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Spokane

Low-income housing too high-end for some

Thu., Aug. 2, 2007

Two nonprofits seeking to find affordable housing for their clients have turned into the agencies displacing them from two buildings.

And owners of another low-income housing complex in downtown Spokane, who hope to create affordable condominiums, might be making the units too expensive for the building’s current tenants.

While all three projects are geared for people who make less than Spokane’s median income, the monthly costs will be too much for the city’s poorest residents.

About 27 residents face eviction in coming months when Northeast Washington Housing Solutions completes its purchase of the Helene on First Avenue and Adams Street, and Spokane Housing Ventures buys the Bel Franklin apartments on the corner of Division Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard.

At The Briggs Apartments, a low-income building on Wall Street and Third Avenue, condo units costing as little as $85,000 likely are still too expensive for the building’s 31 residents, who may have to leave when the condo conversion occurs later this year.

“There are low-income housing projects that are being developed,” but virtually none of them targets people who make less than 30 percent of the area’s median income, or $1,000 a month, said Larry Griffith, executive director of Spokane Community Housing Association and Salem Arms, a low-income housing provider for mentally-ill clients.

Just one low-income housing project targeting that group is planned in Spokane County in the next two years, out of a total of 30 potential developments. That means people with extremely low incomes – $600 a month or less – will not benefit from those developments.

“They are probably not going to be able to be served in the (city’s) redevelopment even though it’s for low-income,” said Cindy Algeo, executive director of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium. “It doesn’t seem to get as low as they need.”

Northeast Washington Housing Solutions Executive Director Steve Cervantes said the Helene will serve minimum-wage workers downtown, predominantly those who earn 40 percent to 50 percent of the region’s median income – $1,343 and $1,679 per month, respectively. The apartment building currently houses about 17 people, many of whom are former criminals with earnings below that threshold.

Cervantes said he wishes no one would be forced out in the relocation, but at least the purchases aren’t for pricey lofts. “In that sense, we are preserving affordable housing in the downtown area,” he said.

Spokane Housing Ventures Executive Director Jayne Auld has a similar view. The Bel Franklin was originally slated to become private condominiums before the agency came into the picture. It plans to create 36 affordable housing units on the upper three floors of the building. The bottom floor will remain under different ownership as a bar and grill. The apartments will serve people who make less than 60 percent of the area median income, or about $2,015 a month, with the majority reserved for people who make 30 percent to 50 percent. Auld said they will try to reserve some units for the lowest income earners but added that limited funding prevents the nonprofit from catering entirely to that bracket.

All involved agree competition for local and state funding is fierce. That makes it difficult for nonprofits and private investors alike, because private parties typically look for government assistance in creating low-incoming housing, said Jimmy Gray, one of the new owners of The Briggs Apartments.

Gray said he doesn’t understand why the city won’t help low-income residents buy condos by allowing mortgage payments to replace rental assistance. “We want to provide low-income homes that allow people to create some equity and have (a sense of) ownership,” he said.

The expected $85,000 price of a unit in the Briggs means a mortgage payment of up to $750 a month. For resident Faye Melbourne, 71, who has lived in the Briggs for 23 years and receives $610 as the widow of a veteran, the condo decision is more disabling than empowering. She splits her $660 one-room apartment with a roommate.

“I can’t pay $700 to $800 because they’re turning my apartment into a condo,” she said, teary-eyed and surrounded by cardboard moving boxes.

The impending eviction of up to 100 residents in the Otis Hotel downtown and the eviction of another 90 in the nearby Madison apartments and Commercial Building earlier this summer cause further concern. RenCorp principal owner Chris Batten, the company that’s developing the Madison and is in the process of buying the Otis, said they’re trying to find alternative housing for tenants.

But there isn’t any, say members of the city’s new housing task force. And the solutions may be part of the problem.

“The irony is they are buying locations to provide affordable housing,” a process that’s creating problems for a separate group of renters, said City Council President Joe Shogan, who is also the task force’s vice chairman. “It’s like a leak in the dike. Every time one thing is plugged something else comes up.”



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