she said. “We haven’t kept pace with demand.”
The event included comments from Vancouver Housing Authority Executive Director Roy Johnson and Vancouver City Councilor Erik Paulsen, as well as Steve Walker, executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.
Miguel Viveros Chavez, a two-year resident of Caples Terrace, also addressed the gathered crowd.
Viveros Chavez, 22, explained that having access to affordable housing helped him earn his associate’s degree at Clark College. He’s on track to start classes at Portland State University, where he plans to earn his bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in teaching before going on to become a teacher for the blind. Viveros Chavez is vision-impaired and uses a cane.
“I’m someone who has fought really hard to get where I am, because it hasn’t been an easy route for me at all. I had to deal with a lot of struggles with school, with accommodations, I had to deal with a lot of personal struggles. I was working three jobs at once and going to school full time,” Viveros Chavez said. “I was able to manage, and I got through it.”
Caples Terrace is a 28-unit apartment complex aimed at helping homeless, unaccompanied youth and those aging out of foster care. It’s intended to serve tenants between 18 and 24 years old making up to half of the area’s median income. Rent is based on what tenants can afford; they pay 35 percent of their monthly income.
The complex was the first affordable housing development spearheaded by the Vancouver Housing Authority that aimed to house a specific population. More than half of the project’s funding came from the tax credit program.
In his remarks, Walker called the tax credit program the “country’s best financing tool for affordable housing.”
“It literally puts billions of dollars in private investment to work for the public good. It works. And if we strengthen and expand it, we can say yes to those projects that are sitting there waiting to go, ready to get built,” Walker said.
Wednesday’s press conference marked Cantwell’s first in-person event in the state of Washington in nearly a year and a half. The June 30 visit coincided with Washington’s full reopening — as of that day, the state lifted nearly all of its masking and social distancing regulations linked to the coronavirus.
“This is the first official event that we have done since the COVID pandemic in-person,” Cantwell said. “Southwest Washington is a priority, and we wanted to come here.”