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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Nonprofit plants seeds to grow more housing

The Columbian
Published: June 19, 2024, 6:03am

Effectively addressing a housing shortage in our community requires efforts from local governments, private entities and nonprofit organizations.

In one important example, the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington has announced a new initiative to help spur construction of affordable housing. The Southwest Washington Impact Investment Fund for Transformation will offer low-interest loans for local nonprofits, helping to pay for pre-development costs on large-scale projects.

“In our region, one of our biggest gaps is, in fact, access to capital,” said Matt Morton, president of the nonprofit community foundation. “So being able to fill that gap with philanthropic dollars made sense for us.”

The foundation has provided $1.5 million in seed money for the initiative, and organizers hope to grow that into $5 million through investments and community donations. Loans to builders are expected to range from $250,000 to $500,000 to help get multimillion-dollar projects ready for funding.

The need is obvious. As homelessness continues to increase throughout Southwest Washington, much attention has been placed on a shortage of housing. This is not unique to the area, but land-use restrictions, climate-related building codes, a quickly growing population and other factors have exacerbated the issue throughout Washington.

But despite a consensus on the need for more housing, accruing funding can be difficult. Low-income housing is not a priority in a profit-driven economy, placing the onus on governments and citizens.

In Vancouver, a voter-approved property tax levy dedicated to increasing and preserving affordable housing has been in place since 2016 and was expanded in 2023. Last year, the fund contributed more than $6 million to housing production, housing preservation, homeless prevention and temporary shelters.

At the county level, more than $15 million in COVID relief money has been dedicated to addressing homelessness.

Meanwhile, various programs have been used to incentivize the private development of housing for low-income residents.

For most nonprofits, however, the response to homelessness is limited to providing services. Numerous charitable organizations throughout the county offer meals, temporary shelter and endeavors designed to connect residents with social services. Those efforts are essential, but long-term solutions for reducing the number of unhoused people demand an increase in housing availability.

As Gov. Jay Inslee has said: “There is no simple answer for fixing homelessness fast. In the short term, we need more shelters that provide more services so people get back on their feet. Over the long term, we need more housing that average workers can afford. Both of those solutions require every community to do their part.”

That is where the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington comes in. The nonprofit already has partnered with Housing Initiative – a subsidiary of the Council for the Homeless – to build two affordable housing communities through an existing loan program. The new program, which is expected to be available in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties in October, is designed to extend that reach. Donors to the foundation may allocate funds for the Southwest Washington Impact Investment Fund for Transformation.

As Morton said: “Philanthropy can play a really important and critical role at an early point in projects, and that is exactly what SWIIFT is designed to do.”