More affordable housing needed here, nationwide

It’s easy to dismiss as “typically Californian” the story earlier this week about a man who’s paying $400 a month to live in a 4.5-foot by 8-foot box in the living room of a friend’s San Francisco apartment.

It’s harder to dismiss the notion that $400 rent for a large crate with bathroom privileges might seem OK to a growing number of people.

There are various circumstances for those who are homeless or are disadvantaged by less-than-affordable housing. Issues of mental illness and substance abuse complicate joblessness and poverty for some. Lack of employment or underemployment can create economic hardships that make it difficult for many others to find or remain in stable housing.

While family homelessness has decreased about 1.6 percent statewide and 4.9 percent nationally, February’s Point in Time count of homelessness in Snohomish County found that the number of unsheltered families with children more than doubled from the year past to 35 from 16.

Work is progressing to alleviate chronic homelessness through efforts like the Everett Streets Initiative, and the partnership of Everett and Snohomish County, each pitching in $1 million, and now joined by $1.5 million from the state, to provide 60 to 70 units of low-barrier housing in Everett to be administered by Catholic Community Services.

But a lack of affordable housing continues to constrain the budgets of low-income families and leaves many only a lost paycheck away from homelessness.

Across the country, more than 11 million renter households, 1 in 4 renters, spend more than half of their monthly income on rent; more than half are spending at least 30 percent of income for housing. Statewide, the state Department of Commerce reports, more than 36 percent of the state’s households are paying a third or more of their income on rent. And a 2 percent vacancy rate in Snohomish County means there’s less pressure to keep rents affordable.

The state’s predicted population growth is expected to add to the demand for affordable housing, making it crucial to add to that inventory.

As we noted in February, there’s obvious financial incentive for developers to build large homes for affluent buyers and less to build smaller “starter”homes. But there is a program that does provide incentive to build low-income housing.

Since 1986, the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit has provided a financial incentive for developers and builders to build housing specifically for the homeless, those with extremely low incomes and the low-income elderly. Since its inception, the credit has helped build 75,000 affordable housing units in the state, 9,635 of which are in Snohomish County.

The credit helps finance the development of 100,000 units each year in the U.S., but the interest of builders to provide the homes outstrips the program’s capacity. According to a recent report from the office of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, state housing finance agencies across the nation typically received three times the number of applications for the tax credit as the program is able to allocate.

Cantwell, who was in Seattle last week to meet with Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and other officials to tour a low-barrier apartment complex in Seattle, is working on legislation that would expand the program by 50 percent, allowing the creation or preservation of 400,000 additional affordable rental units over the next ten years. Other reforms she is proposing would promote a broader mix of income levels for the program and allow states more flexibility to direct projects toward the homeless and extremely-low income families. This follows Cantwell’s successful legislation last year that provided a predictable 9 percent floor for the credit to encourage greater participation.

There’s a definite economic benefit to the program; the tax credit helps support 70,000 jobs in construction, manufacturing and business services in the state each year, Cantwell’s report found, and nationwide, it also provides $3.5 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue and generates $9.3 billion in economic activity.

But the tax credit’s greatest value is in helping to provide housing that is within the financial reach of individuals and families.

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