June 6, 2014 in City

Senate bill would help local housing projects apply for federal funds

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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A return to normalcy in the way Congress doles out federal dollars could be a boon to housing in the region.

The Senate Appropriations Committee signed off Thursday on a bill allocating $54 billion for those purposes nationwide. Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that crafted the bill, included provisions enabling some housing organizations, including the Spokane Housing Authority, to apply for a federal program that would help fund improvements at public housing projects.

Late last year, Senate Democrats and House Republicans reached an agreement for the first time in more than four years on the total amounts the federal government would spend for broad categories, such as transportation and housing. Both chambers are passing appropriations bills in a return to the federal budget process that routinely took place before 2009.

The Housing Authority hopes the program will pay for renovations at the Parsons Apartments in downtown Spokane, said Pamela Tietz, executive director of the Spokane Housing Authority. The 50-unit building at First Avenue and Jefferson Street houses elderly disabled tenants. Murray’s proposal would double the number of properties like the Parsons where tenants could pay rent with vouchers. Officials say the payment system would free up cash for capital improvements.

“Right now, there’s not a lot of money out there to address the capital needs of that property,” Tietz said. Fixing elevators, restoring carpeting and making other improvements would extend the life of the building by 40 years, the Housing Authority estimates.

In addition, the changes in the appropriations bill would allow the Housing Authority to sell off its 75 scattered properties and consolidate its services, potentially tripling its capacity in the coming years, Tietz said.

Also included in the federal legislation is a deal brokered by Murray and Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo that would lower the local price tag for needed runway improvements at the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport. Airport officials successfully lobbied federal lawmakers to increase the amount of matching federal money the Washington facility could receive because of its service to customers on both sides of the state line.

Tony Bean, the airport’s executive director, said the potential savings would be huge for communities whose tax bases take a hit because of large student populations.

A final cost for the project, which would bring the regional airport to Federal Aviation Administration standards, has not been determined, Bean said, but it likely will be between $66 million and $80 million. Local taxpayers would save more than $1 million, he said.

A spokesman for Murray said the appropriations bill likely is headed for approval in the Democrat-led Senate.

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