Addressing affordability

Build quality, affordable housing in convenient locations, and tenants and buyers will come.

That’s the lesson taught by Markland Woods, a Mountlake Terrace condo community, said the Housing Authority of Snohomish County’s lead policy analyst, Althea Cawley-Murphee.

"I think there are a high number of vacancies in luxury condos right now. People who can afford to rent there are buying houses while interest rates are low," Cawley-Murphee said, noting that owning a home is the most common way Americans build personal wealth. "Communities like Markland Woods are selling extremely well because they are targeting those first-time home buyers."

In one of the nation’s first condo conversions by a publicly held entity, the housing authority completely renovated the 157-unit community to make it more accessible and appealing to low- and moderate-income home buyers.

The definitions of "low income" and "moderate income" can vary by program and agency. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a moderate-income household as earning 95 percent of an area’s median income. In Snohomish County, a family of four earning $56,500 or less would fall into that category, Cawley-Murphee said.

The Markland Woods condos with two, three and four bedrooms range from 797 to 1,460 square feet and are priced from about $120,000 to $180,000.

The finished community, which includes a heated pool, fitness center and playground, won an award of merit from the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, and apparently produced condos with high appeal to a variety of buyers. By October, 16 months after sales began, 75 percent of the units were sold.

It only took one look at the community to convince buyer Jeannette Unger, a retiree who sold a smaller Northgate condo to move to Markland Woods.

"This is quiet. There are beautiful trees and a creek off my deck," Unger said. "The complex itself seems to be very well run. I’m quite pleased with it."

Like Unger, about half of the Markland Woods buyers have found the prices low enough that they don’t require purchase assistance, Cawley-Murphee said. The other half have benefited from varying levels of help. Up to $35,000 in low-interest loans are available to qualified low-income and moderate-income families.

The loans are part of the housing authority’s buyer assistance programs, which are aimed at first-time buyers.

"We believe any family can qualify to buy a home," she said. "But it may take time."

The housing authority and other local agencies offer consumer education about how to clear bad credit, pay debts and otherwise prepare for homeownership. In the meantime, many agencies offer a continuum of services to homeless, low- and moderate-income families, seniors and people with disabilities.

Emergency shelters for homeless families and single homeless men represent one end of the continuum, while communities that offer lower-than-market rents or accept government subsidies for individual renters represents the other. In between is transitional housing: shelter and social services designed to foster employment and family stability. However, gaps remain between the need for all kinds of affordable housing and what’s available.

Cawley-Murphee calculated that about 13 percent of the county’s need for emergency shelter for homeless families and single men is met, and said there are virtually no options for homeless women.

Thanks to help from the Gates Foundation, she said, families in need of transitional housing fare better. About 21 percent of that need is met.

As for affordable rentals, both the Snohomish County Tomorrow 2002 housing evaluation and a 2003 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition indicate the need is largely unmet and growing.

Snohomish County Tomorrow, a planning advisory council, found that only 56 percent of rental units in the county were affordable to very low income households, and that 13.9 percent of low- or moderate-income renters pay more than 30 percent of their annual incomes for housing. That figure did not account for the households already relying on rent subsidies or low-income housing, Cawley-Murphee noted.

A 2003 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that of the 32 percent of Snohomish County residents who rent, a majority pay more than they can afford.

Cawley-Murphee said there’s been a more than 15 percent drop in the number of rental units that are affordable to very low-income families.

"It’s scary when you look at the level of need and what’s available," she said.

Snohomish County has more to offer low- and moderate-income families who are in a position to buy, or to who could be with some buyer assistance.

According to the Snohomish County Tomorrow report, 26 percent of homes sold between 1998 and 2000 were affordable for families making less than median income. In 2000, Snohomish County’s median income was $54,253.

Cawley-Murphee said elected officials and nonprofit groups throughout the county have worked together to make affordable home ownership a priority.

"Snohomish County is pretty far ahead of the ball game when it comes to tackling this issue," she said. "There’s a real community commitment to making home ownership affordable for all families."

Kristin Fetters-Walp is a Lake Stevens freelance writer.

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