Senator visits Bremerton to tout housing tax credit increase

By:  Chris Henry
Source: Kitsap Sun

BREMERTON — U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., swung through Bremerton on Friday, promoting a plan to create more affordable housing by offering incentives to developers and investors.

Cantwell is backing a proposal to expand by 50 percent the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. The increased spending is projected to add an additional 400,000 affordable housing units nationwide over the next decade.

The extra resources can't come soon enough, local government leaders and representatives of Kitsap County's housing assistance agencies told Cantwell during a roundtable at The Summit at Bay Vista, an apartment building with affordable units owned by Bremerton Housing Authority.

"Economic conditions are improving, but as they are, the most vulnerable are getting locked out," said Kurt Wiest, the housing authority's executive director. "There simply are not enough affordable housing units."

The Housing Authority, which spearheaded development of the Bay Vista campus, envisions a mixed-income neighborhood at full build-out. Right now the campus, located at the former Westpark neighborhood, includes the apartments, town homes, and an assisted living facility, all largely funded through tax-credits.

Bay Vista is a model of the type of development Cantwell and others hope will be spurred by increased federal spending on tax credits.

The Low-Income Tax Credit Program was created by the Tax Reform Act of 1986 to encourage acquisition, construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing. The tax credits are awarded to qualified developers who plan affordable housing projects. Developers sell the credits to investors to raise capital. Investors benefit by reaping tax credits over 10 years for a net gain on their investment.

The program not only helps fill the immediate need for more housing, but adds vibrancy and economic stimulus to the community, Cantwell said.

"It has this intrinsic thing of helping the health of our communities, as well," Cantwell said. "I just think it's one of the smartest things we can be doing."

Cantwell and others acknowledged the urgency of boosting the affordable housing market. The Housing Authority has more units in the pipeline, but demand is outpacing availability, Wiest said.

Interest in the tax credit program is there, said Kim Herman, executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission. The agency, which administers the tax credit program in Washington State, gets twice as many applications as it can fund in any given year.

In Kitsap County, only 12 in 100 extremely low-income households have access to affordable housing, according to an analysis by Cantwell's office.

With the improving economy and increased demand, rents are increasing, squeezing out renters on the edge.

Monica Bernard of Kitsap Community Resources' Housing Solutions program bemoaned an apartment vacancy rate below 3.4 percent, where three years ago, it topped 10 percent. Housing Solutions provides referrals to an array of services, from temporary housing to financial literacy, to help people get on their feet and stay there.

If finding affordable housing is hard, staying there isn't much easier, Bay Vista resident Victoria Hilt told Cantwell and the group. Hilt and her young daughter live in one of Bay Vista's town homes, after a difficult journey out of precarious housing. Debt Hilt incurred during the transition hinders her ability to qualify for any sort of loan, like a car loan or self-help housing, that could increase her stability.

Now that Hilt is doing better, she's no longer eligible for services and aid that helped her find stable housing in the first place. Many of her neighbors are in similar positions. A history of eviction can be an albatross for prospective renters.

"This is what I see in my neighborhood is people trying to get on their feet," Hilt said. "In the end they come out and they're still getting notices. They're still getting letters, and they're sitting there, 'What am I supposed to do?'"

Hilt urged Cantwell and others to see the problem of marginal housing with multifaceted causes and solutions.

Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent praised the tax credit plan and pledged to seek support from other local cities. Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido said she would work on securing the county's endorsement.

"I think this is really a big priority, and we have got to get people to understand what a priority it is," Cantwell said. "