Whatcom Council to take second look at incentive for affordable rentals

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 21, 2013 

A fund that pays some of the up-front construction costs for low-income homeowners also could get applied to rental homes and apartments.

The Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, Oct. 22, will reconsider the proposal, which it rejected in July 2012. The $1.2 million fund was started in 2011 to pay the impact fees and utility hookup charges for homes that would be occupied by their owners. The money came from the county's Economic Development Investment Program, which receives a portion of the state's sales tax to be invested in job-creating projects.

County Executive Jack Louws, who administers the EDI program, has said excluding rentals has caused the fund to be underused. In two years, $440,000 of the $1.2 million has been committed.

If rental properties are included, the owner could defer payback of the loan that covered the fees for 20 years, as long as the property remains as affordable housing.

Last year's vote, which failed 3 to 3 with council member Bill Knutzen abstaining, was taken just weeks after a controversial council decision to give $550,000 in EDI funds to Catholic Housing Services for rental apartments on Cornwall Avenue that would cater to low-income and homeless people.

Council member Ken Mann, for one, saw his "no" vote on funding rentals in general as a vote after the fact against the Cornwall project. Mann had voted yes on the money for Catholic Housing Services in June 2012 but changed his mind after hearing the concerns of neighboring business owners.

The Cornwall project never did get EDI money, said Steve Powers, division director for Catholic Housing Services. Nor is the project seeking those funds any longer, Powers said. It has the funding it needs.

Community development planner Paul Schissler, who has worked closely on the EDI program for low-income housing, said the political complications of the previous vote should not be a factor on Tuesday.

"It's easier to focus on this as a policy change that's countywide" rather than as a referendum on a single project, Schissler said in a Friday, Oct 18, interview.

Low-income housing projects qualify for economic development funding, Schissler said, because they provide stable homes for low-income workers and therefore a labor pool for small businesses. They also provide construction jobs immediately.

Council Chairwoman Kathy Kershner wrote a letter to other council members on Oct. 15 asking them to support the proposal. Schissler said he thinks it can pass this time.

"I think there's a lot of support for this concept," he said.

ATTEND THE MEETING

What: Whatcom County Council will consider allowing economic development funds to be spent on low-income rental housing.

When: 11 a.m. with possible vote at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 22.

Where: County Council Chambers, 311 Grand Ave. in Bellingham.

More information: Go to this Whatcom County webpage and click on "AB2013-332."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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