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State will look more closely at low-income housing needs

Washington state is looking for numbers to get a handle on the widely varied needs around the state.
Many units at New Holly in south Seattle are priced so that low-income families will be part of a larger community.

Many units at New Holly in south Seattle are priced so that low-income families will be part of a larger community. Mjbeal/Wikimedia Commons

Affordable housing is widely recognized as a significant problem, but no one knows how much low-income housing is needed in Washington.

The state will try to have some numbers by 2014.

"I believe the demand exceeds the supply," state housing official Dan McConnon told the Washington state House of Representatives' community development and capital budget committees Wednesday in Olympia.

The Affordable Housing Advisory Board will supervise such a study, which is supposed to be done prior to the 2014 legislative session, said McConnon, deputy director for the community services and housing division of the Washington Department of Commerce.

Meanwhile, the state's Housing Trust Fund — which provides low-interest and forgivable loans to help developers of low-income housing leverage more money from elsewhere  —  has been steadily shrinking, said the fund's managing director, Janet Masella.

The fund had $200 million in 2007-2009, $130 million in 2009-2011, and $117 million in 2011-2013. The fund spent $67 million in fiscal 2012, resulting in 2,349 low-income housing units being built, Masella told the committees. Each $1 from the trust fund usually leverages an additional $5 in loans and investments from other sources, McConnon said.

The Legislature will set next biennium's amount in its capital budget, with taxable bonds providing the fund's revenue.

The fund targets homes for families with less than 80 percent of the state's median income levels, which vary according to a family's size, although its projects usually aim at families earning much less.

There is no rule of thumb that each $1 million in the fund would translate to a specific number of new low-income homes because it tackles farm workers' housing, single-family houses and multiple-family dwellings in many different rural and urban areas, resulting in too many variables to factor in.

However, McConnon said building 100 units  in a multiple-family complex translates to 80 construction jobs plus another 42 non-construction jobs from the economic ripple effects of that construction.That would lead to $7.9 million in local income and $827,000 in local taxes. Since 1989, the trust fund has contributed to building 33,000 units in multi-family dwellings, 4,000 single-family houses and housing for 4,200 farm workers.

On a down note, rents on one-bedroom apartments have increased by 10 percent from 2006 to 2011, while the state's median family income has dropped 3 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile, the Housing Trust Fund is starting some measures to trim the construction costs of the projects that it lends money to. One new measure will be to compare and calculate average costs of similar projects. Any loan-seeking project that exceeds the appropriate average by more than 10 percent will be shifted to the lowest-priority in getting money from the fund.

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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