For more affordable housing, expand tax credits, Cantwell says

By:  Chris Tucker
Source: Central Kitsap Reporter

BREMERTON — The cost of purchasing or renting a home in Kitsap County has been rising as the economy has improved and as the population has grown. The higher housing costs have made it more difficult for some people to be able to afford a place to live, and also contributes to the homelessness problem in the county.

It is problem that Victoria Hilt, a resident at the Bay Vista affordable housing campus in Bremerton, knows well.

“I started looking for housing when I was six months pregnant,” Hilt said. She has struggled to find safe housing in the past, but with the help of Kitsap Community Resources she was able to move into Bay Vista with her then two-month-old daughter, Lisa. The girl is now 4 years old and doing well in school.

Hilt said it was difficult for homeless people to find permanent housing because once they begin to thrive, services are cut back.

“The economy gets better, people get higher wages and then suddenly they’re not eligible for all the services that were helping them and they’re on their own. So then they get stuck with evictions and then we’re back where we started.”

“Now these people don’t have home. It’s hard for them to get to work. They no longer have that (job) income.”

At that point, such a person would again need assistance, but they would have maxed out their allocation of services, Hilt said.

To help resolve the housing issue, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell is urging Congress to expand the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC. Cantwell has teamed up with the A.C.T.I.O.N. campaign — a coalition of more than 1,300 national, state and local affordable-housing advocates — to call for a 50-percent expansion of the LIHTC and reforms to better target the lowest-income populations.

Cantwell’s proposal would finance approximately 400,000 additional units of affordable housing nationwide over the next decade, with approximately 35,000 units in Washington state (roughly 4,200 more units than is possible under current levels of LIHTC financing). In Kitsap under the proposal, the number of affordable units estimated to be built in the next decade would increase from 490 to 680 units.

Cantwell met with a team of local businesspeople, service providers and elected officials at the Bay Vista affordable housing campus to discuss the matter April 8.

The Bay Vista houses 209 low-income families and was largely funded by the LIHTC.

“We need the leagues of cities to get all their mayors to write to all their senators asking to support this concept … we need every city council and every mayor across the United States talking about this,” Cantwell said.

“This is really a big priority, and we have got to get people to understand what a priority it is and why it is so urgent.”

Across the U.S., about 80 percent of all the new affordable-housing units are built with the credits. Cantwell said that the credits were the dominant factor in whether affordable units were built or not. It was an incentive that used a little federal investment to leverage a lot of private-sector investment.

Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent agreed that lack of affordable housing was a problem.

“As we’re revitalizing and building up the city, we’re actually losing some of our affordability in housing. So we’re using as much of the tax credits as we possibly can, having our developers apply before their permitting so that we know that they’re going to be steadfast in having a percentage of affordable housing in every new project that’s built,” Lent said.

County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido said the lack of affordable housing was a “significant problem” and said homeless people have difficulty moving off the street or out of tent cities and into permanent housing as they gradually step forward in their abilities to support themselves.

Kirsten Jewell, program manager for Kitsap County Homeless and Housing, said in Kitsap County last year there was about 3,200 households who were seeking assistance for homelessness and severe housing instability. That’s about 6,000 individuals.

Of those, about 1,000 reported that they were homeless and sleeping outside, she said, but the actual number was likely higher.

Jewell said that even if they had a homeless person who was a good candidate for rapid rehousing or a voucher, there weren’t units available to house them in.

“Our private market is kind of saturated and we’re going to have a really hard time making inroads in helping people experiencing homelessness unless we get more affordable housing units,” Jewell said.

Compounding the problem, about 800 affordable units may soon be sold into the private market at a higher rate.

“In fact we’re seeing that happen … people coming in and saying, ‘We just got a 20-day notice because our units are being upgraded and will turned into market-rate units.’ That’s really of significant concern.” The key to resolving homelessness is to build more affordable units, Jewell said.

Brian Lloyd with Beacon Development/ABHOW Senior Housing said the Pearl on Oyster Bay affordable senior housing project served 80 seniors.

“The average income there is about $20,000 to $21,000 per year. It serves very, very low-income seniors in a very high-quality environment.”

Lloyd said government funding assistance was essential for projects like The Pearl to be built.

Monica Bernhard, Housing Services Director, Kitsap Community Resources, said one of the biggest challenges of the 3,200 people Jewell mentioned is that their average income is about $838 per month.

Providing low-income permanent housing is needed in order to connect people with jobs.

“In my opinion, homelessness is about a lack of affordable housing … that’s ultimately what it comes down to.”

Bernhard said the vacancy rate was less than 3 percent. “And then the average rent is like $1,071, but the average income of the people we see is $838.” She said tax credits were needed to build more affordable housing units.

Cantwell said it was a chicken-and-egg problem where people get priced out of the market, but are unable to get job retraining until they have a stable place to live.

Bremerton city councilor Leslie Daugs said she’s heard of families where 10 people were living in two-bedroom apartments.

“We’re not at a plateau. We’re (Kitsap) growing in numbers and population. Housing is at a plateau and people are growing … we’re going to need a strong push” in providing affordable housing, she said.

Kim Herman with the state Housing Finance Commission said that as the economy improved, “many of the houses that were foreclosed on, which would have been able to be sold to low-income people, got bought up by investors and put into the rental market.”

“Incomes are way behind the cost of rental housing,” he said.

Kurt Wiest, executive director, Bremerton Housing Authority, said the real issue was access to capital. Wiest said there were 3,600 applications for a voucher program in a two-week period, of which 300 were selected to go on a waiting list.

But it gets worse: Only about half of those 300 people are successful in their search for a home.

“In other words, they have 120 days to find a place to use their voucher, and half of them are unable to. Now, that number a year ago was upwards close to 90-percent success. Now it’s below 50 (percent) … it’s trickling down,” Weist said.

“We should act now,” Cantwell said.