A proposed development on prime downtown Olympia real estate has prompted city officials to explore ways to control the location of low-income housing.
News of the project comes when the city is about to double its downtown supply of market-rate housing — defined as properties that are rented or sold at market value.
But how much low-income housing is too much? Depending on who you ask, both types of housing contribute to Olympia’s economic well-being.
The Low Income Housing Institute of Seattle wants to build a 43-unit subsidized complex called Olympia Commons at 320 Columbia St. NW, across from the Percival Landing waterfront. The building would house homeless veterans and young adults as well as disabled residents and families with children.
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Neighboring business owners have raised concerns that the LIHI project could bring more crime and vandalism into the area instead of an economic boost.
The 0.33-acre corner lot on Columbia Street has previously attracted proposals for market-rate housing that failed to materialize. The institute is under contract to buy the property, and the Olympia Commons is expected to break ground in the fall, said Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI.
The city has asked Lee to consider an alternate site for the development, including the Holly Motel on Martin Way. However, the property on Columbia Street, she said, is ideal for low-income people because of its proximity to amenities such as the Olympia Transit Center.
Lee said the institute will reach out to the community in the coming months to further explain the proposal.
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“There’s a problem when people are saying this site is so nice, low-income people shouldn’t live there,” Lee said, noting the future tenants at Olympia Commons. “I can’t think of a more deserving low-income population than veterans.”
Mayoral candidate and Councilwoman Cheryl Selby said downtown Olympia needs more diversity in its housing stock, especially in the city’s poorest census district where most social services and shelters are located.
“We’re trying to find a way to balance downtown,” she said. “We need (low-income) housing. We do. Just not all of it right downtown.”
Selby also was critical of the proposed LIHI project for using federal tax dollars to buy a desirable property that’s close to so many amenities. Construction and related costs are estimated at about $8 million, according to LIHI, which is seeking approval for a federal tax credit allocation of $861,420.
“For the amount of money that LIHI is going to spend on that project for 43 people,” Selby said, “we could solve homelessness in Thurston County.”
Nearly 83 percent of downtown housing is available for low-income tenants. The city reports 1,263 total low-income units in downtown Olympia, and at least 713 of those housing units are subsidized. The largest subsidized complex is the Boardwalk Apartments, which has 284 units for low-income seniors.
The city’s long-term goal is to increase the number of market-rate units and attract more working residents. Market-rate housing represents about 10 percent of downtown residences with about 163 total units.
However, there are six projects now under construction that will add 210 market-rate housing units — and reduce the low-income housing supply to 73 percent. The biggest in the works is the Columbia Heights apartments at 123 Fourth Ave. W., which will include 138 units upon completion in 2016.
Maggi Maggianetti, owner of Earth Magic at 403 Columbia St. SW, said the Columbia Heights development will bring more people and energy downtown.
“We are ecstatic,” she said of the economic impact of tenants in market-rate housing. “It’s people who can afford more than just rent.”
The concentration of downtown housing was discussed last week by the city’s General Government Committee. City staff will return to the committee March 18 with examples of policy language that could give the city more latitude in deciding the locations of services and facilities that receive public funding.
For example, the policy language could determine a preferred distribution of subsidized housing in other parts of the city, said Leonard Bauer, deputy director for community planning and development.
“Right now, we don’t have any policy on that,” said Bauer, noting that the city must work within the parameters of the Fair Housing Act.
HEALTH AND HOUSING
Olympia resident Shelby Wise, 21, said getting her own apartment was a life-changer.
The single mother of two young children lives at the Capitol Crossing Apartments, 1112 Chestnut St. SE, about two blocks from the Capitol Campus. Wise receives rental assistance from Community Youth Services, a social service agency that helped get her off Olympia’s streets.
The apartment complex is actually considered market-rate housing, and rents range from $825 to $995 per month. Wise is paying $104 a month with a plan to eventually take over the full rent.
In the two years since moving into the apartment, Wise has earned a GED and is planning to enroll in college this fall.
“It’s a great program. It got me and my kids off the street,” Wise said. “If it wasn’t for my housing, I’d be in a tough spot right now.”
The social service sector says affordable housing is a health issue that extends beyond downtown Olympia.
About 15,000 households in Thurston County — roughly 15 percent, or about 38,000 people — spend more than half of their income on housing. The county also reports that about 6,800 of these households receive little or no assistance.
The Thurston Thrives Housing Action Team focuses on helping this struggling segment of the population. The action team reports that access to affordable housing can also help reduce health risks related to stress, depression and poor nutrition.
Stable housing leads to other cost savings. It reduces the number of homeless people who cycle through the system of jails and hospitals, advocates say. Also, housing enables people to focus on treating substance abuse and mental health problems.
“After food and clean water, having a house is sort of foundational to having health,” said Don Sloma, director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services. “You can’t call it a homeless problem. It’s way more complicated than that.”
The Housing Authority of Thurston County’s voucher program provides rental assistance to low-income residents for Section 8 housing. The program has a waiting list of 1,000 households, and in 2012, more than 3,200 people applied. The waiting list began accepting new applicants Friday.