August 2, 2007 in City

Mayoral rivals disagree on how to ease problem

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The recent evictions of dozens of poor downtown residents have made low-income housing a prominent issue in this year’s mayoral election.

Developers are converting three low-income apartments along West First Avenue to new uses. Some residents have already moved out, and when all is said and done, lost housing at the New Madison Apartments, Commercial Building and Otis Hotel could force out 100 to 200 people. Redevelopment of other buildings is displacing dozens more.

The problem is particularly difficult because many of the displaced earn so little that even many low-income apartments are out of reach. City officials, however, say most residents in the New Madison and Commercial have found new homes. The Otis could cause more of a problem because several residents there have criminal records.

Last month, Mayor Dennis Hession announced the creation of a task force to consider low-income housing, and the City Council approved $250,000 to help pay for first-month rents, security deposits and other expenses of those forced to move.

Hession has said the suddenness of the announcements was a surprise, but his administration is acting quickly to solve the crisis.

“The thing that caught us off guard is simply that these buildings would have become a commodity in as rapid a fashion as they have,” Hession said. “When I say us, not just the city of Spokane, I mean the community.”

His opponents have pointed to the issue as an example of Hession not paying attention. They note that leaders have been trying to improve downtown in ways that would increase property values and inevitably cause low-income housing to convert to more profitable uses.

“If I were mayor, I wouldn’t be in this situation,” said mayoral candidate and City Councilman Al French. “We talked about this and the need to address low-income housing when we adopted the comp plan in 2001.”

Hession said opponents who blame him for the problem should be asked what they’ve ever done about it.

The city’s comprehensive plan, or long-term growth proposal, gives several recommendations about low-income housing, including maintaining or increasing the number of apartments for low-income single people – places similar to those being converted along West First Avenue.

The plan also suggests that the city require a percentage of new housing developments be devoted to low-income housing. The goal is to spread those units across the city instead of forcing them into one place. But the city has never adopted the recommendation.

City Councilwoman Mary Verner, another mayoral candidate, argues that the city should consider low-income housing requirements.

“We should pursue an appropriate percentage,” Verner said.

But French, who is building a condo and office tower near Holy Family Hospital, opposes a citywide quota, saying it’s unnecessary in places that already have plenty of low-income housing.

Plans for French’s project, called ParcTwo20, include 32 condominiums with an average selling price of $422,500.

ParcTwo 20 is “surrounded by low-income housing,” French said.

Michael Noder, a demolition contractor running for mayor, said developers shouldn’t be forced to build low-income housing.

“I would probably be against it on principle,” Noder said. “I believe in open, free markets.”

Hession said he will wait for the task force recommendations before making any decisions.

“My goal is to create incentives, not mandates,” Hession said.

One incentive that already exists is the city’s multifamily tax exemption program. Since 2000, the city has offered developers of apartments and condos downtown and in some neighborhoods the opportunity to forgo property taxes on residential portions of their buildings for 10 years as a way to promote living downtown and neighborhood business districts.

Earlier this year, the Legislature increased the exemption time frame to 12 years for buildings that have at least 20 percent of their residential units geared to low- or moderate-income households. Otherwise, the exemption time falls to eight years.

Verner and Hession support the change in state law.

But Verner adds that more changes in how the city deals with incentives are needed. For instance, she said she’s been pushing for the city to reconsider the areas where the exemptions can be used.

French opposed the legislative change, saying the Spokane condo market could be hurt by the reduced exemption on high-end condos. The residential portion of French’s ParcTwo20 project was approved for the 10-year exemption by the City Council earlier this year, before the change in state law went into effect.

“I’m concerned about the fragileness of this young market,” French said.

Noder said he likes the spirit of the change in the law but believes the exemption program should be ended except for units geared for low-income people. The city shouldn’t give up tax revenue from those who can afford to pay taxes, he said.

“I will provide those incentives to help the lowest rung,” Noder said.

Earlier this summer, Verner introduced a measure recommending that the city consider adopting a state law requiring that developers pay expenses of those displaced when a residential building is converted or upgraded. But she wants to wait for recommendations from the mayor’s task force before deciding that issue.

French said there might be merit to Verner’s proposal, as long as developers aren’t saddled with the entire bill for relocation.

Noder argues that Verner’s idea, while well-intentioned, is flawed. It would create a hurdle to those wanting to invest in older buildings, he said.

With so much focus from so many leaders on low-income housing, Noder said he’s confident the city will solve the immediate crisis. He’s more concerned about the long-term.

“I really want that 40-, 50-year horizon,” Noder said. “This problem will keep coming up.”

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