VANCOUVER — Vancouver voters hoping to read about the pros and cons of Proposition 1, the affordable housing levy on the November election ballot, may have some trouble finding “cons” in their election literature.
That’s because the levy, which would provide long-term housing solutions for thousands of Vancouver’s most vulnerable residents, including seniors, veterans and working families struggling to pay rent, has no organized opposition.
“No one really wants to be ‘that guy,’ the one coming out against the homeless and low-income seniors and veterans,” says Katie Archer, campaign manager for the non-partisan Bring Vancouver Home campaign advocating for Proposition 1 (Prop 1).
In addition to its lack of organized opposition, the affordable housing levy also has a diverse array of supporters, including for-profit housing developers and nonprofit groups that work with Vancouver’s lowest income families and homeless populations.
“Faith-based groups, developers, nonprofits, they’ve all come together,” Archer says.
Their mission? To help solve Vancouver’s housing crisis.
Prop 1 got its start in late 2014, after local newspapers and television stations started talking about Vancouver’s Courtyard Village, an apartment complex where dozens of residents were served with no-cause eviction notices three weeks before the Christmas holidays.
“I think the community was sort of shocked about what was happening with Courtyard Village and with the fact that we had such low vacancy rates in Vancouver with increasing rents,” Archer says. “After that, the city council formed an affordable housing group to study the issue.”
The city’s Affordable Housing Task Force met for eight months and explored various options to help solve Vancouver’s housing crisis. In December of 2015, they decided a property tax levy was the “most practical and timely option.”
“The number one recommendation was to have a locally controlled fund,” Archer says.
In June, the Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to put the Proposition 1 levy on the November ballot.
If it passes, the levy will collect property taxes from private and commercial property owners for seven years to make an affordable housing fund that is separate from the city’s general fund. The levy rate is 36 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value. For the average Vancouver homeowner, the cost is about $90 per year. State law caps the levy at a maximum of $6 million per year for seven years.
In the end, Archer says, that seven years’ worth of levy funds will provide affordable housing in Vancouver for the next 50 years and help thousands of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.
In planning the Prop 1 campaign, advocates looked to the city of Bellingham in northern Washington, which enacted a similar affordable-housing levy a few years ago. In the first three years, Archer says, the Bellingham levy beat the city leaders’ expectations, creating twice as many affordable housing units and assisting twice as many low-income residents.
Studying Bellingham’s results has given Prop 1 supporters hope that Vancouver can also increase the number of safe, affordable homes for seniors, low-income families, veterans and those experiencing homelessness. When she speaks to Vancouver groups about Prop 1, Archer brings up the Bellingham example of what could be achieved at a local level.
“When I’ve gone out, speaking to groups and talking to the community about this, I haven’t been able to find anyone willing to speak against it,” Archer says.
A city in crisis
“In the last five years, we’ve seen housing prices here go up by 38.3 percent,” Archer told community members gathered inside Vancouver’s Firstenburg Community Center for a Prop 1 education outreach meeting on Mon., Oct. 17. “There are 17,690 cost-burdened families in Vancouver who are spending more than one-third of their income on rent, and 6,855 families who are spending more than half of their income on rent.”
What’s more, Vancouver has an extremely low number of available rental units on the market, Archer says. In a healthy rental market, five to six percent of units are open and ready to rent. In Vancouver, only two percent of the rentals are empty and Archer says nearly all of those available rentals are priced in the medium-to-high range. For low-income families, seniors on fixed incomes, disabled individuals and even many working class families, Vancouver’s rental market offers very few housing options.
Archer showed figures from the Bring Vancouver Home campaign to demonstrate how difficult renting an apartment or house in Clark County’s biggest city can be, even for people working full-time: For a family of four earning $36,650 a year, the maximum affordable rent for a two-bedroom apartment would be $916 per month, or one-third the family’s income; but current rental rates in Vancouver show that the average two-bedroom apartment is renting for $1,208.
“And that’s the average,” Archer says of the rent quote. “I’ve seen many renting for more than that, sometimes $1,400 or $1,600 for a two-bedroom.”
An individual earning $25,700 a year — $6,000 a year more than a person working full-time at Washington’s minimum wage — should spend no more than $734 a month for rent, but the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is currently renting for more than $1,000 a month.
When families are spending the majority of their income on rent and housing costs, Archer says, they are unable to save money for unexpected costs, unable to make a downpayment on their own home and often living on the edge, only one paycheck away from financial disaster.
“I think of the widow or widower who has worked their whole life, and then lost their husband or wife, lost that additional income, and they find themselves living on a fixed income, unable to afford their rent,” Archer says.
When the Vancouver City Council declared a housing emergency in April of 2016, they noted that household incomes are not keeping pace with the rising rental rates. Over the past five years, household incomes in Vancouver have gone up 3.1 percent. Meanwhile, rents have increased nearly 40 percent over the same time period.
“Vancouver has had one of the fastest rent increases in the nation,” Archer says.
Dan Valliere, director of REACH Community Development, was one of three nonprofit speakers who threw their support behind Prop 1 at the Oct. 17 Bring Vancouver Home event. Valliere told the story of one woman who came to REACH for assistance finding affordable housing in Vancouver.
“She was a mom with three kids who was working full-time, but spending 70 to 80 percent of her budget on rent and utilities,” Valliere says. “It got to the point where she was not going to be able to provide for her family.”
REACH helped her get into an affordable housing unit that had a fixed rent based on income. The mother went from paying nearly 80 percent of her income on housing costs to paying 45 percent of her income on rent and utilities. After seven years, Valliere says, she was able to save enough money for a downpayment on her own home.
“(Affordable housing) helped her get ahead,” Valliere says. “Before that, even though she was working, she was unable to get ahead.”
Trying to keep up with ever-increasing rents and one of the tightest rental markets in the nation is like being on a treadmill, Valliere says, where you keep working and keep earning money, but are never able to save enough to make your situation more stable.
Measures like Prop 1, which would creates a locally controlled fund to create, sustain and supplement affordable housing for Vancouver’s most vulnerable populations — seniors, disabled, veterans, homeless and low-income families — are critical to solving Vancouver’s housing crisis, says Amy Reynolds, deputy director of Share, a nonprofit that serves Vancouver’s homeless citizens and low-income families.
I own a home in Vancouver, so I would be paying this (the levy costs) and I think this is what we need to help our families be able to get housed,” Reynolds says, adding that she herself has been out in Vancouver advocating for Prop 1 in her spare time. “I’ve knocked on 400 doors already and I’m hoping to make it to 500.”
Without some sort of strategy or plan for creating and sustaining affordable housing, Vancouver residents may see the city’s homeless population, which already includes at least 2,200 unhoused children in the Evergreen and Vancouver Public school districts, continue to skyrocket.
“We have seen a 40 percent increase in people needing our services this year over last year,” Reynolds says, adding that the 150 shelter beds operated by Share throughout the year and the additional 100 beds that open up during the winter months are typically at capacity with a long waiting list of people in need. “Vancouver is in the middle of a housing crisis. We’re not the only place that this is happening. It’s happening all over the West Coast.”
Reynolds says that she has seen an increase in the number of working families who need help finding housing in Vancouver.
“A lot of the people who have a job are still experiencing homelessness,” Reynolds says. She adds that a person working at a minimum-wage job in Vancouver would need to work 89 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Reynolds says it’s not just Vancouver’s high rents that make life difficult for low-income families. The low vacancy rate also causes problems. For instance, last year Share had $200,000 from the federal government to use to help with rental assistance for low-income and homeless families in Vancouver, but they were unable to find landlords willing to take their money.
The problem was that, with vacancy rates as low as they are — two percent — landlords can be picky. They had renters with stable incomes, renters who may not have blemishes like evictions on their record, so they were not willing to rent to families who needed rental assistance to get into an apartment or house.
“It was so frustrating to have the money and not be able to use it to help somebody get a home,” Reynolds says.
Josh Townsley, the executive director of the Evergreen Habitat for Humanity, agrees with Reynolds that Prop 1 is a good solution for Vancouver families facing homelessness or insecure housing situations.
The son of a Presbyterian pastor, Townsley says he was raised to believe that it is “morally, ethically and socially unacceptable” to have people living on the streets. In his work with Habitat for Humanity, he helps families get into their own affordable homes — home that they themselves help build.
He says Prop 1 provides an easy way for people to help the thousands of people in Vancouver who are caught up in the current housing crisis.
“The numbers we hear (on how many homeless or nearly homeless people live in Vancouver) can be overwhelming and a lot of people think, ‘What can I do to help get people into affordable housing in Vancouver?’” Townsley says. “This is something people can do. For an average of $90 a year, this can go a long way to help families in Vancouver.”
Where will the money go?
Although there is no organized opposition to Prop 1, Archer says she has heard from individuals who wonder why the city can’t take other measures to help with the housing crisis.
“People want to know about rent caps, but they don’t understand that the state of Washington doesn’t allow rent caps, so that’s not something the city can do,” Archer says. “There are no legislators working to change the rent cap situation … but there are a lot of lobbyists and special interest groups preventing a change at the state level.”
Instead, she says, the city of Vancouver looked to the number one recommendation from their Affordable Housing Task Force — the locally controlled property tax levy.
If it passes, the levy will collect a maximum of $6 million per year for seven years. The money will go to fund the following:
Administrative Costs: This will eat up 3 percent of the fund and pay for program oversight, monitoring and enforcement.
Increasing Housing Supply: This is where most of the money — 40 percent — would go. Using a competitive grant process, the levy would provide money to the Vancouver Housing Authority and both for-profit and nonprofit developers to build new affordable housing units. For-profit developers would be required to keep the affordable units for 20 years and the contract would tie the affordable-housing requirement to the land, requiring approval by the city council to get out of the agreement. Nonprofit developers would be required to keep the units as affordable housing, with rents adjusted for income, for the next 50 years.
Preventing Homelessness: Thirty percent of the money will help service providers who work with Vancouver’s most impoverished citizens provide rent vouchers and self-sufficiency services like cleaning up credit histories. Some of this money could be used to build more shelters to serve the area’s homeless citizens.
Preserving Existing Homes: An additional 27 percent of the levy funds would provide money through a competitive grant process to help make needed repairs on homes owned by people who earn less than half the average income in Vancouver. For a family of four, that threshold is $36,650 a year or less. This fund would provide a one-percent interest loan for people to make needed repairs on existing homes. The loan would be paid back into the fund when those homeowners sold their property.
Archer says some people have worried that the levy might cause landlords to simply pass the new property tax on to their existing renters, adding to Vancouver’s housing crisis. To this, she says that rent is rising because there is more demand than supply in Vancouver. The levy, Archer says, will increase the city’s housing supply and “put downward pressure on everyone’s rent.”
Additionally, the levy would put money back into the local economy, Archer says.
“This will put $6 million a year, for seven years, into our local economy and 40 percent of that is going directly into building new housing units, so it will create jobs because we will need workers to help build those houses,” Archer says.
For more information about Prop 1 and the Bring Vancouver Home campaign, visit the group’s Question and Answer page. To read the actual ballot measure approved by the Vancouver City Council in June and a city staff report on the levy, click here.