Want Affordable Housing? Say No to Prop 1 and Yes to City Unplanning
By Jessica Hogenson
PORT LUDLOW - Proposition 1 would impose a county-wide property tax to create a $13 million fund for groups promising to build affordable housing in Port Townsend. The seven-year tax levy would regressively tax low-income homeowners at the same rate as people with million dollar houses.
What projects are proposed by Prop 1? None, apparently. “Prop 1 is nothing other than a levy to create a dedicated fund," writes City Councilmember David J. Faber in a Facebook group about affordable housing. "No project has applied for funds because they cannot because the fund does not yet exist.”
Homes Now, the organizer behind Prop 1, references on its website a handful of local nonprofits that may or may not apply for grants which may or may not be awarded at the discretion of a “Fund Board” comprising yet-to-be-appointed persons. (But only after we vote for the funding!)
Olycap is one such nonprofit—a beloved local organization which, by all accounts, does good work. One would hope. According to its 2015 IRS 990 tax return, it spent more than twice as much in salaries and compensation ($4.11 million) as it spent on grants ($1.83 million).
Then there is Homeward Bound, the organization that famously barged over a four-plex building from Victoria, B.C. after the City of Port Townsend fast-tracked a $250,000 loan and gave them a parcel of tax-payer-owned land for a buck. City manager David Timmons estimates the project cost at $1.3 million. Half a year later, the still-vacant building remains perched atop metal I-beams and Jenga-like stacks of wood. No timeline or plan for completion has been released, but officials assure it will be soon.
(See article: Cherry Street affordable housing project in Port Townsend draws complaints)
Pretend Prop 1 passes and imagine that, eventually, an actual building is built and made habitable for actual humans. If a tenant earns a pay raise that renders his or her family no longer eligible for affordable housing, what happens?
A “great scenario!” says Homes Now’s Bruce Cowan, explaining on the same Facebook group: “Those who no longer need housing for low-income households will move into market rate places.” But fellow Prop 1 spokesperson Aislinn Palmer disputes that a tenant would be asked to leave, “though they may have to pay higher rent if their income changes significantly.”
So which is it? Will Prop 1 reward success with evictions or rent hikes? Nobody seems to know, but either way it’s bad. “We can’t write full handbooks like that for a fund that doesn’t exist yet,” reasons Palmer.
If Prop 1 isn’t the solution, what is? Housing is tight in Port Townsend, but this is not a problem unique to our Victorian town. In a 2015 research paper titled “How Land Use Regulation Undermines Affordable Housing,” SUNY Purchase economics professor Sanford Ikeda and Mercatus Center fellow Emily Washington find that local regulations in cities across the U.S. significantly raise housing prices, disproportionately affecting the poor.
Port Townsend’s municipal code is driven by aesthetics, not economic freedom. Regulations that “maintain and promote the ‘small town’ character” do so at the expense of its poorest residents. Allow higher density apartments and larger lots. Suspend height restrictions. Review and revise the 40 sections of dense text that comprise the historic preservation code.
Port Townsend has a few tools at its disposal to increase affordable housing options without hurting poor people. Prop 1 is not one of them.
Jessica Hogenson is a former staffer at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She owns Cantelon Design, a marketing and graphic design firm, and lives in Port Ludlow with her husband and daughter.
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