Affordable housing gaps reflect
countywide crunch for shelter
Longform special report
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Angela Seay is ticking names off a list 2,324 people long.
The people next on the list have waited eight years to hear from her agency, the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO), that there is housing they can afford.
The list got so long, the agency had to lock the virtual door, closing the list five years ago. The demand was so overwhelming that it could not even give families the false hope of adding their names.
HASCO’s predicament is not unique. There are many other agencies working on affordable housing: cities, the county, nonprofits, faith based groups, real estate developers, and coalitions.
Virtually every agency that takes names has a long list, and with real estate prices surging and many incomes stagnating, there is no end to them in sight.
The solution to what no one shies from calling a crisis has not yet come clear.
Government and agency officials convened at Marysville’s Twin Lakes Landing affordable housing development on July 5 for an affordable housing roundtable. They toured the property including a vegetable garden growing in donated troughs. Residents planned to deliver some of their crop to a nearby camp of homeless people. From left to right:
Mark Smith of the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County, Chris Jowell of Catholic Community Services, Rep. Rick Larsen, Housing Hope CEO Fred Safstrom, and Mary Jane Brell Vujovic, Snohomish County’s Human Services director.
Who needs housing help?
There are about 279,000 households, averaging 2.6 people in each, in Snohomish County. About 70,000, or 25 percent of them, earn very low incomes according to an April report from the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County.
That is one in four.
“Very low” is defined as less than half of the area’s median income. For a Snohomish County family of four, that amounts to about $48,000 a year according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
About 38,600 households spend more than half their earnings on shelter, according to the Consortium.
When people pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, after paying rent they have to start choosing among other priorities such as food and health care, according to HUD.
Experts say people so cost burdened by paying for shelter are not who, or where, we might think.
“Something people don’t realize as well is the vast majority of our people on Section 8 are elderly, disabled, or have disabled family members — (this is) for two-thirds of people on Section 8. People want to think it’s someone able-bodied who refuses to work: that’s really not true,” said HASCO director Duane Leonard.
The most challenged among us are those without homes at all.
“Something that always strikes me is perceptions around community and homelessness,” said Housing Hope spokeswoman Sara Wilson. “Especially in more affluent areas, people think we don’t have homelessness, but it’s so pervasive and it’s everywhere.”
And experts stress that housing is not a standalone problem.
“There are multiple studies that show stable affordable housing is the foundation for better jobs, and better outcomes – educational outcomes, health outcomes,” and more, said Consortium director Mark Smith.
A 2018 report by the Consortium shows just how much ground breaking on affordable housing developments must be done to meet the growing need. For the 70,000 very low income households, and others who need housing help, there are a total of 20,693 affordable housing units and vouchers for subsidized housing.
How did this happen?
It took several things going wrong over a long period to create the conditions for this housing crisis. It also took at least one going right.
The booming local economy is a blessing and bane for residents. Snohomish County’s population is soaring thanks to the region’s good jobs and a mild climate. It has grown by more than 75,000 people this decade according to the Consortium. But its popularity has made it challenging for residents to hold their own in a competitive real estate market.
“Families can’t keep up,” Wilson said.
Rents have climbed the past six years according to Housing Hope. Between 2013 and 2016, rents rose nearly 30 percent but wages dropped nearly 3 percent said the Consortium’s executive director Mark Smith.
Today, a person must earn about $36 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, said Housing Hope CEO Fred Safstrom at a July 5 affordable housing roundtable. “We have a major disconnect when we’re arguing over a $15 minimum wage when it requires $36 to get an apartment,” Safstrom said.
While some affordable housing is under construction, the loss of stock is another concern.
“It’s not as sexy to keep a building open as it is to open a new one,” said Chris Jowell, the director of agency operations for Catholic Community at the roundtable. Jowell described the struggle to keep decades-old developments habitable.
The rental market is not only crowded but volatile.
There is “somewhat of a gold rush mentality among landlords … All these landlords are using the same demand (tracking) software. The more people that use it the better rents you can get,” Leonard said.
Rental vacancies were about 4 percent, and home vacancies about 1 percent in 2016 according to the Consortium.
Zoning is a serious impediment in many areas. With the exception of Everett, no jurisdiction in the county is zoned for less than 75 percent single family detached dwellings according to Chris Collier of the Alliance for Housing Affordability.
Land for new developments is at a premium, too. Even when land is secured, finding developers willing to work within the exacting and rigorous rules of affordable housing projects is difficult. Safstrom said for three recent housing projects, only one or two contractors had even bid on the work.
Another constraint on multifamily developments is prohibitive condominium warranties, said Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas. Builders are required to warrant construction for 10 years, putting them at a disadvantage to traditional homes, which are unaffordable to many. Thomas said state law needs to change.
Infrastructure is another misfit puzzle piece. Thomas wants to see investment in state Route 522 so that people can get to work in high-wage areas and still take advantage of Monroe’s relatively lower cost housing options.
The high level look at the issue must be paired with a shoulder to shoulder understanding of residents who need housing help.
Leonard returned to those dealing with disabilities.
“If you have disabled family member you’re caring for (you) may not have the opportunity to get a job and climb the corporate ladder because of child or adult care responsibilities, or if you have a mental illness that precludes you from getting a high paying job,” you are stuck, Leonard said.
Housing Hope sees how hardships create multigenerational cycles that put families at a disadvantage for decades.
“We want to disrupt this whole cycle so there isn’t a shortage, we just want to end intergenerational poverty,” Wilson said.
There is one more key component lacking.
“Funding, it’s funding, no other way to put it,” Smith said.
While HUD pours millions into HASCO, $45 million for 2018 Leonard said, funding is drastically short of filling the need.
“If the economy keeps
taking the trajectory it has been, the problem’s only going to get worse. If people are comfortable with shelters and breadlines, that’s what they’re going to get,” Leonard said.
Housing Hope’s Monroe Family Village site opened in fall 2015 with 47 units: 37 affordable rent units for low-income families and 10 Service-Supported Homeless Housing units for families who are transitioning out of homelessness.
What’s on offer?
In addition to government efforts, nonprofits fundraise continuously and collaborate on creative builds that stretch housing dollars.
Housing Hope’s Twin Lakes Landing is one example. The project opened in December and provided 50 units of housing built in modules and shipped to the site to save on costs and increase build speed.
When officials toured the property earlier this month, the project’s vegetable gardens were bountiful, the lakeside setting serene, and the clean, new units inviting.
But a homeless encampment in the nearby woods kept the pressing need for thousands more units unforgettable.
Applicants who do qualify for affordable housing assistance find it in a few forms. The most common are property-based or tenant-based subsidies. Property-based aid typically means qualifying families and individuals live in developments where rents are restricted.
The type of housing aid most people are probably familiar with is Section 8, a tenant based program where renters can use housing vouchers to offset the cost of rents in any unit that qualifies. Recent state legislation makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters who use these housing vouchers.
There are 15,370 income-restricted homes in Snohomish County. There are 5,323 tenant-based vouchers according to a Consortium survey.
Some units of affordable housing are set aside solely based on income levels. Others are reserved for seniors, veterans, homeless people or people with disabilities.
Another option offered less frequently is sweat equity buy-in into housing. Housing Hope’s Team HomeBuilding program is one example. Home buyers contribute 30 hours of labor each week building small communities including their own homes in lieu of a down payment. Special financing helps keep mortgages affordable.
There is also some aid available for homeowners to keep them in their homes, preserving their affordable housing. In Everett, for example, Community Development Block Grants from HUD pay for major home repairs for low income homeowners said Becky McCrary, the City of Everett’s Housing and Community Development Manager.
Of the 20,693 total units available, a little less than 12,000 are targeted for those earning less than half the area’s median income.
For those who can’t maintain affordable housing, the reality is sometimes picking whether to eat or keep the heat on, and for the most vulnerable, living in vehicles or without any shelter at all.
The future of housing for low income families if nothing changes appears grim.
“Assuming current funding levels … developers will build 1,353 income-restricted homes for very low-income households in the next 10 years. This would address less than 3 percent of the overall need for these households,” according to the Consortium.
Housing Hope’s Wilson said she thinks a lot about addressing the root cause, that intergenerational cycle of poverty.
But along with breaking cycles, residents may need to lower expectations.
“The 1950s suburban lifestyle isn’t sustainable,” Smith said.
Wealth for modern workers may lie in buying condominiums instead of detached homes in a higher-density future according to Smith.
How to meet the demand?
As deep as the affordable housing hole is, no one is giving up on trying to fill it.
The Consortium has a comprehensive plan to improve the prognosis. And while HASCO is not alone in having a years-long waiting list for housing, neither is it alone in hopes to change that.
According to the Consortium’s April recommendations, the County could net 7,838 total new affordable housing units. More than 3,300 would benefit very low income residents.
The Consortium says the success of the effort lies in large part with voters.
A countywide housing levy at 10 cents per $1,000 in assessed home value would net about $12 million annually. A 30 cents per $1,000 levy would produce more than $35 million annually. The cost to the average homeowner is $100 per year for the 30 cent option.
Smith says every levy dollar could be used to leverage $5 to $8 more, partly by attracting investors.
Voters could also approve a second one-tenth of 1 percent increase to the mental health and chemical dependency sales tax. A portion of the tax proceeds could bring in $4 million to help residents without secure housing.
Affordable housing bonds could create housing, too. While unusual, Seattle issued $29 million in bonds in 2016 for affordable housing.
Enticing local governments and agencies to fund housing can also encourage investment from other sources including the federal government.
Just securing 5 to 15 percent of “first in” funding shows regional support and can bring in other money according to Collier.
In addition to new measures, there are already some in place to create and maintain affordable housing. The federal government provides 9 percent tax credits for developers who build low-income housing, but the credits are limited and competition is fierce.
Several cities also routinely offer permit discounts and waive or discount fees such as parking impact fees. Some provide property tax exemptions lasting more than a decade for developments, that for example, have 20 percent of units set aside for low income renters.
Everett sets aside $3 per capita for affordable housing. Snohomish is considering a $1 per person allocation as part of its 2019/2020 biennial budget, said city administrator Steve Schuller.
While cities large and small, as well as the county and dozens of agencies combat the housing crisis, just holding ground on affordable housing is a challenge.
All the building and planning and hoping do not obscure the day to day reality for Seay.
“Resources are extremely limited, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Seay is one of many answering the phone calls of people in need of housing for themselves or loved ones, listening to them cry as they try to claw their way to security.
Gaps in available affordable housing, by city
Tribune graphic, using Meta-Chart.com; 2016 data from 2018 Housing Consortium of Everett & Snohomish County study
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