Affordable housing: Progress slow, but happening

Allison Arthur of the Leader
Posted 4/12/11

Progress on affordable housing has been made as city and county officials and nonprofits collaborate, but few new units have been built.

Despite numerous achievements, from a Housing Action Plan …

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Affordable housing: Progress slow, but happening

Posted

Progress on affordable housing has been made as city and county officials and nonprofits collaborate, but few new units have been built.

Despite numerous achievements, from a Housing Action Plan Network approved in 2006 to new city density changes, to creation of a Public Development Authority and work on a sewer system in Hadlock, almost no new affordable housing has been built since 2006. The only exception: nine units built by Habitat for Humanity of East Jefferson County.

Consequently, Jefferson County remains one of Washington’s least affordable counties. An average home in Jefferson County at one point was $280,000, too high for a police officer making $48,000 a year to afford and way out of reach for a retail cashier or waiter.

With that sobering introductory assessment, David Rymph, president of Jefferson County’s housing authority and vice president of Homeward Bound, kicked off an evening of talk about affordable housing on April 7 at Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

“Perhaps the groundwork has been done to get units built, and we are ready to take significant action,” Rymph said. “We hope tonight to identify some meaningful steps to see that happen.”

The county needs 1,100 to 1,400 more affordable housing units by 2024, Rymph told a crowd of about 80.

Support for housing

While high land prices, low average wages, a difficult economy and lack of financing are contributing factors to the lack of affordable housing, Judy Surber, planning manager for the City of Port Townsend, said that in the past, there has been public resistance to developing multifamily housing projects.

A test of whether people support affordable housing comes on April 18 when the City Council considers surplussing three properties it owns specifically for the purpose of affordable housing.

The parcels are: 5,000 square feet between Discovery Road and 20th Street; 1.78 acres east of Cherry Street, adjacent to Grace Lutheran Church; and .88 acre east of Cherry across from Grace Lutheran.

“The public tends to be uncomfortable with increased density,” Surber said, adding that there has been opposition to upzoning in the past.

The meeting is 6:30 p.m. April 18 in council chambers at City Hall.

Rymph said it was land that is needed most, and that there is funding to build on the lots in Port Townsend – if those collaborative efforts continue. Rymph’s Homeward Bound organization buys land to make it available for housing projects.

Waiting for action

In addition to Surber and Rymph, panelists who spoke included Al Scalf, director of the county’s Department of Community Development; Jamie Maciejewski, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of East Jefferson County; Pam Tietz of the Clallam County Housing Authority; and Kris Nelson, a City Council member and business owner.

Former City Council member and county planner Brent Butler’s voice also was heard through Henry Werch, who read a speech Butler had intended to give had he been able to participate.

“Now, two years later, I have waited long enough, and have slowly begun to lose my patience,” Butler wrote in a prepared statement. “Is it true what others have said? High-cost housing generates profits, and that this motivates members of the council and the city’s leadership more than the residents’ vision of Jefferson County as a place for citizens of a range of incomes, professions and interest.”

Port Townsend Mayor Michelle Sandoval, a Realtor and co-owner of Windermere Real Estate, was anxious to respond to Butler’s accusation. While she said she appreciated Butler’s enthusiasm, the city wasn’t in a position to declare an affordable-housing emergency, as Butler had advocated several years ago.

“We need a project,” Sandoval said. “We had to sell it to our public.”

Sandoval also said the community needs to come together and “not have NIMBYism.”

Collaboration happening

Collaboration between agencies takes time, all of the officials said.

Tietz, of the Clallam Housing Authority, said they partnered with Jefferson County Housing Authority not just to take over the Section 8 housing voucher program, but as a regional housing promoter.

The merging of Jefferson and Clallam counties’ housing authorities – known as Peninsula Housing Authority – is expected to be complete by July of this year.

“We at the Clallam County Housing Authority believe that housing is a basic human need; it’s as important as food, in our minds,” Tietz said.

“I don’t care who owns it or who develops it, as long as it gets done,” she said.

When asked by moderator Scott Wilson, publisher of the Leader, what prompted the merger of the two agencies, Tietz said that when Clallam took over the housing voucher program, there were economies of scale and regional solutions that came into play.

“Jefferson County was our neighbor, and we wanted to do the right thing,” she said.

Clallam County’s program has 38 employees, while Jefferson County has only one part-time person now.

Clallam also owns or manages almost 1,000 affordable housing units, Tietz said.

From Jefferson County’s perspective, Scalf talked about a gap between the median household income and the median price of a home. He said the gap has widened over the years, and that the recession and banking practices are impeding progress.

He also acknowledged that density regulations are “complex and onerous.”

Habitat efforts

While Habitat has been known as an affordable-home builder – in fact, it’s considered the eighth-largest home builder in the U.S. – Maciejewski said Habitat is starting to get on the home repair and revitalization bandwagon.

Toward that, a Gifting the Future Giving Circle recently presented Habitat with a $10,000 check to help launch Habitat’s Quilcene Neighborhood Revitalization Institute. The program is aimed at helping people fund improvements to existing affordable homes.

Maciejewski said high-level projects are needed for the future, and she also made a pitch for donations.

“Ten dollars a month would go a long way,” she said.

Housing need up, financing down

Paul Percell of the Beacon Development Group in Seattle assured people that Jefferson County is not alone in being concerned about affordable housing.

In the last decade, Percell has been involved in 72 projects that created 3,100 units.

Still, the need is great, he said, with 100,000 households in Washington on a waiting list for housing subsidies.

And while the need is growing, the amount of money being set aside for affordable housing is decreasing: In 2009, the state set aside $100 million for the Housing Trust Fund. In 2010, that fund had $30 million.

When the housing market collapsed, so did equity that had been used to build affordable homes, he said.

“There are bad things happening. HUD [Housing and Urban Development] is in jeopardy,” he said. “This is very much a resource issue.”

Percell urged people at the meeting to call their representatives and support housing programs.

“The prognosis is not good for the short term,” Percell said. “Make this a workforce issue. It’s not about charity.”

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