Sunday, April 21, 2024

Summit tackles shortage of affordable workforce housing

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OMAK – Adequate, accessible, and affordable workforce housing is a problem plaguing communities in Okanogan County and communities across the country. Businesses starving for employees, schools short of teachers, and understaffed medical facilities are daily reminders that the need for workers is proportional to their success in finding places to live.

To address this crisis, the Economic Alliance hosted a four-hour housing summit on March 25 at the 12 Tribes Casino conference room, bringing together agencies and specialists from state and local housing resources to share ideas about what can be done locally to meet housing demand. 

Representatives from the state Department of Commerce (DOC), USDA, Okanogan County Planning Department, Central Washington Homebuilders Association (CWHA), CCT Tribal Planning, and Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) were among the panelists who brought their best to the discussion to the table. Economic Alliance Executive Director Roni Holder-Diefenbach opened the meeting.

“Back in 2017 we held our first housing summit post wildfire…and gathered a lot of great information on our housing market. Now we are back post-COVID,” said Holder-Diefenbach “In a world where the cost of living continues to rise, it is imperative that we come together to find sustainable solutions for housing that are affordable for our workforce.”

Economic Alliance chair and contract planner Kurt Danison of Highland Associates shared his perspective.

“I work for a number of cities around Okanogan County and virtually every one of them has issues with housing – primarily workforce housing,” Danison said. 

Methow Housing Trust (MHT) Executive Director Danica Ready, Chief Operating Officer Simon Windell, and board member Don Linnertz, discussed community specific models to address unique housing needs in the Methow.

MHT grew out of the county Long Term Recovery Group organized in the wake of the 2045-15 state record wildfires. MHT began with the bold vision to build 100 new affordable homes in the Methow Valley in 20 years.

“I’m happy to say that we are ahead of schedule and will have 100 homes in 13 years,” Linnertz said.

Ready explained the concept behind a community and trust home. The community invests in the land, stewards it in perpetuity, and builds homes on it that homeowners own. The resale restriction is 1.5 percent per year meaning the homeowner gains equity at that set rate. The equity rate does not increase or decrease with market forces. That means that at the end of a decade that homeowner may have about $40,000 or $50,000 in equity relative to the original cost of the home.

 The MHT has a wait pool of 65 families needing homes and it keeps growing every year.

“Part of what is important about that is when somebody wants to sell their house. we just go direct to the next person in the wait pool,” said Ready. “There are no market forces determining the most eligible buyer.

MHT cashes out the seller for the accrued equity and the home becomes available for the next in line. The housing trust model is helping to meet Methow housing needs.

Ready explained a recent cost-share agreement with the Housing Authority of Okanogan County (HAOC)) where both sides benefitted. HAOC needed apartment housing in the Methow. That required land and affordable infrastructure. MHT had the land and was able to provide the infrastructure at a lower cost than public funding sources mandated. The cost-share agreement allowed HAOC to reimburse MHT at cost for infrastructure. 

HAOC Executive Director Nancy Nash-Mendez then secured an $8.5 million grant from the DOC to build the apartments. Groundbreaking starts next year.

The Methow Conservancy recently purchased 1,200 acres of agricultural and riverfront land some of which is convenient to Winthrop. MHT’s next project is working with the Conservancy to see what housing opportunities can work there.

To date MHT has:

  • 49 homes in Mazama, Winthrop, and Twisp combined.
  • 51 homes in the pipeline to be finished by 2029-30.
  • Acquired properties “shovel ready” for contractor.
  • A contractor relationship with an average building cost of $230/sq. ft. 
  • Private funding to avoid development delays.

MHT has developed an approach that is answering its community housing needs. The challenge is whether that model can be applied to other parts of the county.

Conducting Needs Assessment, Planning and Feasibility panelists Anne Fritzel, DOC Housing Section Manager, Winthrop Planner Rockylyn Culp, and DOC Community Engagement Specialist and former Twisp Mayor, Soo Ing-Moody discussed state housing data, Housing Action Plans, and planning grants for local governments, tribes, and non-profits.

Ing-Moody encouraged a closer look at the diverse programs within the DOC that can help small communities with funding for planning, infrastructure, and other housing components. 

Fritzel reported on results of a DOC 2022 housing survey in which most respondents wanted more state government help to provide diverse and affordable workforce housing and walkable neighborhoods.

How to get Project Ready panelists Char Schumacker, Okanogan County’s Natural Resource Senior Planner, Haley Cohen, Colville Confederated Tribal Planning, and Danison, dealt with public infrastructure, zoning and permitting requirements, capacity building/technical assistance, and legislative advocacy.

“Infrastructure is not free,” reminded Danison. “It’s astounding - $85,000 in public infrastructure for one single family home.”

Danison touched on the many obstacles, costs, and players involved in housing construction that, despite available land and the demand for homes, make a project difficult to complete, He cited an example of a Moses Lake developer who wanted to build a 250-home project in Omak. After penciling out the costs it proved to be unworkable.

“He couldn’t afford the infrastructure, couldn’t afford the cost of construction and, most importantly, he couldn’t afford the local labor,” said Danison who stressed the need for cooperation and support between builders, funders, and regulators. 

“The best way we are going to solve housing problems in our county is through partnerships,” said Danison.

Anna Marie Dalbey, managing broker of The Dalbey Team in Brewster, expressed her frustration over an Omak tract of 15 shovel-ready home lots in search of a contractor willing to build there. 

Danison also mentioned the new updated FEMA flood maps that are designating more property, especially along the rivers, as 100-year floodplain.

Funding and networking panelists Robert Foster, managing director of Courage Housing. Trudy Teter Single Family Housing Director for USDA’s Rural Development, and Darrell Lewis, managing director of Trio Residential, discussed home loans for workers moving toward home ownership, federal and state government programs for development of workforce housing, and private financing and philanthropy.

Courage Housing (couragehousing.com) specializes in refugee housing and homes for new Americans.

Trio Residential (thinktrio.com) offers innovative ways to finance home ownership.

Teter discussed two USDA home purchase programs, the 502 and guaranteed loan.

Business Builds Okanogan panelists Andi Hochleutner (CWHA) and Jay Roberts, owner of Cascade Homes and board member of CWHA and the BIAW spoke about home construction from the contractor’s point of view, and housing options for business.

“A lot of the best practices addressing workforce housing are being done right here in Okanogan County in the Methow Valley,” said Holder-Diefenbach following the summit. “The rest of the communities need to tap into those resources; they are here, available, and willing to help.” 

Mike Maltais: 360-333-8483 or michael@ward.media

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