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In Our View: Using housing fund outside city worth studying

The Columbian
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:03am

Two things are evident from a Vancouver City Council discussion regarding the Affordable Housing Fund: More details are needed, and Clark County officials must be engaged in order for the region to reduce homelessness.

This week, city councilors discussed allowing the fund to pay for city residents to secure housing outside Vancouver. As Columbian reporter Alexis Weisend explained: “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.”

Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund is a voter-approved property tax levy designed to generate $100 million over 10 years. That money is used to help construct housing that is deemed affordable, preserve and renovate housing units, and pay for rental assistance.

To receive assistance, somebody has to be housed in Vancouver or currently homeless in the city. This is sensible, considering that Vancouver taxpayers are the ones contributing to the fund.

But Vancouver officials say that a lack of housing prevents people from finding a home within city limits. “There’s nowhere for those folks who don’t need supportive services to exit to,” said Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless response coordinator. “We’re stuck.”

That has raised a question about whether city funds should be used to find housing outside Vancouver — but still within Clark County. Indeed, finding housing anywhere is preferable to having people become homeless.

But there are drawbacks to taking funds approved and provided by Vancouver residents and using them outside the city. As City Councilor Bart Hansen said: “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. It’s hard to explain that one away.”

Coordination between the city of Vancouver, other cities and Clark County is essential for dealing with a crisis of unhoused people. By law, county governments are the lead agency for addressing homelessness, and the Clark County Council directed $15.5 million in federal COVID relief funds toward the situation. That includes $5 million for shelters and $4.4 million for outreach services.

The funding, however, was a one-time occurrence. Sustained efforts from the county and coordination with cities in the region are necessary for finding long-term solutions. Unhoused people, after all, impact residents throughout the county and lessen the region’s attractiveness for visitors and businesses.

Those issues extend beyond the immediate concern about how best to apply Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund.

One suggestion is to allow the funds to be used outside the city limits but with a time limit on assistance. Councilor Kim Harless pushed back against that idea, saying, “We don’t want bureaucracy to be the reason that they’re back in the streets.”

Another suggestion could be to allow funding for housing outside the city limits but within the urban growth boundary. This would at least keep people who receive assistance in populated areas.

As it stands now, the proposal warrants discussion; there are too many unanswered questions and good arguments to be made on both sides. It also warrants input from county officials as our region continues to work on a vexing problem.