Photo of mural on exterior of the Liberty Bank Building.

Housing Finance Commission Biased Against Black-Led Projects, Say Community Groups

by Ashley Archibald

A state commission that doles out debt financing for affordable housing projects is working with community members on reform after criticism that its method for allocating needed money leaves out communities of color.

The current point system used by the Washington State Housing Finance Committee (WSHFC) to assign bonds that help finance affordable housing projects has no allowance for Black- or POC-led projects and promotes less expensive studio and one-bedroom units that don’t work for larger families, critics said in a Feb. 25 meeting in which roughly 80 community members, organized by King County Equity Now, called in to express their anger and frustration.

The process ultimately excludes Black communities from access to appropriate affordable housing and homeownership and also Black developers and construction managers from participating in the government-backed program, said K. Wyking Garrett, president of the Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT). ACLT had applied for financing for its Africatown Plaza project in the January round but did not receive funding.

“When we look at who is actually benefiting, who is generating wealth, who is getting the primary economic gain or the lion’s share of the economic gain related to these development projects, it’s very much not reflective of the community to be impacted,” Garrett told the Emerald.

It’s too late to reform the point system for the first round of bond allocation in 2021, but the commission has been meeting with community members ahead of its April board meeting to change the system to better serve the community.

“We are at a point in time that we need to reevaluate, reset, and look at how the scoring criteria has impacted the community and seek direction on different outcomes,” said Lisa Vatske, WSHFC director of Multifamily Housing and Community Facilities, at the Feb. 25 virtual meeting.

The bonds in question are part of a nearly half-billion-dollar program in which the State directs low-interest bonds to private projects that provide a public benefit. Housing projects receive the largest share of those funds (42%) followed by the “small issue” category which funds projects at $1 million or less (25%). Bonds can also be allocated to student loans (5%), but if none of that is used, the student loan portion may go to housing.

This program is critical not just because it lowers the cost of financing affordable housing projects, but also because if half of a project is funded through these public bonds, the project gets access to a particular category of low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) through the federal government that further lowers the cost of building the units.

The dollar amount of the bond cap for a given year is calculated by multiplying the state’s population by 100. If demand does not exceed supply, approved projects receive funding. If not, a competitive process begins, and the point system kicks in.

In recent years demand has exceeded supply, and competition is stiff. The January 2021 allocation round received 30 applications and funded 13. In 2020, the commission received 52 applications and funded 20. The previous year saw 32 applications and funded 22.

“This is a resource issue,” Vatske said. “We do not have enough resources.”

That didn’t sit well with community members who saw their interests thwarted at every turn, be it the availability of funding, the types of units funded, or who got paid to build those units. Dozens showed up for the Zoom call’s public comment time to speak to the issue, sometimes overwhelming commissioners who resorted to cutting mics as people chimed in to criticize their decisions and their public meeting processes.

Each project up for approval has to hit 40 points. Things that will earn a project points include the amount of resources brought to the project, how many low-income units are included, how cost efficient the development is, and how much of a project is set aside to serve priority populations, just to name a few.

Cost per unit and how much of the bond cap is requested also fit into a project’s evaluation outside of the points system. That works against Black families, who need more bedrooms to accommodate their households said Marcus Price of FAME Housing at the Feb. 25 meeting.

“When we look at the unit size for the people who form our community, which is a lot larger than the one and two bedrooms, it seems like we’re really being marked down when we want to offer four bedrooms and three bedrooms,” Price said.

Ultimately, the issue of who receives State funding for housing and why are questions of equity. The systems need reform, WSHFC Executive Director Steve Walker acknowledged.

“Sometimes we need some pushing, sometimes we need some hard conversation, sometimes we need collaborative efforts,” Walker told community members.

WSHFC has held public forums after the Feb. 25 meeting, Garrett said, and a new set of slides posted on Mar. 17 indicated that “two public development authorities will get an allocation so they may issue on behalf of their 2021 projects (Africatown and North Lot).”

“Now is the time for us to take bold and unprecedented steps towards building a new normal rooted in equity, and this is a key area for such,” Garrett told the Emerald.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on April 2, 2021, with the correct name for WSHFC, which is the Washington State Housing Finance Commission. Steve Walker’s title was also corrected; he is the executive director of WSHFC, not commissioner. The Emerald regrets the errors.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

Featured Image: The Liberty Bank Building, an affordable housing project created by Africatown Community Land Trust. Africatown and other community groups are critical of how the Washington State Housing Finance Committee (WSHFC) selects projects. Another Africatown project at 23rd and Spring was denied WSHFC funding in January. (Photo: Andrew Engelson)

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