The keys to providing more affordable housing? Money — and political will, county providers agree

Verdant Superintendent Lisa Edwards moderated the discussion via Zoom.

To guide future funding priorities, the Verdant Health Commission has been gathering information from local leaders on a range of possible community needs, including behavioral health, food insecurity, vision care, transportation, domestic violence and housing. On Nov. 10, the commission held the last of these roundtable discussions, on housing, and the nine presenters — representing entities ranging from local nonprofits, to Edmonds College to the City of Edmonds —  agreed that ensuring people have a home is the most important need to be addressed.

During the virtual presentation, each participant took turns answering a list of questions that Verdant had posed to them regarding their organization’s particular needs, and their opinions about how to address the need for affordable housing in Verdant’s service area.

Verdant has approximately the same footprint as the Edmonds School District, and serves about 180,000 people in Edmonds, Esperance, Woodway, Mountlake Terrace, Brier, Lynnwood, plus small pieces of Bothell and unincorporated Snohomish County. The Verdant Health Commission is the government overseeing South Snohomish County’s Public Hospital District No. 2. In addition to receiving rent for what is now Swedish Edmonds — the former Stevens Hospital that Verdant leased to Swedish Health Systems — Verdant owns some property in the hospital area, including the Krueger Clinic and the Value Village on Highway 99. That rent brings in about $11 million annually, and Verdant also receives about $2.4 million annually in tax dollars for operations and maintenance.

Verdant operates a wellness center in Lynnwood that offers a range of health-related programs, and also provides community grants for local health and wellness programs.

According to Jennifer Piplic, Verdant’s director of marketing and communications, the information gathered at the roundtables “will help commissioners determine how to shape the funding priorities for Verdant as they move forward with strategic planning for 2021-24.”

Mark Smith, exeutive director of the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County: “The best way to address this issue is simply to build more housing, that households of all incomes can afford.”

The first to speak during the housing roundtable– moderated by Verdant Superintendent Lisa Edwards — was Mark Smith, executive director of the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County. The organization represents about 50 member organizations, all with the goal of “increasing the supply of non-market, income-restricted housing in Snohomish County, built by non-profit affordable housing providers.”

Answering a Verdant-posed question about the organization’s unmet needs, Smith pointed to a 2018 Housing Snohomish County report that identified 10,552 low-income housholds in Verdant’s service area — Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Woodway — that were spending more than 30%of their total income just on housing. That 30% is a nationally recognized threshold above which housing costs are considered unaffordable, he said.

Smith said that the main barriers to addressing a lack of affordable, income-restricted housing, fall into three categories:

  • It cannot be built by the private market. “You’ll often hear local elected officials talk about the public/private partnership to build housing,” Smith said. “That exists in that nonprofit affordable housing builders can loan through banks and get private equity from banks, but a private market builder cannot go to the bank, get a loan, build a bulding and charge rents low enough that low-income folks can afford, yet high enough to make a profit, which they need to do to stay in business.” Since about 1980, public funding at the federal and state level for affordable housing “has gone off a cliff…down,” he added.
  • Land use regulations, a topic that is ” a bit controversial,” Smith said. “Everyone thinks of the American Dream as buying a single-family home,” he said. “Unfortunately, approximately 85% of all land zoned is zoned for single-family homes and only 15% for multifamily. Historically, that zoning has been used “to keep people of color out of white neighborhoods,” he said. That statement led to a discussion among participants about the past practicc of “redlining” U.S. neighborhoods — a discriminatory practice that identified areas where banks would avoid investments based on community demographics.
  • NIMBY-ism, or “Not in My Back Yard” — defined as neighborhood opposition when an affordable housing project is proposed nearby.

“The best way to address this issue is simply to build more housing, that households of all incomes can afford,” Smith said. “It’s a supply-and-demand issue.”

Addressing the question of possible roles Verdant could play in meeting these challenges. Smith suggested the agency “designate 10% of your annual program budget for funding capital construction. That would become a robust source of funding for affordable housing,” he added. Verdant could also fund social services to support those who have housing, and help them “to build better lives,” Smith said.

Next to speak was Mary Anne Dillon, executive director of Snohomish County YWCA of Seattle, King, Snohomish. The organization operates seven sites in Snohomish County — four in South Snohomish County — which provide emergency shelter, longer-term and permanent supportive housing, inclulding 245 units of permanent housing in Everett, Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace, Dillon said. In addition, the YWCA provides motel vouchers, and rent and utiity assistance for those in need. Addressing the main barriers to meeting the organization’s mission, Dillon said simply: “Income has not kept pace with housing costs, so we need to build safe accessible affordable housing and we need the funding to do so.”

She added that “individuals and families need housing-wage income in order to afford affordble housing or any housing. Without adequate. housing, we have homelessness. We know that when people are housed, that means a healthier community, a safer community, a more secure community, and a place where people are able to get and keep jobs, address mental health isues and take care of their health and nutrition, kids have a place to do homework, all of that.”

The best way to address these unmet needs? “We need bipartisan political will,” Dillon said. “We need funding, funding, funding. And we need community education around NIMBYism, around redlining, around racism and why people are homeless and what is the cause of poverty.”

Duane Leonard of HASCO (top row, center) shared photos of the housing authority’s Trillium project, right, a renovation of the former privately-owned Tall Firs apartments, left.

Another participant weighing in on the challenges of neighborhood opposition to affordable housing was Duane Leonard, executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO). The agency owns and operates aout 2,400 units of housing countywide, with 470 units subsidized for elderly. HASCO also operates the Housing Choice Voucher Program, More commonly known as Section 8, which serves over 4,000 families per month. These are people with an average annual income of $16,288 year or $1,357 per month, and the average rent assistance they receive is $1,149 month. In the past, Leonard said, the program “has been villified,” with derogatory and often racist terms used to describe people receiving housing assistance. “The reality, he said, is much different: “71.2% of households we serve are either elderly or families with a disabled family member.”

In South Snohomish County, Leonard said, “there’s specifically a lack of shelter space or transitional housing. We just need more shelter space where we can help families.”

Leonard is particularly concerned about seniors, noting that “the only thing they have to live on is their Social Security check and it’s heartbreaking. Many of the are in their 80s and have no place to turn. They’re at the end of their rope.”

He named three obstacles facing the agency: fear, NIMBYism and money. “There’s so much fear that arises particularly if the housing authority shows up to talk about housing,” he said. He addressed the stereotypes people have about what affordable housing looks like, noting that “it’s as far from the truth as you can get.” As an example, he shared photos of the former Tall Firs apartments in Mountlake Terrace, which HASCO purchased from a private owner and renovated into the Trillium project.

Another challenge for affordable housing providers, Leonard said, is that  “so many people in the county think that there’s no poor people here or think that if we build affordable housing, people will come from outside of the area.” He shared Edmonds School District statistics from 2019 school year indicating that 33% of the children — a total of 6,837 — enrolled are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Partnership with government is required to address housing affordability, Leonard said, adding the private sector cannot provide the solution. Ctizens “have to demand action from their elected leaders. When we talk to elected leaders they say that all they hear from is the homeowners in their community who don’t want to live by a multi-family building.”

Steve Corsi, president/CEO of Volunteers of America Western Washington (VOAWW), said his agency provides a range of assistance to those in need. During the past four months, the focus has been those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and VOAWW has distributed $12.8 million in rental assistance, most of it coming from the federal CARES Act. Affordable housing is the main barrier that people face, and like HASCO’s Leonard, Corsi pointed to the struggles of those on fixed incomes living on Social Security and disaiblity payments. “They just can’t keep up with rising rents and in some cases they (are homeowners who) can’t even keep up with rising property taxes,” he said.

“It’s important to recognize,” Corsi added, “that most people who fall into homelessness are not addicts. They’re also not former criminals.” People shouldn’t face bankruptcy due to a medical issue and “there has to be adequate and avaiable mental health support,” he said. The VOAWW also believes that financial literacy should be woven into the high school graduation requirements of every student “so they understand the consequentces of getting behind on credit, the importance of savings and are aware of obligations of those who rent or own homes.”

Next to speak was Jim Dean, executive director of Interfaith Association of Northwest Washington, which focuses on housing homeless families and in 2019  helped 71 families. Only 55 units are available to families in emergency shelters across Snohomish County, and Dean said he is worried what will happen when the current statewide moratoriam on rental evictions —  imposed during the pandemic — is lifted. “I see families as being one of the key groups that is going to be impacted,” he said.

Dean said that the agency continually faces barriers in its efforts to help families. He talked about an opportunity the association had to acquire, for short-term use, a former boarding school in the unincorporated Esperance area for high school students that included dormitories and kitchens. It would have been available for one-and-a-half years while the property owner decided what to do with the building. When he approached the county planning department, he learned the property was zoned multi-family residential medium density. Snohomish County code “has a whole list of items that cannot be placed in residential-zoned areas, and the last on list is a homeless shelter,” Dean explained. The only option the agency had was “to spend nine to 12 months to apply for a conditinal use permit, and I said I’ve only got the property a year and half, so what good is that?”

Vicci Hilty, executive director of Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, said her agency has “a very robust housing program” that includes permanent and transitional housing and also operates a domestic violence emergency shelter. Having shelter available immediately is critical to serving domestic violence victims, she said, because “the more time they’re not settled is the more opportunity to take ‘the easy way out’ — so they think — which is returning to the perpetrator. Like the others on the panel, she noted that affordability and a lack of housing are key issues for the agency and those it serves.

“We need more housing of all types and all price points,” stated panelist Fred Safstrom, CEO of Everett-based Housing Hope. “We have not created enough housing, period, for the area’s rapidly growing economy and job market.” He called Verdant’s service area of South Snohomish County “a no-man’s land” situated between Seattle and Everett. Seattle and King County can take advantage of housing levies, which attracts developers, and Everett “has been the home of a lot of service agencies and nonprofits and that’s where its existing support has come from. South County has not been well-served,” he said.

“I hear from a lot of people who view this (homelessness) as a problem that’s too big,” Safstrom continued. “My response is that this is not an infinite problem. There are finite number of people who are experiencing homelessness in our community and because it’s a finite prblem that makes it a solvable problem. All we need are adequate resources, which really comes from a dedication of will to want to do this. The major barrier right now is that we do not have the will to solve this problem.”

Poltiical leadership, he added, “is absolutely essential,” and he pointed to Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith as someone who has shown such leadership.

Mindy Woods, human services program Manager at the City of Edmonds, said she agreed with the issues identified by previous speakers, and said she is also worried about those who will face evictions from their homes once the moratorium ends. She also shared her personal story about being a homeless single parent with a 13-year-old, and how she and her son “couch surfed, living out of suitcase for eight months,” while seeking permanent housing. “Having been homeless, the impacts on my mental health were extreme but on my son at 13 years old, those impacts were huge,” said Woods, who later added: “Housing is health care.”

The final panelist was Christina Castorena, vice president for student services at Edmonds College. She said that while the college does not currently have an accurate headcount of how many students are experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, or food insecurity, a study conducted in 2019 showed that 62% of Edmonds College students were impacted by at least one of these forms of basic needs insecurity in the past year.

At the end of the meeting, Verdant Commission Chair Bob Knowles told panelists that Verdant was limited, as a public hospital district, regarding how its funds can be spent on housing, “but we’ll take a look at it and see what we can do to support what you do.” He noted that the Verdant more commonly offers “wraparound” support services for people in affordable housing, rather providing the housing itself, and panel participants agreed that would be a welcome role.

“We will explore all options,” Knowles said.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. For those of us who were on this session I am sure we would all agree Teresa did a remarkable job of capturing the full complete discussion points. This issue is filled with so many land mines, it is quite clear we will remain polarized on this issue like so many others.

  2. Without “free money” from outside resources the City of Edmonds would be forced to raise property taxes to build low income housing or raise the sales tax. With cost of properties on the rise property taxes are high already and not sustainable long-term. Raising sales tax would only hurt the people you are trying to help.
    If I had any political clout I would focus on providing housing for the elderly. We are unable to build effective housing in Edmonds for families and the elderly would benefit from having a community hospital and clinics in the city.
    I would focus on helping the older citizens in our community and let the neighboring towns (with more land) provide housing solutions for families.
    Sadly I have seen many of our elderly neighbors leave our town to be cared for or find housing elsewhere because of cost. I would want those neighbors to be able to stay locally if at all possible.

  3. In Woodway, we can build an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) on larger lots. Currently, the ADU’s can be built up to 900 square feet in size. Owners can live in their ADU’s and rent out their main houses, but we aren’t legally allowed to rent out our ADU’s. This makes no sense to me as ADU’s could provide affordable housing. Woodway could also change the zoning so that the larger lots could be subdivided, allowing for the existing ADUs to be sold, and/or creating lots on which manufactured housing could be placed, almost instantly creating lower cost housing options. These solutions could also increase the property tax base and providing a new source of revenue which could be dedicated to additional affordable housing solutions. While this wouldn’t provide a huge number of affordable units, if every town or city made such an effort we could at least put a dent in the affordable housing problem. But it doesn’t appear that the Woodway town council is willing to make any change, as they’ve been approached about allowing ADUs to be rented and they declined to even consider doing so.

  4. How were agencies chosen to participate in these meetings? Why werent the meetings shared other than the housing one? It seems Verdant could do a better job of building community by not excluding agencies from these meetings like they did. In a provider meeting, some agencies said that they aren’t happy at all with how Verdant isn’t being inclusive. We were also concerned that they funded programs in Everett like Compass. Why are our tax dollars going outside of our area? The new leadership has alot to learn.

    1. Verdant can provide important services for South Snohomish County, without collected property taxes from residents in their service area. In the past the tax base was used to provide back up for bonds that were issued. I believe rental income of over 11 million annually provides sufficient income for their programs.

      As a senior citizen I would like relief from property taxes that go to the Port of Edmonds and to Verdant Commission.

      1. Mary, how right you are. Their budget is on the web page. The bonds will be paid at the end of this year. If they wanted tohelp people in the service area, they could end the levy and put 2.4 million back into the hands of the people who need it now.

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