City reviews draft plan for Affordable Housing funds

While Tacoma residents decide whether to approve a levy on Nov. 8 that would raise $15 million over six years to fund affordable housing, city staffers have prepared the first draft of a plan designed to administer those funds if the levy is approved, according to a presentation Aug. 1 during the Tacoma City Council Neighborhoods and Housing Committee.

The draft administrative plan — which was prepared by the Tacoma Economic Development Department (TEDD) and outlines policies and procedures for the distribution of money from the Tacoma Housing Development Trust Fund — includes details on the production of affordable housing, eligibility requirements, funding priorities, application process, and terms and conditions. It is the first step toward a goal of council approval of the plan before the levy is presented to voters.

“We need to have a strong and compelling argument to make to voters,” said Mayor Bill Baarsma, who supports the levy. The mayor, who also chairs the committee, told his council colleagues that a plan for administering funds would help build support for the levy.

Currently, the plan calls for an annual allocation of approximately $2.6 million from the Trust Fund toward affordable homeownership and rental properties, in addition to program administration and neighborhood projects. According to the plan presented yesterday, homeownership would account for one-third of the affordable housing and receive $847,000 annually. Rental properties would account for two-thirds of affordable housing and receive approximately $1.7 million annually. Program administration and neighborhood projects would each receive $50,000.

The plan also details the production of affordable housing in Tacoma, including 41 homeownership units and 82 rental units during the program’s first year. Over the six-year length of the levy, homeownership units would total 246, and rental units would total 492, for a total of 738 affordable housing units.

Voter approval is one hurdle for the affordable housing levy.

Another hurdle is a disagreement between councilmembers regarding finalization of the administrative plan.

Councilmember Tom Stenger, who also serves on the committee, vehemently opposed the plan, citing its lack of design review for affordable housing projects, as well as a provision that cedes authority for Trust Fund loans from the City Council to the Tacoma Community Redevelopment Authority (TCRA).

“If we don’t have design protections, no affordable housing levy will pass,” said Stenger, who was angered by the plan’s lack of policies and procedures for design requirements. “We were told a design review process would be in the plan. I don’t think the public will vote for a tax issue where their money would subsidize ugly buildings.”

Peter Huffman, who oversees the growth management division of TEDD, told Stenger that staffers were currently developing a design review policy that would apply citywide — not just on affordable housing projects. “It’s a big policy question,” said Huffman, who explained that the city’s design review practices are handled by three different and uncoordinated entities: the Foss Waterway Development Authority for projects along the Thea Foss Waterway; the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission (for historic sites); and city standards for commercial zoning.

Stenger was also outraged by a plan to give authority to approve funds for affordable housing projects to TCRA beginning in 2007.

“Why would the city council have authority for only one year?” asked Stenger. “Why are we suggesting to take it away? I’m surprised by people who say the city council cannot appropriate funds.”

TEDD Director Ryan Petty replied, “We’re simply here with a draft administrative plan. There’s not any resistance to your authority.”

“It should be noted this is a draft,” added Mayor Baarsma. “I can guarantee there will be changes. We have a number of concerns. I expect as we move through the plan, we’ll have a number of amendments. When I cast my vote, the issues Councilmember Stenger posed will be considered by this committee and the council. I appreciate his comments. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Councilmember Julie Anderson, who has most vocally supported the affordable housing levy, applauded the work done so far. “The staff has done a great job of giving us a starting point,” she said. “That’s exactly what this is. You’ve met your mission and I appreciate it.”

She also agreed with a plan to address design review on a city-wide basis. “I’m pleased with leaving out design review and dealing with it in total, rather than tying it to specific projects and specific income levels. We need to consider it in the broadest context.”

Councilmember Anderson also saw some advantage to giving approval authority to TCRA, saying that such a move would “de-politicize” the grant process and provide a better division of labor and resource management. “TCRA is very competent,” she said. “I feel very confident about that.”

The City Council approved an ordinance July 19 placing the affordable housing proposition on the ballot. If passed by voters, the levy would raise taxes 18 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation — costing the average homeowner $32.14 per year.

Councilmembers and city staffers will continue to finalize an administrative plan over the next few months. A final plan will be approved by the council in October.