Cantwell praises program to boost affordable housing

By:  Dameon Pesanti
Source: The Columbian

From the muddy construction site of a new affordable housing facility on Fourth Plain Boulevard, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell recalled a trip to Vancouver a few years ago that was an inspiration for her to work for an increase in the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

“I was so moved to go that close to City Hall and see literally streets of people in homelessness conditions that might make you think that we were living through the Great Depression instead of just our big recession,” the Washington Democrat said Friday outside Meriwether Place, a housing facility for people coming out of homelessness and needing mental health services, which is set to open in June. It was built in part with low income tax credits.

“The only thing that looked different is that they were in modern-day tents instead of the conditions people faced during our Great Depression,” Cantwell said.

Cantwell and a group of state and local affordable housing advocacy organizations celebrated the tax credit boost and explained how it will facilitate the construction of more affordable housing around Washington.

“These projects … are so important because they give people affordable options where affordable options don’t exist,” Cantwell said.

Cantwell and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2017, as part of the $1.3 trillion spending package Congress passed in late March.

The bill increased the low income housing tax credit by 12.5 percent over the next four years, the first increase to the tax credit in over a decade. That will direct about $2.8 billion to building more affordable housing nationwide.

The tax credit was created by the Tax Reform Act of 1986 as an incentive for developers to build more low-income housing.

“This housing crisis has hit Vancouver and Clark County very hard,” said Vancouver City Councilor Alishia Topper, during her opening statement. She said the city’s vacancy rate sits at 3.9 percent, and the median rent on a two-bedroom apartment is $1,620. She said the expanded tax credit will be another tool to build more affordable housing.

Kim Herman, executive director from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, built on her comments, saying rents in Vancouver have increased 10 percent every year for the last three years, and that the city was among the top three cities in terms of fastest rising rent costs in the nation.

In 2016 and 2017, 126,000 new households moved to Washington state, Herman said. “The big problem is we’re short 118,000 housing units to be able put all those people into a home they can afford.”

He also highlighted part of the tax credit legislation that approved an income-averaging option that will allow his organization to work with more working-class families to provide them with more housing options. For 2018, his organization funded 15 new low-income housing facilities in Washington, and due to the expanded tax credit program, they will add three more projects.

Andy Silver, CEO of Housing Initiative LLC, the affordable housing development company of the Council for the Homeless, said homelessness has risen in Vancouver because of rising rents, but those people can be helped with greater access to affordable housing. In the near future, his organization expects to build more housing by leveraging those tax credits.

One of the speakers said she knows firsthand the struggle to find housing and the relief in finally securing it.

When 71-year-old Pat Jonak retired from accounting services about 12 years ago on a fixed income, rising housing prices forced her to move into a couple different senior living facilities. She found stability after getting on a wait list for senior housing and is now in her sixth year of living at Vancouver Housing Authority’s Vista Court Senior Estates.

“The big thing I tell everybody is how safe I feel,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling when you’re a senior.”