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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Agency Pushes Hard To Expand Public Housing Housing Authority Wants To Quintuple Number Of Units

Spokane Housing Authority is launching an aggressive campaign to more than quintuple its stock of public housing.

The campaign begins next week with the expected purchase of a $7.6 million Valley apartment complex.

By the year 2003, the agency plans to add 1,335 units to its inventory of 310 subsidized homes and apartments.

The initiative is praised by anti-poverty advocates, who accuse the city of ignoring its housing crisis.

Every month, the Housing Authority turns away an average of 125 lowincome families seeking help. Another 2,300 await rent subsidies - a list so long that some may never get help.

A recent Housing Authority survey found that 13,000 Spokane County families, squeezed by rent hikes and low wages, spent more than half their income on rent and utilities.

“There’s a growing need to help lower-income families - not on welfare, making a minimum wage, but not rich enough to afford housing,” said Mary Jo Harvey, Housing Authority executive director.

The 16-year-old agency has previously been reluctant to be a landlord, instead relying on coupons known as Section 8 vouchers. More than 3,000 families rely on that monthly assistance.

But federal budget cuts forced the Housing Authority to launch an aggressive buying program.

“We’ve had to ask ourselves, if there’s no new resources, what will we do in the future?” Harvey said.

The buying spree will rely on public-private partnerships involving revenue bonds and tax credits, said Lonnie Gallo-Pierce, agency development director.

Such deals involve few government dollars.

The Housing Authority’s first partnership was completed last year in the Hillyard neighborhood - a $10 million, 170-unit complex financed with tax credits to private builders. The complex is full and considered a success.

The Valley 206 apartments at 2400 N. Wilbur is the second attempt. The 206-unit complex next to I-90 is outfitted with such amenities as a swimming pool, tennis courts and tanning beds.

The complex is being purchased through sale of revenue bonds, the first issuance in the agency’s history.

The project is different in another way: Half the units will be rented at market rates; the rest will be rented to needy families. No current residents will be kicked out, Harvey said.

The Housing Authority’s entry into the mainstream rental market concerns some landlords, said Bruce Jolicoeur, vice president of Auble and Associates, which analyzes the rental market.

With vacancy rates hovering at 9 percent, it’s tough enough for landlords to fill apartment buildings.

But the nonprofit Housing Authority, with its tax breaks and bonding power, has an unfair advantage, critics say.

“Effectively, they’re taking government dollars to compete against private taxpayers,” Jolicoeur said.

With Valley 206, the agency is also widening its definition of poverty.

The maximum yearly income to qualify for subsidized units is $33,600 for a family of three; normally help would be cut off above $18,900.

Ensuring payment of the revenue bonds forced the agency to increase the threshold, Harvey said.

Housing authorities elsewhere, including Seattle, also have expanded eligibility.

The unsubsidized units will help pay for the poorer families, particularly those at the lowest incomes, the Housing Authority said.

“As the subsides roll back, we’d like to offer (housing) down” to the poorest income brackets, said Ron Bower, agency chairman. “If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”

Andy Reid, director of the Spokane Low-income Housing Consortium, said the addition of any affordable housing is welcome.

“Every developer of low-income housing must make compromises,” he said.

“The economics don’t always allow you to deliver services to the lowest of the low.”

, DataTimes