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Expansion of low-income housing program to help build more homes in Spokane

UPDATED: Wed., April 4, 2018, 9:12 p.m.

Jupiter Bennett, left, a resident of 1 S. Madelia, an apartment block at Madelia and Sprague Avenue in East Spokane, breaks down while talking about what it means to have a home and is comforted by Sen. Maria Cantwell, right, at a press conferenence Wednesday. Cantwell was in town to tout a significant increase in money for tax credits used for affordable housing from the recent omnibus spending bill. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Jupiter Bennett, left, a resident of 1 S. Madelia, an apartment block at Madelia and Sprague Avenue in East Spokane, breaks down while talking about what it means to have a home and is comforted by Sen. Maria Cantwell, right, at a press conferenence Wednesday. Cantwell was in town to tout a significant increase in money for tax credits used for affordable housing from the recent omnibus spending bill. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The recent expansion of a program responsible for financing most of the nation’s affordable housing over the past 30 years will deliver more low-income housing to Spokane, combating a nationwide housing crisis that has reached Eastern Washington.

Flanked by housing advocates and standing in one of Spokane’s newest residences for people who struggle to make ends meet, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the expansion of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program will bring 50 additional houses and duplexes for low-income families to the region this year.

“One of the first beneficiaries in this investment is going to be right here in the Spokane region, in Airway Heights,” Cantwell said. “Spokane has played a very key role in helping us get this national message across about what the crisis in affordable housing looks like and why we need to increase the affordable housing tax credit so more solutions can be provided in the community.”

Since the federal tax credit program’s creation in 1986, developers in Washington state have built more than 1,000 properties funded by the program, creating more than 78,000 units for more than 158,000 people.

Cantwell’s effort to expand the program, part of the spending bill that was signed by President Trump last month, will fund three additional products in the state, bumping up the total from 15 to 18 projects.

Besides projects in Redmond and Royal City, an $8.8 million complex of 51 units called Highland Village will be built near the intersection of Craig Road and Sixth Avenue in Airway Heights, said Albert Tripp, the city manager.

Families in Airway Heights have lower incomes than the rest of Spokane County. The small city has a 25 percent poverty rate and a rental vacancy rate “close to zero percent,” Tripp said.

Standing in a new affordable housing complex of 36 units on East Sprague Avenue funded by the tax credit, at 1 S. Madelia St., Cantwell said the program is “a great tool for a whole variety of affordable housing solutions. That is why the tax credit is so great.”

The Madelia buildings house 117 people, with households that earn between 30 and 60 percent of the area’s median income. About a third of the units are home to people or families who were homeless directly before moving in.

The tax credit also helped fund the renovation of the Ridpath Hotel into workforce housing, which uses a different measure of income.

“I guarantee you, projects like the Ridpath Hotel are the envy of places in Seattle,” Cantwell said. “The fact that that much workforce housing is going to be located in downtown Spokane because of the tax credit is a great story.”

Cantwell was on a victory lap of sorts for her central role in expanding the tax credit as part of this year’s federal budget negotiations, which she said would bring an additional $2.8 billion a year to the program. She was joined, and thanked, by local advocates such as Deb Elzinga, president of Community Frameworks; Pam Tietz, executive director of the Spokane Housing Authority; and Airway Heights’ Tripp.

Also present was Kim Herman, executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, who also praised the program’s ability to bring a diversity of housing.

“The tax credit program is the most flexible affordable housing program we have in the nation,” he said. “We do Native American housing on reservations. We do farm worker housing. We do senior housing. We do the Ridpath. … The tax credit program allows the local developer and local city to decide what they need, and then we can finance it.”

Herman and Cantwell said the ultimate goal is to expand the program more, but noted it would take some convincing.

“This investment is a start,” she said. “We’re all ears for even more innovative ways to solve the problem, but we got to get our colleagues to come to the table.”

Cantwell said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was instrumental in growing the tax credit. More than a decade ago, Utah set a goal of ending chronic homelessness, specifically among its veteran population. But Cantwell criticized two Republican members of Congress from Wisconsin and Texas for attempting to derail the bipartisan effort.

“Sen. Hatch turned out to be a great advocate for us in pushing through this expansion,” Cantwell said. “I’m hoping we can convince our House colleagues, specifically Speaker (Paul) Ryan and Congressman (Kevin) Brady to be bigger believers in this program. They were not so convinced. I mean literally at one point we had Mitt Romney calling into to Paul Ryan to say, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ ”