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Vancouver City Council wants to expand Affordable Housing Fund into county but details need ironing out

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 13, 2024, 1:37pm

Allowing Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund to pay for city residents to live outside of Vancouver within Clark County may be key to moving people out of overburdened shelters, according to some city staff. But Vancouver City Council members said they need more information before making a decision.

On Monday, staff from Vancouver’s Economic Prosperity and Housing department and Homeless Assistance and Response Team told the city council about a barrier they’re facing to getting people housed.

Vancouver’s shelters and supportive housing are consistently packed, but there aren’t enough affordable units within city limits for people to move into. It’s a wrench that’s halted the flow of people from tents into housing.

“There’s nowhere for those folks who don’t need supportive services to exit to,” Vancouver’s Homeless Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli said. “We’re stuck.”

Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund, fueled by a property tax levy that will generate $100 million for affordable housing within the next decade, pays for rental assistance.

To receive this assistance, someone either has to be a Vancouver resident or currently homeless in Vancouver. People who are homeless or likely to become homeless are prioritized for the city’s rental assistance.

The idea is the city council could allow people to receive this rental assistance while still living within Clark County, but not Vancouver city limits, by amending the 2024 Affordable Housing Fund Administrative and Financial Plan.

It’s not exactly novel; housing authorities including Vancouver Housing Authority will continue to pay for the housing voucher of someone who has moved outside the county after a year, because Section 8 Housing Vouchers are a federal program.

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But city councilors said they were uncomfortable with the idea of spending city funds outside city limits without stricter residency parameters or time limits on rental assistance for county units.

“You could walk into Vancouver tomorrow. Never from here, you could get this assistance, move outside the city of Vancouver, take dollars that were collected from property taxes in the city of Vancouver, and have an indefinite stay somewhere else outside the city of Vancouver,” Councilor Bart Hansen said. “It’s hard to explain that one away.”

Because the Affordable Housing Fund is funded through property taxes, Hansen worried the changes would mean giving property tax revenue to landlords who didn’t pay into the fund.

“It just seems like we’re almost putting our providers of affordable housing here in Vancouver at bit of a disadvantage,” Hansen said.

Councilor Sarah Fox said the city needs to consider a time limit to how long it would fund people living outside of Vancouver city limits, such as two years.

“That might give them that time without just cutting them off because we’ve run out of space here, and we don’t help them once they step over that line,” Fox said.

Councilor Kim Harless is hesitant about the idea of a time limit or residency requirements. With the lack of affordable units, people may not have a choice but to live outside Vancouver city limits. And some people, such as those with disabilities, may need permanent affordable housing to live in, she said.

“I’m uncomfortable with a time limit,” Harless said. “We don’t want bureaucracy to be the reason that they’re back in the streets.”

In 2022, 2,447 people from Vancouver accessed homelessness services, according to Council for the Homeless’ annual system data. Vancouver has a deficit of 5,600 housing units, according to a city report.

The city councilors asked staff to come back with more information on other voucher programs and more guidelines about who is eligible for rental assistance and for how long.

Councilor Diana Perez said she’d like to hear more creative ways to keep city residents supported, whether it’s inside Vancouver city limits or within Clark County, while the city works to fill the affordable housing gap.

“It’s not an overnight thing, but we need to think a little more broader versus just immediate here,” she said.

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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.