As the world spiraled into uncertainty with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, residents at Share’s Women’s Housing and Transition shelter wondered how they would get by.
The shelter, with 18 beds for homeless women at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, was only open overnight. With libraries, coffee shops and restaurants closed for public health reasons, many of the women had no safe place to go during the day.
“One day, we got a call from the staff saying that the clients that were staying there were refusing to leave,” said Share Deputy Director Amy Reynolds. “Everything was shutting down, and people were afraid that we were going to close that program, as well, so they were afraid to leave.”
At the time, Share was making plans with the city to keep the shelter open all day using Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund. Responding to clients’ concerns, the city expedited the process, providing half the funding needed to enable the shelter to stay open 24/7 within just a few weeks.
Toni Lindsay, who has lived at the Women’s Housing and Transition shelter, or WHAT, for nine months, said people at overnight shelters would sit in parks during the day if they had nowhere else to go. “I have a vehicle, but a lot of the ladies that stay here do not, and then they would have to shuffle around town,” she said. “It’s really nice that we can actually stay in the shelter.”
Share, which previously received all shelter funding from the county, couldn’t have pulled this off without the Affordable Housing Fund, Reynolds said.
“Before the WHAT came about, it had been 20 years before we had added additional shelter to our community, even though our community has been growing,” Reynolds said. “It’s really been a great gift to have flexible funding coming through the city to be able to meet the new needs that our community is experiencing.”
The fund’s impacts so far
Vancouver’s largest local resource for affordable housing, the fund has helped finance 1,061 affordable housing units and 405 shelter beds, and has assisted 1,654 households with services since its creation in 2017, according to city data.
It funds both short-term responses to homelessness like shelters and rental assistance, as well as long-term solutions like housing development and preservation projects.
It’s sustained through a property tax levy that raises $42 million over seven years, expiring at the end of 2023. In February, Vancouver residents will vote on Proposition 3, which would raise the tax from 18 to about 30 cents per $1,000 in assessed value if approved, collecting $100 million over 10 years.
With this proposed tax hike, some people are asking where their money is actually going, said Vancouver Housing Authority Chief Real Estate Officer Victor Caesar. Caesar responded that the fund enables “pretty much every new construction project” by the housing authority.
The city has awarded $35.8 million in affordable housing funds since 2017. This local funding has enabled projects costing $284.4 million — a return of about eight times the amount invested by the city.
The Vancouver Housing Authority, which is responsible for more than half of the affordable units being built or preserved using the fund, has seen an even greater return, securing about 11 times the amount invested by the city for its projects.
The fund accomplishes this by leveraging tax credits and other funding sources, as the local investment makes projects more competitive for state and federal dollars.
“Those different sources that have larger awards don’t want to award that funding until they see that there’s been a local commitment,” said Samantha Whitley, city housing programs manager. “So our local funding has been critical, and is usually the first one in on a project. And then that allows our developers to go out and secure the other funds that they need to fully fund the project.”
Beyond brick and mortar
By building systems of support, the fund’s impacts ripple far beyond “brick and mortar” developments, said Housing Initiative CEO Sierk Braam. The Housing Initiative began serving as Council for the Homeless’ development arm after the levy passed, helping the council use the fund to develop supportive housing complexes, including the Elwood and the Pacific.
“With permanent supportive housing, it takes a particular skill set and it takes real hands-on property management,” Braam said. “So we’ve grown through the Affordable Housing Fund also the capacity in the community to coordinate all of the social services.”
Supportive services create a safety net for people who once lived in tents or vehicles, added Charlene Welch, Council for the Homeless communications director.
“It’s almost like the ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’ book,” Welch said. “If you give a city the affordable housing dollars, thing after thing after thing happens. And all along, it’s serving the most vulnerable in our community.”
At Share’s WHAT shelter, using the fund to stay open 24/7 does more than just keep a roof over women’s heads, according to Share Engagement Specialist Bridgette Mesa. It also helps clients reduce their barriers to getting housed, as well as keep clients safe.
“There’s a lot of sex trafficking going on, a lot of these women have domestic violence situations. Some people don’t want to be found,” Mesa said. “This place is like a safe haven for these ladies.”
WHAT resident Tiffani Estes said she was nervous before coming to the shelter because she didn’t know what to expect, but the many services offered were a pleasant surprise. “It brought the good out of me,” she said.
Meeting community needs
In the fund’s first six years, Caesar has found Vancouver’s funding process to be effective, as the city responds quickly to any bureaucratic hoops the authority has to jump through. Share has also used city dollars without a hitch, according to Reynolds.
“The fact that we’re trying to address this on a level of shelter, rental assistance and also building new units shows that the city recognizes that this is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions,” Reynolds said.
But even as the fund stimulates development, Sierk said it’s “just a drop in the bucket” when it comes to addressing Vancouver’s housing shortage. To close the city’s affordable housing deficit within 10 years, 750 units must be developed per year for households earning 80 percent or less of area median income, according to city statistics.
“Homelessness that we see today does not happen overnight, and it’s not going to go away overnight,” Welch said. “This is multiple years of moving the levers and getting better and better at handling resources.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.