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Sept. 27, 2021

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Clark County Council balances job creation with affordable housing in land-use decisions

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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3 Photos
Housing nonprofit Reach hoped to add more affordable housing units in the Maple Tree neighborhood like the nearby the Covington Commons apartment complex, pictured on Tuesday.
Housing nonprofit Reach hoped to add more affordable housing units in the Maple Tree neighborhood like the nearby the Covington Commons apartment complex, pictured on Tuesday. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When a Clark County housing advisory committee recently held a lengthy discussion on the need for mixed dwelling types, one comment in particular stood out.

The advisory group is tasked with making recommendations, based on an ongoing study, to the Clark County Council on ways to create more affordable housing in the unincorporated Vancouver Urban Growth Area.

Study consultants broke down the projected housing stock needed for six different income levels. John Blom, a real estate professional and former county councilor, mentioned that creating housing for the lowest five income levels is “a much more difficult policy question” than for the top one.

A recent council decision exemplified the difficult policy path affordable housing projects may face as the need for such housing intensifies.

A nonprofit that owns more than 3 acres of land in the Maple Tree Neighborhood of the Vancouver Urban Growth Area proposed a zoning change that would allow it to develop additional affordable housing on the property. Following several months of coordination with the county, the council rejected the amendment in a 3-2 vote.

A deeper look at the council vote offers some lessons about the fluid nature of these policy decisions, which can often be affected by timing, electoral politics and the availability of information.

The council’s decision came during a Jan. 19 hearing.

Housing nonprofit Reach had requested a zoning amendment for the land it owns at 9703 N.E. Covington Road. Owners of surrounding properties requested inclusion in the amendment, bringing the proposed change to more than 4 acres.

The site is currently zoned for Neighborhood Commercial use, which the county code describes as “commercial areas of limited size (that) are intended to provide for the convenience shopping needs of the immediate neighborhood.” However, it also permits other uses, such as parks, branch banks and small bakeries, professional offices, health clubs or post offices.

If approved, the switch would have shifted the site to Urban Medium Density Residential zoning, more like the property surrounding it.

The site, most of which is vacant, has held the same zoning designation since 1994 under the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan. Reach already operates eight buildings at the location that were constructed in the late 1990s.

The buildings contain 40 units that meet the definition of affordable housing. In that area, housing is considered affordable if it is feasible for a family of four with $52,740 in annual income.

Reach would have been able to, depending on financing, add up to 20 additional units on the land or a community space for the surrounding residents. The nonprofit also proposed a covenant in which it would have committed to preserving affordable housing on the property for at least 30 years.

County Planning Director Oliver Orjiako told the council that the covenant’s time commitment was unusually long.

“I haven’t seen one committed to 30 years,” Orjiako said. “I’m happy to see that.”

Additionally, a change would have helped the organization complete its low-income tax credit resyndication process that would help it maintain other, aging affordable housing developments.

“We have committed that land for use and benefit to low-income residents for the additional period,” Brian Bieler, the nonprofit’s director of asset management, told the council. “Regardless of what financing we’re able to put in place for additional units, we will be bringing benefits to that area for affordable (housing) residents.”

The council voted last year to place the Reach item on the 2020 Approved Work Plan, which sets priorities for the county’s Community Planning staff. County staff gave a nod to the amendment, saying that the property met the all relevant county policy criteria for a zoning change.

“Due to their small parcel sizes and locations, the subject parcels are not as well suited to commercial development as the commercial properties at the intersection of Northeast Covington Road and Northeast 76th Street,” said Sharon Lumbantobing, then a land use planner with the county, during a Planning Commission hearing last year.

The Clark County Planning Commission approved it 4-0 during an Oct. 15 hearing in which three commissioners were absent.

When Jan. 19 came, Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien and Councilors Gary Medvigy and Karen Bowerman voted against the change, while Councilors Julie Olson and Temple Lentz voted in favor.

Bowerman said during the hearing that, “the affordable housing is juxtaposed against the commercial land,” while also noting that there were “certainly many good things about this project.”

“As I look at this project, what I sense is that there would be an encroachment into the existing commercial acreage that would result in a permanent loss of employment lands and, therefore, the associated jobs,” Bowerman said. “I feel that is a trade-off that I’m not willing to vote for at this point in time.”

Medvigy, noting that he supports affordable housing “in the right locations,” said that he did not see enough information to overturn the zoning designation and didn’t want to make an “ad hoc” decision.

“I’m generally not in favor of those, with all the work that’s gone into the original comprehensive plan,” Medvigy said. “We also have a lot of work going on right now with affordable housing.”

Quiring O’Brien asked Orjiako during the hearing whether residents in the area would, “not benefit, also, from neighborhood commercial?”

“A neighborhood commercial (designation) would allow for your typical 7-Eleven or minimart,” Orjiako replied before referencing the 7-Eleven and mini-mart less than a half-mile away from the site. “If you look at the area, there are good neighborhood commercial and services that are fairly close.”

It’s certainly not the only piece of undeveloped, yet potentially developable, piece of land in the county. It’s not even the biggest one. But the Reach site serves as an example of the numerous decisions on affordable housing and employment lands that the council will make in the years to come.

“We do have a yeoman’s job ahead of us,” Quiring O’Brien said during the hearing.

The Columbian reached out to each of the councilors to discuss how they reached the decision and how they might approach similar ones.

They agree on a few things.

First, they concur that affordable housing and jobs are both important issues the county must seek to balance, and they are reluctant to specify which is a larger priority.

Councilors expressed agreement that mixed types of housing should be explored, and that local jobs are important to sustain communities. They also agree that they will need to find ways to be creative in how they make zoning decisions.

For his part, Medvigy said that, despite voting “no,” he held onto the Reach paperwork for a significant amount of time after the council’s decision.

“I didn’t like saying ‘no’ to that, because it’s such a great organization,” Medvigy said. “It was really just the timing piece.”

Otherwise, the decision on the Reach property drew mixed reactions.

Councilors who voted against the amendment cited a lack of clear evidence that would have warranted a change to the comprehensive plan – a 20-year, state-mandated guide that currently runs through 2035 and is reviewed every eight years.

“Unless there was some really compelling reason to change the course, I’m really hesitant to do it,” Medvigy said. “You need clear and convincing and compelling evidence to undermine and overturn work that was done very pragmatically years ago.”

Olson also stressed the need to preserve zoning that can create jobs.

“There will continue to be pressure to zone for housing,” Olson said. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. We need to be really, really careful to give up land that is zoned for jobs.”

But she drew a distinction between that position and her vote on the Reach decision.

“This was very few jobs, like half a dozen, maybe,” Olson said. “I wouldn’t consider this, in the broader context, ‘jobs land.'”

She also raised concerns about what she said was a lack of consideration to the monthslong process that included approval by county staff and the Planning Commission.

“That vote was disappointing,” Olson said. “I don’t want to say it was a foregone conclusion. But to put the applicant through the process and then vote ‘no,’ that was disappointing and unfair to the applicant.”

Olson also mentioned the electoral shift that took place on the council since the Reach item was placed on the docket. In last year’s elections, Bowerman unseated then-Councilor Blom for the council’s District 3 seat.

“That’s part of how elections change dynamics,” Olson said.

Blom said that he supported the zoning amendment.

“That’s one of the most difficult types of housing to create,” Blom said. “When you have an opportunity like that, you need to take advantage of it.”

Dan Valliere, Reach’s chief executive officer, said that, following the council’s decision, the organization does not currently have plans for the site.

“Our plans are on hold given that the zoning change was not approved and we do not believe it to be a feasible site for commercial development,” Valliere said.

Those in favor of the amendment lamented the site’s current state.

“This decision hurts people,” Lentz said. “The council denied an opportunity to bring additional affordable housing to Clark County, along with a 30-year commitment to keeping it affordable. That land will now sit vacant or underutilized, offering no benefit to anyone.”

Each of the councilors expressed optimism that information is coming that will better inform land-use decisions. One such source: the housing study on the Vancouver UGA.

Councilors said they hope the study will identify creative ways to facilitate more affordable housing, including through zoning changes.

“We need flexible options for a variety of needs, lifestyles and incomes,” Lentz said. “I want to hear about innovative ways we can help meet the diverse needs of our growing and changing community.”

As the Reach decision revealed, job creation and preservation will also play a major role in these discussions.

“We want Clark County to have its own economic engine, not just provide a bedroom community for the jobs that are across the river,” Quiring O’Brien said. “Reducing the availability of land for jobs does not accomplish this goal.”

The state Legislature might address this issue specifically in a bill, with bipartisan sponsorship, that has made its way to the Senate Housing & Local Government Committee. It would require, in part, counties to consider housing locations in relation to employment locations in the housing element of each county’s comprehensive plan.

Clark County’s review of its own plan is not due until 2025.

But the housing study – with recommendations expected by next year – could provide more immediate answers for decisions the council will need to make before then. That might even include the Reach property.

“I would think that we didn’t get our money’s worth if we didn’t get good ideas going forward,” Medvigy said of the housing study in relation to the Reach decision. “Yeah, I’m open-minded.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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