Subsidies for low-income rentals back before Whatcom council

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 21, 2014 

Whatcom County Council members will try again to decide whether to subsidize some developer expenses for low-income rental housing.

Different versions of this proposal have come before the council three times already, going back to 2012.

The latest version, up for debate on Tuesday, March 25, puts a cap on the subsidy. The county's economic development investment fund would provide a low-interest loan to pay for up to $150,000 of a low-income project's utility connection fees and impact fees. These fees can cost about $20,000 per unit in Bellingham.

The program would require that a significant number of rentals in the project be affordable to families with an income at or below 60 percent of the county median.

A $1.2 million fund to pay the fees for low-income housing projects was set up in 2011, but only owner-occupied homes qualified. Developers have been slow to take advantage of the incentive, county Executive Jack Louws has said. Adding rentals to the program was intended to get more use out of the fund.

Proponents of including rentals in the program say it would spur economic development by helping create more housing for people who take the county's lower-wage jobs.

Not all council members agree an economic development investment fund should be spent on rental housing. Sam Crawford has said the money would be better spent on public infrastructure - roads, sewer systems and the like.

If the rental-subsidy proposal makes it out of the Finance Committee at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, it would come to the full council at 7 p.m. that day. Both meetings are at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

Also on Tuesday's agenda:

-- The council Planning and Development Committee at 3 p.m. will revisit the county's rules allowing slaughterhouses on farmland. Since the council tightened the rules last month to require all applications to go through a public hearing, the Planning Commission voted 6 to 3 to recommend that the council reject the added restriction. The issue is not scheduled to go before the full council Tuesday evening.

-- The Finance and Administrative Services Committee at 11 a.m. will discuss a request for $40,000 to pay for outside legal help in cases related to the county's rules protecting water resources. This fourth request would bring the total spent on outside attorneys for these cases to $140,000. The request will come to a vote of the council at its 7 p.m. meeting.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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