It isn't easy telling tenants who are losing their homes to a condo conversion that you can only help them by giving a tax break to apartment developers. But that's the situation two City Councilmembers found themselves in last week at the Ballard library.
The Sept. 12 meeting of the Ballard Community Council was advertised in flyers as a forum on affordable housing -- a hot topic these days for residents of Lock Vista, a Ballard complex that is currently being sold to a developer who plans to convert its 191 units.
Residents of the complex -- some sporting "Save Lock Vista" T-shirts -- packed the room to ask Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark, chair and co-chair of the council's Housing Committee, what the city can do to help them. But Rasmussen made it clear that he and Clark were there to talk about expanding something called the Multifamily Tax Exemption, not saving Lock Vista.
Nothing can be done about their apartments, Rasmussen said, because state law prevents the city from regulating condo conversions -- something Rasmussen is working to change in the Legislature. The city considered buying it, Office of Housing Director Adrienne Quinn said at the meeting, but brokers told her it would cost $40 million -- a figure, she said, that dwarfs the city's annual $8 million budget for building housing.
Rasmussen and Quinn then outlined "Homes Within Reach" -- the mayor's name for his proposal to increase the neighborhoods and income ranges covered by the city's existing Multifamily Tax Exemption. Passed in 1994, the law currently allows developers in 17 neighborhoods to pay no property tax on new buildings for 10 years if they make rents or condo prices affordable in 20 to 30 percent of the building's units. (For condos, it's the initial buyers who get to take the tax break.)
Today, the top income allowed for an individual renter is $38,150, or 70 percent of the area's median income. The mayor's plan would increase the tax break to 12 years and up the income range to 100 percent of median, covering individuals making $42,000 to $52,000 a year, along with expanding the program to 39 neighborhoods -- including Ballard, which is already in the midst of a condo boom.
When Ballard resident Wallace Rickard asked who in the room makes $42,000 a year, no one raised their hand. "A tax incentive for multibillion-dollar corporations, to me," he said, "sounds very Republican."
Others questioned whose taxes would pay for sidewalks and other infrastructure that new developments would require and how long before the new apartments themselves could be converted to condos.
"We need to act and stop the condo conversion because we're losing diversity in our community," said one man to applause. "We're losing people who grew up here."
Rasmussen and Quinn stressed, however, that other city housing funds are available for people who make less than $42,000 a year. There's no way right now, they said, for the city to address the housing squeeze faced by moderate-income workers such as firefighters, teachers, and nurses.
"When we have an earthquake, would you prefer to have the police, the firefighters, the nurses live in the city, or do you want them to be living in Bellingham?" Quinn asked. "It's not a question of one income group being more important than another, but what tool can work at each different income level."
Lock Vista resident Iskra Johnson wasn't impressed. "This is extremely timid," she said. "It just seems you could do a lot more."
[Events] Councilmembers will attend two more meetings to take public comment on expanding the housing tax break for developers:
* Sept. 19, 7 p.m., at the Youngstown Cultural Center, 4408 Delridge Way S.W. * Sept. 26, 6 p.m., at the Rainier Community Center, 4600 38th S. For information, call (206)684-8808.