Sen. Cantwell calls for more help to address affordable housing crisis during Kent visit

By:  Heidi Sanders
Source: The Kent Reporter

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., visited Kent's Birch Creek housing complex on Wednesday to talk about affordable housing with local leaders.

Before a roundtable discussion with the mayors from Kent, Auburn, Tukwila and Federal Way, as well as representatives from community agencies, Cantwell toured the 259-unit affordable housing complex, which is home to more than 1,000 residents including more than 600 children.

"I think one of the most rewarding aspects of seeing people in housing is to see somebody who has had these challenges actually be stabilized," she said.

Birch Creek residents shared with Cantwell their experiences living in the community.

Vi Tran, 20, moved to Birch Creek when she was 3. She went to the Head Start program at the complex and participated in other offerings at the Birch Creek Youth Center, where she now works.

"I really enjoy how the community is very tight knit," Tran said. "I know all the students who live here. I know all their weaknesses and strengths. I try to help them with the activities over there (in the youth center) to enrich their education and enhance their education."

Tran fought back tears as she told Cantwell how grateful she and her family were for the opportunity to live at Birch Creek. Tran's mother and her eight children moved here from Vietnam.

"This place just really gave me a lot of opportunities," Tran said. "I feel like if I didn't have this place, I wouldn't be where I am right now."

Yusuf Bashir has lived in Birch Creek since 2006 with his wife and five children.

"I didn't know when I was making $8 an hour if I was going to live an apartment I couldn't afford," said Bashir, who is from Somalia and lived in Kenya before coming to the U.S.

Cantwell said she enjoyed meeting the residents and hearing their stories.

"It really does put a face to what we are trying to do," she said.

Plans to increase tax credits

Cantwell told local leaders about a proposal in Congress to increase the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit from 4 to 9 percent before hearing about the impact of the housing crisis from those on the front lines.

"We are here primarily because we have a housing crisis, not just in the state of Washington but in the United States overall," Cantwell said. "We need to build more affordable housing. ... If you don't increase the tax credit, ... it is not going to happen. We need to increase the tax credit."

The tax credit program also stimulates the economy.

"Building affordable housing creates jobs. It brings revenue for our state," Cantwell said. "It is a positive aspect."

In the past 10 years, 76 properties, or about 9,000 units, have been built in South King County using the tax credit.

Providing housing is the first step in setting up people for success in their lives, Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke said.

"That investment in housing is so critical for the success in children to be able to learn, to be able to focus on that instead of carrying on their shoulders, many times, the worries and angst the parents are dealing with," she said.

Affordable housing is just one piece of the puzzle, said Mike Heinisch, executive director of Kent Youth and Family Services, which has facilities and services at Birch Creek.

"Services to keep people in place and successfully moving along the way to achievement in their lives both for themselves and their children is paramountly important," he said.

Birch Creek is an example of combining housing and services, Heinisch said.

"I think the quality of the housing and the quality of the services that people have certainly contributes to the quality of life because they take pride in being here," he said. "They also need the support to move along the way."

Tukwila Mayor Allan Ekberg knows first hand the importance of affordable housing.

"My mother was a dishwasher," Ekberg said. "She couldn't afford our apartment. We had to go into low-income housing."

Another facet of the housing crisis is senior citizens who are aging out of their homes.

"They can't manage it," Ekberg said. "They want to have another place to live. We need to be able to provide housing with them as well."

Using the 4-percent tax credit, Tukwila is working with the Senior Housing Assistance Group (SHAG) to build a 193-unit affordable housing complex for seniors in Tukwila Village, a new development along Tukwila International Boulevard.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said she hopes to continue the conversation on how to address the housing crisis. She is planning to host a South King County/North Pierce County affordable housing forum in late August or early September.

"It's critical that we all start this conversation, and we take action on it," she said. "We need to work on something that make sense for all of us."