Housing Effort Expands Funds for Affordable Housing

The Spokane Alliance's Housing Equity Action Research Team (HEART) efforts to expand affordable housing in West Central Spokane exemplify how community-based organizing gathers participants to assess needs and resources in a community, and how it involves community stakeholders to attempt to create a sustainable, equitable solution to address a community's needs.

Photo of Katy Zinler and Katy Shedlock in front of map of West Central neighborhood

The Fig Tree - By Catherine Ferguson SNJM - March, 2021

Five members of HEART, Lynda Maraby, a governing board member of the Faith Action Network of Washington; Franciscan Sr. Kathryn Roberg FSPA; Chloe Sciammas, community organizer at Spokane Alliance; Katy Shedlock, co-pastor of West Central Abbey, and Katie Zinler, lead organizer at the Spokane Alliance, recently shared insights and achievements on affordable housing.

Their campaign grew from community organizing work at the West Central Abbey. In 2019, guests and volunteers at the Abbey's Wednesday night free Dinner Table identified the lack of stable, affordable, and dignified housing as their top concern. 

Maraby highlighted the problem from her perspective.

"At the warming shelter run by Salem Lutheran Church, there were a number of people who had housing vouchers, but they couldn't find housing," she said.

The group's next steps were for volunteer members of HEART to explore the West Central neighborhood, identifying vacant lots and buildings that could be turned into affordable housing. They discovered 33 homes that were either boarded up or vacant long-term.

Then, even though he is not part of HEART, Rob McCann, president, and CEO of Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, inspired the group to articulate the issue by telling them that Catholic Charities can build an entire new building faster than someone with a housing voucher can get off the waitlist for affordable housing.

"My 'aha' moment came when I heard Rob analyze the issue, saying we cannot solve the housing problem until we have money to build affordable housing," said Shedlock.

A local source of funding was present: the West Quadrant Tax Increment Funding (WQTIF), a local funding mechanism intended to create improvements in the West Central, Riverside, and Emerson-Garfield neighborhoods, Zinler explained.

TIFs capture increases in local property taxes and reinvest those funds directly into the neighborhood instead of in the city's general fund. The group then learned that Washington was the only state in the country where the TIF funds were not allowed to be spent on affordable housing.

In October, Spokane Alliance held a candidates' forum for those running for Spokane City Council and Mayor.  Each candidate was asked to pledge their support to working with the Spokane Alliance to increase affordable housing in the neighborhood. Specifically, they were asked to support the use of TIF money for affordable housing.

In the winter of 2019-2020, HEART successfully worked with District 3 state legislators and expanded the allowable uses of TIF funding to include affordable housing, Zinler said. Later that year, the alliance worked with a number of neighborhood partners including REACH West Central and the Neighborhood Council to incorporate this change into the WQTIF and to extend the TIF for an additional 15 years. After 2032, half of the WQTIF funds will be used for affordable housing, she said.

Next, the team turned their eyes to a potentially greater source of funding for affordable housing in Spokane. In 2020, the Washington State Legislature passed HB 1590, which allows the city and county the ability to create a small sales tax increase if the funds are committed to affordable housing, Shedlock said.

In October 2020, the Spokane Alliance gathered more than 150 people and three members of the Spokane City Council to solidify public support for 1590 and to gain commitments from the council members to bring the issue to a vote before the end of the year.

Shedlock said that Council Members Karen Stratton, Betsy Wilkerson, and Kate Burke committed their support and promised to bring the measure to a vote in December. On the night of the vote, the majority of people testifying on 1590 supported the measure and the Council approved it by a 6 to 1 vote.

On Dec. 3, 2020, the Spokane Journal of Business reported that the Spokane City Council approved a measure that will impose a 0.1 percent sales and use tax, the revenue from which will be dedicated to providing for the construction, acquisition, and rehabilitation of affordable housing, as well as housing-related support services—such as more affordable housing with the city.

Even though the measure passed the City Council, results will not be seen immediately. The City of Spokane will notify the State Department of Revenue of their approval of 1590 in April and funds will begin to be collected in July.

According to council, the tax increase raises the sales tax rate from 8.9 to 9 percent. It is estimated to cost an average family $25 per year and raise about $5.8 million for the city to distribute to help not only in building and obtaining new units, but could also be used for programs designed to help people move into housing, said Shedlock.

HEART members see their success in this action as a source of hope about the power of a group of ordinary people to contribute to a solution to a community problem. They also stress the need for more work to ensure that the distribution of funds has wide participation and contributes to racial equity in housing. 

Shedlock affirmed that there needs to be strategic conversation because so often people of color are on the margin or are left out.

Council Members Stratton and Wilkerson, in particular, voiced this concern in comments on the bill, suggesting that the council put together a community committee to look at applications from nonprofits and for-profit builders for wide participation. They want to be sure that the city does not continue to stand by and pretend not to see the large number of people who have been most negatively impacted by the present housing crisis.

"The historical patterns of discrimination in housing markets and housing policy, including families at risk of homelessness, has gone on for far too long and it is time we change that pattern in eliminating those barriers so that everyone has a fair and equitable opportunity at safe, clean and affordable homes," Wilkerson said about the bill.

HEART members believe that the equitable implementation of 1590 can be a step on this path.

For information, email [email protected] or visit www.spokanealliance.org.

Note: because of the similarity of their names—Katy and Katie—we chose to use last names for this article.

[email protected] The Fig Tree, March, 2021

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