Low-income rentals added to Whatcom housing subsidy

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 27, 2014 

A fund to subsidize low-income housing will help pay builders' costs for rentals, too, after the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, March 25, voted 5-2 to expand the program.

Rental projects qualify for up to $150,000 in loans to pay for water, sewer and stormwater connection fees; and various impact fees. These costs amount to about $20,000 per unit in Bellingham.

The source of the money is part of the state sales tax returned to rural counties for economic development projects. Proponents of adding rentals to the program said the loans would spur construction of apartment buildings, creating jobs. The more permanent benefit, they said, is that people who take low-wage jobs in Whatcom County would be able to afford to live here.

"We currently have tenant-based rental assistance funds we are not able to spend to house people because rental prices are too high, and the competition for available units so fierce," wrote Dave Finet, executive director of the Opportunity Council, in a Monday, March 24, email to council.

"The development of affordable multi-unit housing in the vicinity of Bellingham also helps stabilize the workforce by reducing transportation costs, keeping folks living closer to where the jobs are," Finet wrote.

Council member Sam Crawford has consistently opposed spending economic development funds on rentals since expansion of the low-income housing program was first proposed in 2012. He has questioned the economic benefit of creating housing for low-wage workers if it doesn't promote home ownership. Council member Ken Mann also voted against adding rentals to the program.

During his tenure on the council, Mann said, the rural economic development investment program has been less about economic development and more of "an infrastructure slush fund."

Mann and council member Rud Browne said it was time to re-evaluate what economic development funds are spent on.

In the three years since the low-income housing subsidy was created, about $450,000 of the $1.2 million has gone toward the development costs of 25 homes. The fund will be replenished as loans are paid back.

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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