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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘The lack of affordable housing is actually costing us’: Cantwell promotes affordable housing bill in Spokane

Community Frameworks affordable housing, at the corner of Sprague Avenue and Madelia Street, is seen in September 2017. The Spokane City Council is scheduled to consider a measure Dec. 9 that would allow a portion of the sales tax collected within city limits to be used for building more affordable housing. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Had U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell stood at 1 S. Madelia St. just a few years ago, she would have been in a used car lot.

But on Tuesday, she was in the the lobby of an affordable housing complex now home to more than 100 residents.

Cantwell was joined by Spokane leaders on Tuesday as she championed federal legislation that, if passed, aims to spur the development of 9,700 new units of affordable housing in Washington state and thousands more across the country over the next decade – units just like the ones on South Madelia Street.

Introduced by Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, in June, the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2019 would expand existing tax incentives for affordable housing development.

“The lack of affordable housing is actually costing us,” Cantwell said. “The costs don’t disappear, they’re just absorbed in a different place in society, so let’s make this cost-effective.”

Its proponents claim that the legislation would add 550,000 units of affordable housing in the United States over the next decade, in addition to the more than 1 million already projected under the existing Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.

The bill’s primary tool to accomplish this surge in development would be a 50% increase in the low-income housing tax credits allotted to each state.

The low-income tax housing tax credits are distributed to states by the federal government, and then by states to individual developers of affordable housing. Those developers typically sell those tax credits to private developers in exchange for cash, which is used to fund the construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing.

Tuesday’s event was held at an affordable housing project that the nonprofit Community Frameworks built. It opened in 2017 and was funded primarily through the low-income housing tax credit program.

“We are stronger as a community when people have safe, healthy homes and can live within their budget,” said Deb Elzinga, president and CEO of Community Frameworks

Volunteers of America plans to use the program to build 60 units of affordable housing above its new Hope House women’s shelter, which is projected to open next year at 1301 W. Third Ave.

The program is one avenue available to the nonprofit as it works to reduce homelessness in Spokane.

“When we bring someone from the streets to the safety and security of a home, with the support and resources they need to achieve their goals, they become independent and a healthy part of our community,” said Fawn Schott, president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.

In addition to expanding the credits available to each state, Cantwell’s legislation would incentivize housing development for certain demographics, including veterans, rural communities, low-income populations and Native American communities.

Last year, Cantwell won the temporary expansion of credits by 12.5% over four years in the wake of corporate tax cuts that reduced the efficacy of the program.

But that nearly $3 billion was just the beginning of Cantwell’s efforts, which she said have bipartisan support. Her co-sponsors on the new bill include U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Todd Young, R-Ind.

City officials highlighted the need for more affordable housing in Spokane.

The vacancy rate of Spokane County apartments is 2%, according to the most recently available report on the apartment market from the University of Washington Runstad Center for Real Estate Research.

Buyers are also feeling the heat, as the median sales price of a home in June 2019 was 8% higher than it was in the same month last year.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has made housing a centerpiece of his campaign for mayor, said he met a couple last week who saw their rent increase by more than 50% in one month.

“They were homeless by the end of last week. If we (had) built more units under this program, they may have had somewhere to go,” Stuckart said.

Mayor David Condon praised the program for the flexibility it vests in individual developers, in contrast to other federal programs that are “one size fits all.”

“It is that uniqueness that makes a house a home,” Condon said.

Washington has fully formed projects ready to take advantage of the funding, Cantwell said.