Valley officials meet with Sen. Cantwell to discuss housing shortage

By:  Sheila Hagar
Source: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell was in town last week to hear what everyone involved in ending homelessness agrees on — Walla Walla has an increasing shortage of affordable housing for its low-income residents.

City, county and nonprofit leaders met with Cantwell, D-Wash. and state Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, in a round-table forum Wednesday to discuss Walla Walla’s housing and homelessness situation, and hear Cantwell’s proposal to get additional affordable units into the county and country’s rental markets.

Nationally, a shortage of inexpensive rentals is the major driver of homelessness, followed by inadequate mental health support and stagnate federal housing investments, officials here said.

Walla Walla County has the biggest gap in affordable housing in the state — only eight low-cost rentals are available for every 100 income-eligible renters, according to the Washington Department of Commerce.

Cantwell, in coalition with more than 1,300 organizations, wants to expand the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a program that has helped pay for 2.9 million low-cost rental units since 1986.

The program offers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for affordable housing investments, used as an incentive for private investors to support development of new and rehabilitated affordable rental housing. 

Over its life span, the program has helped leverage more than $100 billion in private capital used for affordable housing, including $4.2 billion in Washington. 

Housing tax credits are typically the largest source of funding in an affordable housing project. The housing projects are under a regulatory agreement to remain affordable and well-maintained for 20 to 30 years. Failing that, investors don’t get to keep their credits

States get an annual allocation of the credits, based on population, to dole out to such developers in a competitive process.

Since 1997, the Walla Walla Housing Authority has used funding from that program to build nine multifamily housing developments and is starting two more, according to Renee Rooker, executive director.

Cantwell is proposing states get 50 percent more of those tax credits, spurring investment and building of low-income housing.

In 2015 the Washington Housing Finance Commission received an estimated $17 million through the tax credits. Based on that figure, Cantwell’s office said the commission would receive about $25 million via the same means, allowing housing authorities in Washington to build approximately 4,000 more low-income rentals through the proposed increase.

Rents rise; incomes fall

That could mean good news for Walla Walla, where rents rose 23 percent from 2015 to 2016, federal Housing and Urban Development calculations indicate. A basic two-bedroom that rented for $731 last year might now rent for $885, noted Rooker. 

During roughly the same period income here dropped for the first time in recent history. At the beginning of 2014, the midrange household income was $62,900, with half the households earning more and half earning less. HUD now puts that median average to $60,700 for 2016, she said.

Low vacancy rates here and rising rents do not favor the poor, officials said Wednesday. 

In the fall 2015, Walla Walla and Columbia counties had a vacancy rate of 5.6 percent, slightly higher than Washington’s overall rate of 3.4 percent, according to the most recent data from the Port of Walla Walla.

That information also says Walla Walla County has 5,325 low-income households but only 1,474 subsidized housing units available. Almost 1,000 of those are through Walla Walla Housing Authority’s rental vouchers, formerly called the Section 8 program.

The waiting list for vouchers, currently with 1,600 families on it, is one to two years, Rooker added.

The voucher program serves disabled, elderly and very low-income renters. In Walla Walla, most people eligible for assistance earn less than 30 percent of the county’s median income. For a family of four, that means about $24,000 a year, while a two-person family can earn $16,200 to meet income criteria, Rooker said.

Voucher recipients use their own and government money to rent a home of their choosing. The family is responsible for finding an acceptable housing unit where the owner agrees to rent under the program.

This only works when there are places available in the right price range and willing property owners, local housing experts said Wednesday.

Landlord’s market

The Walla Walla rental situation is a landlord’s market, officials told Cantwell. Low apartment and house availability in a county with two four-year colleges and a community college, which has no on-campus housing, plus a tight housing market means landlords can choose whom they want to rent to.

And the government’s housing voucher program, which subsidizes rent for eligible people, is complicated by numerous rules and reams of paperwork, people at the forum said.

Kathy Covey, executive director for Blue Mountain Action Council, told Cantwell and Walsh her agency serves about 45 families in housing placements. Despite intense case management services to those families, traditional property owners usually choose not to rent to the very at-risk families, she said.

Covey said there’s no question it can be challenging to have tenants who don’t understand or honor leases, due to behavioral health or other issues. 

“A couple of big (property management) companies have told us ‘We won’t work with you,’” Covey added.

Meanwhile, Walla Walla is experiencing an unprecedented surge in remodeling and new construction activity, noted Mayor Allen Pomranning. 

“We are removing affordable housing from our base, one permit at a time,” he told the group. “As the economy recovers, this is an unintended consequence.”

Walla Walla County Commissioner Jim Johnson said creating more affordable housing can be a financial driver.

The local economy benefits from tourism, he said, but that industry can suffer when visitors see homeless people sleeping on downtown benches or in doorways. 

Those coming for a wine-and-dine weekend may not return if that happens, he noted, adding it’s reality even as it can sound heartless.

Changing that reality with housing solutions benefits all, Johnson said.