Jefferson County commissioners set hearing for housing tax levy

PORT TOWNSEND — The Jefferson County commissioners have approved a public hearing to get input on a proposed property tax levy aimed at tackling the county’s housing needs.

The hearing will be July 24 at 6 p.m. in the Superior Court at Jefferson County Courthouse, 1820 Jefferson St.

Commissioners Kate Dean and Kathleen Kler approved the hearing at the commissioners’ meeting Monday. Commissioner David Sullivan was absent.

“The choice to approve a hearing is a choice to put this in front of voters,” said Dean. “It’s not our decision to implement the tax. It’s really up to the voters.”

The hearing aims to collect both oral and written testimony from the public on the proposed tax levy for the Home Opportunity Fund, County Administrator Phillip Morley said. Written testimony can be submitted until July 26.

“The point of this is to give the public two opportunities to give their input on whether or not this is a tool, not the only tool but a tool, to address a problem in this community,” Morley said to commissioners Monday. “You’re really going above and beyond the normal process for a public hearing.”

Special session

Commissioners will then hold a special session July 31 at 9 a.m. in commissioners’ chambers at the county courthouse to assess public comment and decide whether to put the proposed levy on the Nov. 7 ballot.

If commissioners approve the proposal for the ballot, it will need a simple majority to pass, Morley said.

“The fact that there is a problem is a starting point,” said Kler. “Now we’re trying to find solutions that the community is in favor of, and we’re starting that process with a public hearing.”

If the levy proposal is passed, it would require the commissioners to declare an emergency in Jefferson County due to the lack of affordable housing for low and very-low income populations.

The Home Opportunity Fund was proposed to help tackle the affordable housing shortage and has been backed by several organizations that deal with affordable housing. They include OlyCAP, Habitat for Humanity, the Peninsula Housing Authority, the Economic Development Council and Bayside Housing Services.

The proposed property tax levy would tax 36 cents per $1,000 assessed value for the fund. The proposal is a seven-year limited term levy expected to raise $1.9 million per year and $13 million to $13.9 million over the seven years, depending on tax base growth due to new construction.

For a home assessed at $250,000, the tax would be about $90 per year, or just under $8 per month.

The levy’s seven-year expiration date is fixed and could not be renewed without going through the entire process again, including a public hearing and a ballot measure, Morley said.

According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study, about half of all renters in Jefferson County are “cost burdened,” meaning 30 percent or more of household income goes toward housing.

Just over half of those cost-burdened households are “severely cost burdened,” meaning 50 percent of household income goes to housing.

According to the study, a quarter of homeowners in Jefferson County also qualify as cost-burdened, partially due to skyrocketing home prices.

According to a University of Washington study, home prices in Jefferson County rose by more than 19 percent in the past year.

Jefferson County also has a home vacancy rate of roughly 1 percent, according to a 2015 Housing Needs Assessment by the state Department of Commerce.

Commerce considers 5 percent vacancy a “natural rate,” which allows for continued economic growth, Morley said.

“When you have scarcity, prices go up,” Morley said. “That’s basic economics.”

Low income families especially are struggling.

According to Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP), there are only about 600 subsidized low-income housing units in the county, and all of them have a six- to 12-month waiting list.

According to the briefing by Morley at Monday’s meeting, of the families in the county that qualify for HUD Section 8 Rental Assistance Vouchers, 60 percent to 80 percent of them cannot find available housing before their voucher expires.

“What good is that assistance if you can’t use it?” Morley asked.

The proposal focuses on low and very-low income populations in Jefferson County. According to the HUD, low-income is defined as making 80 percent of the local median household income. Very-low income is defined as making 50 percent of the median household income.

In the county, the median household income is $47,202 per year, according to the 2014 U.S. Census.

A single person making $36,050 per year or less would qualify as low-income and a single person making $22,550 per year or less would qualify as very-low income.

The fund would be divided into thirds. Out of the 36 cents taxed, 12 would go toward funding housing projects for low-income residents and 24 cents would go toward very-low income housing.

The fund itself would be separate from the county’s general fund and could only be used to help fund projects that would build or preserve affordable housing in the county.

If the proposal passes, commissioners would appoint a Home Opportunity Fund Board made up of nine citizens from a variety of backgrounds. The board would consider project proposals from local nonprofits or private contractors and make recommendations to the commissioners, who could then award loans or grants from the fund to help approved projects.

“This isn’t government solving the problem,” Morley said. “It’s providing the resources to local housing providers so they can solve the problem. They need that funding upfront to get those state and federal grants as well as funding from nonprofits and private donors. You can think of it as a KickStarter of sorts.”

Kler said the county has passed similar levies for mental health and transit projects.

“We need those matching funds to get those federal funds,” Kler said.

The levy is based on a similar levy passed by the city of Bellingham in 2012. The city ended up raising $12 million for affordable housing projects.

“They set aggressive goals for the populations they were trying to help, the low and very low income, and exceeded those goals,” Morley said.

Vancouver also passed a similar levy last year.

“Today is not to impose a tax but to set a hearing so community members can decide whether or not to put it on the ballot,” said Deborah Peterson, a community member who spoke in favor of the hearing during Monday’s public comments. “A hearing would be a way for the public to hear about the levy and to share their opinions, since there are a lot of opinions.”

A full draft of the proposal will be available on the county’s website, www.co.jefferson.wa.us, starting Wednesday and written testimony can be emailed to jeffbocc@co.jefferson.wa.us or mailed to the county commissioners’ office at P.O. box 1220, Port Townsend, WA 98368.

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at cmcfarland@peninsuladailynews.com.

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