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Housing fraught with politicking

Efforts to promote affordability through legislation have mired time and again.

Dollars to Dwell:

This is the fourth installment in a multi-part series on curent affordable housing issues on Bainbridge Island.

Measure twice, cut once.

That bedrock rule of carpentry sums up the direction a frustrated City Council gave to the island’s desk-bound builders of low-cost housing.

“The council has provided some guidance and now we expect some work product,” said Councilman Bob Scales, expressing a desire for housing experts to stop measuring the problem and to start cutting into it.

With housing costs soaring far beyond the means of many people who work on the island, Scales estimates the island has an immediate need for 500 or more affordable residential units.

The council, through a recent resolution, sent a “very strong signal” that a slate of affordable housing projects should be hammered out before the end of the year, Scales said.

“We anxiously await the delivery,” said Councilman Nezam Tooloee, during a discussion in which the council approved a work plan drafted by the Community Housing Coalition, a group created by the council over two years ago to jumpstart lagging affordable housing initiatives.

CHC workplan items highlighted by the council for year-end completion include:

• Redrafting the city’s affordable housing ordinance, which was repealed two years ago.

• Establishing programs and incentives to encourage a larger stock of low-cost rentals, such as mother-in-law dwellings.

• Crafting proposed allowances for denser clusters of smaller, lower-cost homes, often called “cottage housing.”

• Allowing the rebuild of existing affordable apartments at the same density as was permitted when the structures were built.

Scales estimates that the city has spent over $300,000 on the CHC but has yet to see any return on the investment.

“We have funded the CHC…to do the work,” he said. “We have yet to see a product.”

Scales’ call for action comes with a not-so-veiled hint that the CHC could be disbanded if the council doesn’t see results in the next five months.

CHC Director Kat Gjovik said the pressure’s mounting.

“I think it’s important that we continue with our approach,” she said. “We’re off to a good start. I’d hate to see it disappear.”

The CHC will also come under scrutiny from a soon-to-be completed financial assessment of how effectively affordable housing groups are using city money.

Gjovik defended the CHC’s work, saying that the organization is fulfilling one of its primary mandates: build stronger partnerships among various housing groups.

“We’ve got the big picture in mind with our arms around all the things going on, the partnerships and what each of the organizations is doing,” she said.

As for the policies and programs the CHC was charged with, Gjovik said some are about to launch, while the affordable housing ordinance, in particular, has had its fuse fizzle under the weight of its own complexity.

The ordinance, which required 10 percent affordable housing on most developments over eight units, was repealed in December 2004 after it was judged ineffective and prone to legal challenge.

Other problems included confusing paperwork for home buyers, time consuming processing requirements for the city, unclear standards for judging resale value and the return of affordable units to market prices during resale.

“Improving the affordable housing ordinance was far more complex than anyone realized,” Gjovik said. “The draft required a lot of technical expertise that we didn’t anticipate.”

Gjovik has seen no evidence that the ordinance’s deletion led to a building boom by developers wishing to capitalize on the gap between the repeal and the future version.

Had the ordinance stayed in effect, both she and Scales believe it would have produced few units.

The CHC’s draft of the ordinance, which was submitted for city review over a year ago, includes proposals for a 15 percent affordable housing requirement for mid-size and large developments.

A lack of qualified city staff has stymied the process, according to City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs. The city’s key affordable housing planner, Kathy Cook, was recently reassigned to head the Winslow Tomorrow planning initiative.

Cook’s move halted the housing ordinance process until someone is hired to replace her.

“We’ve been unable to do our part because of a lack of horsepower on our side,” Briggs said.

Some on the council were sympathetic toward the city staff position.

“I’m concerned about the ability to get this done by the end of the year because we don’t have a dedicated city planner,” said Councilman Kjell Stoknes.

Councilman Bill Knobloch stressed that the ordinance delivered to the council in draft form won’t mean the city’s near the finish line for implementing new affordable housing guidelines.

“From private property owners I expect there’ll be some pushback,” he said. “Let’s be realistic. This will create a lot of community discussion and it’ll take some work.”

That’s all the more reason for clearly stating to the CHC the council’s demand for fast action, said Scales.

“What we have to say is not an ambiguous ‘this is what we’d like,’” he said. “We have to say ‘this is what we expect.’”

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Ambitious agenda

Having a diverse population means having a diverse array of housing options, affordable housing advocate say. The Community Housing Coalition, the city and other housing groups are teaming up to establish a variety of incentives, regulations and programs to encourage more rental and low-cost housing on Bainbridge Island. A few of these proposed solutions are detailed here:

• Affordable Housing Ordinance: The city’s original affordable housing ordinance was repealed in 2005 to make way for an improved version that might include middle-income earners as well as those who typically qualify for subsidized housing. While the old ordinance mandated 10 percent affordable housing for mid-size and large developments, discussions are underway to boost the requirement up to 15 percent. The new ordinance is also aimed at streamlining the process for prospective homeowners, builders and city staff.

• Accessory Dwelling Units: Commonly called mother-in-law apartments, these small, rental units could expend the island’s stock of affordable residences. The CHC is working to encourage landowners to make more existing units available and is crafting proposed incentives for the construction of new ones.

• Community Land Trusts: Residents purchase the house while the land is held in a nonprofit trust, thereby offsetting the cost of the home. The Housing Resources Board is considering a CLT on a 6 acre property recently donated on Ferncliff Avenue.

• Cottage Housing: Under a new city ordinance, this model could designate certain areas for a larger number of homes than present zoning allows. The homes would be small, low cost and clustered together.

• Nonconforming Structure Allowances: New rules would allow an older building’s replacement with an equal number of units regardless of whether current zoning would allow it. Housing advocates say such a rule would help the island maintain its stock of affordable residences in case an old apartment building is damaged by fire or earthquake.

• Development Incentives: Builders could earn density bonuses for agreeing to provide lower cost units or pay into an affordable housing fund.

• Senior Home Shares: Under development by the Housing Resources Board, this program could link senior homeowners with qualified renters. Prospective tenants would undergo a screening process and may receive rent deductions for assisting homeowners with basic chores or home care.

Who’s doing what?

With about a half dozen groups on Bainbridge Island working on low cost housing, some islanders are unclear about who does what and there the groups intersect, said affordable housing advocate Kat Gjovik.

“We run into that all the time,” said Gjovik, who directs the Community Housing Coalition. “It can seem to some that we’re chasing our tails about affordable housing, but there’s clear delineations and a real system to make things happen.”

Listed below are some of the primary affordable housing groups operating on Bainbridge.

Community Housing Coalition: The City Council established the CHC two years ago coordinate the various housing groups. CHC membership includes representatives from various other groups. The CHC also conducts research, participates in public education and helps the city draft housing programs and ordinances.

Housing Resources Board: Established almost 20 years ago, the island-based nonprofit acquires, develops and manages properties for affordable housing. The HRB manages about 88 units on the island.

Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority: Based in Bremerton, this organization has acquired, developed and managed affordable housing units throughout Kitsap County for 25 years. The KCCHA recently purchased Finch Place Apartments in Winslow.

Housing Trust Fund: This city group, which includes elected officials and citizens, helps fund affordable housing projects on Bainbridge.

Helpline House: This island-based nonprofit organization partners with the HRB in finding emergency shelter and provides services for homeless people.

Trust for Working Landscapes: Mainly focused on buying and preserving Bainbridge farmland, TWL is developing affordable housing programs for island farmers.

Health, Housing & Human Services: The HHHS serves as the umbrella organization for the CHC, giving it financial and broad planning oversight. HHHS also provides funding for the HRB, Helpline House and other groups.

– Tristan Baurick

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