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City working on ‘Nexus’ point for affordable housing

Over and over, the city has tried.

Still, long-running efforts to create a sufficient stock of affordable housing on the island have continually stalled at the nexus of frustration and futility.

And housing prices, though slowing some, remain out of reach for many people at the lower rungs of the income ladder.

A new “Nexus Analysis” has laid the legal groundwork for a possible solution, but city leaders on Wednesday agreed it would be only part of a multi-pronged fix.

“This should not be seen as the be all end all for dealing with affordable housing on this island,” said Planning Commission Chair Maradel Gale, as planning commissioners and city council members discussed the possibility of an inclusionary housing ordinance. “It would be one tool in the kit.”

Though still in the works, the ordinance would require developers to contribute to affordable housing, either monetarily or by including affordable units in new projects. In exchange, they would be allowed to build at greater density.

Optional density bonuses are already available for projects that include affordable housing, but the planners say the city has had few takers.

One prominent island developer, who preferred not to be identified, said it’s too early to tell whether the city’s nascent plan is a fair one.

The City Council last month approved $45,000 from the city’s contingency fund to pay for the new analysis, the results of which are supposed to provide the legal backing for the ordinance.

City attorneys recommended the analysis be done, since inclusionary housing programs elsewhere have in the past faced legal challenges.

Using various economic data, the analysis defines the extent to which the city should push its requirements.

For every 100 condominium units, 22 additional affordable units would be needed, the analysis found. Every 100 single-family units would produce a need for 29 affordable units. By state law, a family of four that earns $52,550 – or 80 percent or less of the area’s average median income – would be eligible for those affordable units.

The numbers are intended to guide, rather than set the standard for requirements on Bainbridge, said Kate Funk, of Keyser Marston Associates, the California-based consultant firm that conducted the study.

They still need to be specifically tailored to local market conditions, and would likely be lower than what was presented Wednesday.

“They should be viewed as an umbrella,” Funk said, adding that similar studies have backed up inclusionary ordinances in Seattle and San Francisco.

The city also is considering a fee-in-lieu program that would allow developers to pay money to the city – for the express purpose of creating affordable housing – instead of meeting the requirements within their project.

Fees could be higher than the cost of actually building affordable units, to encourage developers to meet the city’s needs on site.

Inclusionary housing programs originated in 1970s, and have since spread to cities and counties across the country.

San Diego is the largest city to implement such a plan, and California has in general been at the forefront of the trend, with 170 inclusionary programs in existence as of 2006.

Funk said inclusionary housing could work on Bainbridge, despite the island’s high land costs.

“We have a lot of experience here in California with communities with very expensive land,” she said. “What happens is that over time land prices adjust to the addition of inclusionary requirements.”

Inclusionary housing isn’t new to Bainbridge. The city built 82 affordable units between 1992 and 2003, about half of which were the result of an affordable housing ordinance passed in 1997, according to a city study. Of those units, 44 were rentals, and 38 were condos or single family homes.

The old ordinance was repealed at the end of 2004 because it was prone to legal challenges and didn’t ensure units would remain affordable over time.

The city’s recently disbanded Community Housing Coalition spent the past few years developing a draft ordinance.

Now that the nexus analysis is done, the ordinance will be reviewed by the Planning Commission, and could go before the council this summer.

Leaders Wednesday said work on the ordinance should continue, though some wondered how effective it would be on Bainbridge.

City Planner Brent Butler said the city has been fortunate in the past to work with developers with an interest in providing affordable housing.

A recent example of that is at Vineyard Lane, on state Route 305, a complex whose residents include Councilman Barry Peters. It includes a mixture of market rate and affordable condos, and has been lauded by Peters and the city as a model of affordable-housing success.

Still, for now, the inclusion of affordable housing in new projects hinges on the willingness of developers to buy in.

“We have to be talking to the development community,” said Planning Commissioner Charlie Averill. “Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s going to work.”

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