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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Affordable housing for Spokane’s poor woefully scarce

For every 100 of Spokane County’s poorest residents – those who earn 30 percent or less of the median family income – there are 12 affordable apartments for rent.

But take heart. Things are getting better.

By 2019, that number is expected to climb to 13.

These are the conclusions of a new state report that illustrates the gap between need and availability when it comes to affordable housing in Washington. The report, prepared by the Department of Commerce, concludes that 36 percent of all Washingtonians are “cost-burdened” – paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Fifteen percent spend more than half their income on housing.

The gap in Spokane County is larger than the statewide average. A separate report focusing on the city of Spokane, prepared by a Gonzaga law student, concludes that around 6,000 households which could qualify for housing vouchers or subsidized housing aren’t receiving them, in part because of significant program cuts in recent years. Countywide, this figure is 16,000.

The author of the report on the city, Matthew Cardinale, concluded that Spokane has “a significant and growing affordable housing crisis, especially for low-income households making $15,000 per year and below.”

His report proposes several policy changes, including adjusting the tax credits to encourage more low-income rentals. Cardinale started the report while working as City Councilwoman Candace Mumm’s assistant, and the project was supervised by a city attorney and law school professor. It is now being discussed by policymakers and officials at City Hall.

“Where we need more is for people who can’t afford market rate rentals, based on their income,” he said. “They don’t need a case manager. They just need a place that is affordable, that is safe and up to minimal standards.”

It’s not clear what proportion of Spokane’s “extremely low income” population is homeless and in need of more extensive services, and how many primarily need just housing. But the need for the latter was highlighted in February 2014, when the Spokane Housing Authority opened up its waiting list for housing vouchers. It had 2,000 spots on the list, and more than double that number applied.

Not for housing vouchers – to wait for housing vouchers.

Cardinale’s report tracks the gap between the number of needy Spokane residents and the programs available to help them. According to 2012 Census Bureau figures, there are 14,820 families in the city earning $15,000 or less. That includes 8,331 households whose annual income was below $10,000.

But there are just 6,364 subsidized housing units in the city, and 2,391 federal vouchers. That leaves more than 6,000 households that could be “cost-burdened,” homeless or living in substandard housing, Cardinal concludes.

Cindy Algeo of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium said that countywide, around 28,000 families earned $15,000 or less in 2012, and about 12,000 of them received subsidy or voucher help.

“What about the other 16,000?” she said. “We don’t know about the other 16,000.”

Some are homeless. Some are paying hefty proportions of their incomes for rent. What’s certain, advocates say, is that there is a big gap between the need and the help.

Cardinale’s report is intended to encourage the City Council to consider policy changes, including changing the tax credit for multifamily developments.

Right now, those credits can go to developments that set aside 20 percent of their rental units for people making 50 percent of the region’s median income. Property taxes are waived for 12 years for developments that qualify. The City Council lowered those levels a couple of years back, but Cardinale believes they’re still too high, and would like to see specific requirements for inclusion of units for people earning 30 percent of the median.

His report mistakenly concludes that the city is subsidizing rentals that are above market rate, based on a misreading of a very easily misunderstood city statute. But the error does not change his view that the city needs to refocus the tax breaks.

“We need to target 30 percent,” he said. “That’s where the need is.”

Also among his proposals: requiring affordable housing impact statements to be prepared for legislation that affects housing; and adopting inclusionary zoning rules requiring affordable units in developments of 25 units or more.

However far his proposals go, Cardinale’s 116-page report is a valuable record of the state of housing costs for the thousands and thousands of Spokane families who live far below the region’s median standard of living. He did the work in part as a requirement for a scholarship, but said it wound up taking him months to complete.

“It was kind of like having a child,” he said. “I didn’t really anticipate how much work it was going to be until it was already too late.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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