Housing crisis: Timmons tasked to act in Port Townsend

Allison Arthur The Leader
Posted 8/2/16

Ever since coming to Port Townsend 17 years ago as Port Townsend's first city manager, David Timmons has heard concerns about the lack of affordable housing. Like many, he has been frustrated by the …

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Housing crisis: Timmons tasked to act in Port Townsend

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Ever since coming to Port Townsend 17 years ago as Port Townsend's first city manager, David Timmons has heard concerns about the lack of affordable housing. Like many, he has been frustrated by the lack of action.

Now, before he retires at the end of 2018, he's been given the task by the City Council to do something, because the lack of affordable and workforce housing in Port Townsend is no longer a back-burner concern. It's a crisis.

Housing issues surfaced in the city's town hall meetings and comprehensive planning discussions about what to do with short-term rentals, the impact of a growing number of second homes and how accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are used.

It's also surfacing because city employees can't find housing in the city where they work.

“I have a problem with employees we're recruiting finding adequate housing. I have police who live in Port Angeles, Sequim, Poulsbo and Port Ludlow because there isn't available housing in the city,” Timmons said, adding that it's not just police officers who are having trouble finding rentals or homes to buy.

On July 18, the City Council armed Timmons with $30,000 to do an organizational assessment and identify shovel-ready properties in the city – not just on land the city owns but all land, even private land, that could be developed for housing.

Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP) is expected to take the lead along with the city and serve as a liaison between the city and Jefferson County, which also is talking about declaring a housing emergency in Jefferson County, possibly this month. (See related story on page A7.)

Declaring a housing emergency could allow for changes in the way the county addresses land-uses issues, such as allowing churches to host tiny houses or campers or tent cities for the homeless. Down the line, an emergency declaration also could allow the county to raise a sales tax or property tax to address housing issues. Both would require a vote of the people.

So what would the county and city do with that tax money?

THE TRUST MODEL

Land. It all comes down to setting aside land for affordable and workforce housing, land that won't be lost to the vagaries of the real estate market, says Timmons.

“Everyone focuses on land-use and zoning, and that's not the critical piece to this [solution to housing crisis]. The critical piece is ownership and retention. Habitat [for Humanity] does an excellent job of what they do, but they serve a small percentage of the need. Same thing with self-help housing. They serve a small percentage,” Timmons said.

Timmons is putting an idea on the discussion table for a long-term, sustainable housing solution: a community land trust that would buy and keep land for housing for the foreseeable future with other organizations, such as Habitat, Peninsula Housing Authority and others, doing the actual building.

Although a private nonprofit called Homeward Bound has tried to do that, it hasn't gotten far in Jefferson County.

Timmons says he'll also push for a connection with a congressional-charted nonprofit organization that supports community development called NeighborWorks America.

That nonprofit provides resources, technical support and training.

What Timmons wants that organization to help do is build a community land trust not just in Port Townsend or Jefferson County, but between Jefferson and Clallam counties.

“It's a regionwide issue that's not exclusive to us,” says Timmons. As more people discover the area, Timmons says the housing crisis could “get more challenged.”

VERMONT EXPERIENCE

Being part of an organization that builds affordable and workforce housing was on Timmons' resume when he came to Port Townsend.

Timmons had worked in Colchester, Vermont, up the road from Sen. Bernie Sanders' home in Burlington, Vermont's largest city.

“I worked in Colchester for 12 years and served as treasurer of the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp., and we partnered with the Burlington Housing Authority. It's now merged into a community land trust model that basically is targeted to own and develop housing in perpetuity.

“That's what I've been trying to do here, but I've never been able to get everyone to come to the table until now,” said Timmons. At a recent meeting of housing stakeholders, Timmons said, there was excitement all around about the community trust model.

Back in 1987, Timmons said, Vermont was having the same problem as Port Townsend with a lack of affordable housing and, “We put a deal together and built 170 units owned in perpetuity by the trust, and we built it within a year.”

In the past 30 years, Timmons estimates that as many as 2,000 homes have been built in that Vermont county of 250,000 residents.

Those numbers are not beyond what Timmons envisions happening in Port Townsend, but he does believe that “something” could be built by 2020 or sooner.

THE NOMURA PROPERTY

And one of the properties that is on the radar is 12.39 acres on the corner of San Juan Avenue and F Street, which Timmons said was the catalyst for a recent discussion about what's available in Port Townsend.

It's known as the Carl Nomura property. What most see as a empty field where a giant peace sign of daffodils blossoms every spring and signs supporting Democrats crop up every political season is a piece of property that Nomura owned for decades.

It's located in the “heart of Port Townsend,” as listing agent, seller and executor of her father's estate, Teri Nomura, describes the property on a special website devoted to the property, sanjuandiscovery.com.

Six years ago, Rick Sepler, then city planning director, also an instructor of urban planning at the University of Washington, brought his graduate class to Port Townsend and divided the class into four groups. He asked each group to come up with a different vision – and plan – for the property.

One group came up with a plan for 30 homes, 70 multi-family residents, a three-story building, a park and P-Patch, and a graded amphitheater. Another student planner envisioned 13 single-family homes, 42 attached residences, 81 multi-family residences, and parks and trails. All four possible plans are on the website featuring the Nomura property.

Nomura says she doesn't have a favorite plan and knows more about the property – especially how it drains – than the young planners probably knew.

“I am aware of the possibilities, though I have not received an offer,” Nomura said, noting that she has no intention of developing the property, but is looking to sell it. An Edmonds firm has appraised it at $1.86 million, and the details of that also are on the website.

“I know that we have a big need for affordable housing, workforce housing and rentals as well as owner-occupied homes in lower price ranges,” said Nomura, who works at Windermere and listed the property on the website in February.

Nomura presented the property to people interested in housing back at the end of May and she said, “They were excited.”

So is Timmons.

“That came on the market, and Teri Nomura would like to see the property benefit the community. The question then is, can this help us meet our needs?” Timmons said.

In the meantime, Nomura has taken a variety of plans to city officials – with lots of sticky notes, she admits – to fill out a pre-application and find out what the city needs in order to pursue a planned unit development (PUD).

“I want the city to give me some sense of what is required for a PUD so I can turn it over [to someone else],” Nomura said.

There are sidewalks along Discovery Bay and San Juan Avenue, with water and sewer available.

And that undeveloped property is a few blocks from where Quimper Village, a 28-unit cohousing project for people 55 and older, is starting to grow on 6.07 acres north of F Street.

HOUSING SUPPLY

Improving the housing supply in Port Townsend – both affordable housing and workforce housing – would have an important impact on the look and future of the community, Timmons said.

“I think it would balance the city in the context of its demographics. We have a gap in terms of the age, and there are missing people. When you're here, you think this is normal, but when you travel, you realize this is not the norm,” he said of Port Townsend. Statistically, Jefferson County, as a whole, ranks either first or second in terms of having the state's oldest population.

A 55-page housing inventory and needs-assessment report by E.D. Hovee and Company LLC lays out the need for housing and offers recommendations.

The report concludes that, based on population projections, the city needs an estimated 1,369 new housing units over the next 20 years.

It also addresses the problem.

“Home values are rising again, back to about pre-recession levels. Rentals are reported at near 100 percent occupancy – with more demand for rate and affordable units than supply,” the study said.

Author Eric Hovee, the principal in that study, also advised city officials this year to actively encourage public-private partnerships for affordable housing, encourage ADUs as affordable rentals, explore allowing larger homes to convert to multiple units and do what Timmons plans on doing.

“While priority will be given to continuing to work with existing private, nonprofit and quasi-public entities, the city may consider more direct involvement in housing programs and incentive mechanisms, either directly or through creation of new nonprofit or quasi-public entities as might occur, for example, with a community housing or land trust.”

Timmons said he didn't tell Hovee to put the idea in their report, but did ask them to take a look at it.

SHOVEL-READY

Ideally, Timmons said, he would like to see more affordable housing and workforce housing in Port Townsend that would address another issue in Port Townsend – gentrification.

“I want to blend them so that you have mixed-income communities so you don't gentrify the neighbors by having everybody in the same economic strata. You look to try to blend the communities. You do that with housing types and incomes,” the city manager said.

In addition to the Nomura property, Timmons sees property along Rainier Street that is just off Discovery Road near the city's new water treatment plant, as being a prime area for growth.

And it's within walking distance of all that commercial property that's expected to start being developed along Howard Street, an expansion that was started almost 20 years ago.

Knowing the zoning density along Rainier Street is R-IV, the highest density allowed in the city, Timmons said the city ran water, sewer, power, telephone and cable all underground. There's also a trail that could eventually connect to the Larry Scott Trail.

All that land is owned by real estate groups and much of it is pre-platted.

Timmons is in training to be a futurist, someone who studies the future and makes predictions about it based on trends.

And he's hopeful that the groundwork that is being laid now, the conversations that are taking place now, will lead to action in the not-too-distant future.

“There's a lot of land up there,” Timmons said of Rainier Street. “That's why we're trying to look at shovel-ready. We put in a bike trail and utilities underground. It wouldn't take much.”

As for his role in it all, he says he's trying to get people to the table to invest, not divest.

“You have the Nomura property, the Rainier Street investment, a housing crisis and struggling nonprofits and others who want to do something,” says Timmons. “If you can just assemble all that positive energy in the room, ignore the cynics and realize that by working working together, we can get something done.”

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