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Where are the “Housers”?

“We call ourselves Housers,” said a former staffer of the Housing Authority of Thurston County. I had never heard the term before but now I had a word for the opposite of “Developers.”

Housers build housing for people in need of homes and a place to live at a price that reflects the reality of their wages or income. Developers turn over land for profit. The City favors developers. If Olympia is to exit the housing crisis, its Council and staff need to prioritize the Housers. At every Site Review Committee meeting, every Design Review Board hearing or Planning Commission discussion, someone should be saying “Let’s hear from the Housers.”

[The Authority] builds or buys housing units and rents them at below market rates and it partners with non-profit organizations to provide rent subsidies.

In Thurston County, one place to find Housers is the Housing Authority of Thurston County. The Authority provides permanent low-income housing in two main ways. It builds or buys housing units and rents them at below market rates, and it partners with non-profit organizations to provide rent subsidies.

The Authority is a public corporation authorized by the State Legislature and chartered by the Thurston County Commissioners in 1971. It became operational in the early-1980s. The Authority has a staff of twenty, an annual budget of $22 million and is governed by a six–person Board. Five are appointed by Thurston County Commissioners; the sixth is appointed by the other five and by law is a person receiving rental assistance from the Housing Authority.

The Authority owns sixteen different housing complexes ranging from townhouses to large apartment complexes for a current total 553 units. A one-bedroom unit rents for $725 to $910 and a two-bedroom for $800 to $1200. Although chartered by the Thurston County Commission, the Authority receives no annual financial allocation from the County and, unlike the Port, can’t assess property taxpayers to subsidize its operations.

Instead, the Authority must compete with dozens of other operations for state and federal grants. It can, however, rely on its assets and rental income to secure financing from local banks to build or purchase more housing. It also has the option of floating tax-exempt revenue bonds for these same purposes.

The second way the Authority provides below-market–rate housing is through its voucher program. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants a certain number of Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) to the Authority. At the same time, HUD fixes the amount of funds that can be spent on these vouchers. As rents continue to rise, they absorb more of the money allocated for these vouchers thus making fewer available.

Additionally, none of these vouchers is enough to cover the rent of a newly built market–rate apartment. The Authority, via an electronic lottery, provides these vouchers to individuals for use in obtaining housing. It is estimated that only about 25% of those individuals in need of a voucher can obtain one.

The Authority also designates about 20% of these Housing Choice Vouchers for Project–Based Vouchers. These vouchers are tied to specific units and subsidize the operations of non-profit organizations that provide housing to people who can’t afford to pay market rates. In total, the Authority provides Project Based Vouchers to twelve apartment complexes serving people with annual incomes of $27,000 or less.

For example, the Authority uses project–based vouchers to provide a $38,000/month subsidy to the Unity Commons’ sixty-two unit apartment complex. Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) built this complex on Martin Way. Other examples of the Authority’s collaboration with the LIHI are the downtown Fleetwood apartments on 7thAvenue, and the Billy Frank Jr. apartments on State Avenue.

The Authority has these mechanisms that can allow it to purchase or build housing. Such housing will prevent homelessness and contribute to solving our local and regional housing crisis, but the Authority needs to be called upon or included in regional and local planning. For example, in the City of Olympia’s Housing Action Plan of June 2021, the Authority is not even mentioned. Instead the City continues to focus on incentivizing market–rate housing.

Many people remember the debacle of the Olympia City Council gifting a prime piece of downtown real estate to their favored developer. They gave the burnt-out Griswold building on 4th avenue to millionaire developer Walker John for $50,000, even though the City paid $300,000 for it. They also promised to pay the demolition costs and give John a property tax exemption. If this building had been gifted to Housers, they would have built housing permanently available for residents who can’t afford the market–rate apartments that litter downtown.

The City of Olympia is embarking on a major planning effort on the Westside of Olympia, the 272 acre Capital Mall Triangle subarea. It received a $250,000 grant from the Department of Commerce. It appears that the City is once again creating an “investor zone” rather than a “houser zone.” In the application, Mayor Selby stated she wants to “set the table for high-density, mixed use housing” and expand the City’s use of “multifamily (property) tax exemptions.” In the City’s response to the question of “tools to promote low-income housing in the area?” There is no mention of working with the one public entity charged with creating such housing: the Housing Authority of Thurston County.

It’s clear what the Housing Authority can do working on its own and in collaboration with the Low Income Housing Institute and other non-profits. The City and the County need to prioritize the Authority’s mission if housing that is affordable to low–income residents is their actual goal.

Dan Leahy lives on Olympia’s Westside.

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