affordable housing is lost?
An apartment complex would turn into market-rate housing after sale
Jill Clayton (left) stands with neighbors Amy Emmer and Amy’s sister Katy Emmer (right) in front of the Pilchuck Ridge Apartments on Wednesday, Aug. 22. The three are preparing to move out of their affordable housing units as the property is being sold to private, for-profit developers. With limited options and special needs, and a dearth of affordable housing options, they are unsure if they will find somewhere suitable.
SNOHOMISH — Twenty-eight of Snohomish’s 377 affordable housing units will be converted to market-rate rentals once a downtown apartment complex sells, and vulnerable tenants are wondering how and where they might find secure housing.
The Pilchuck Ridge Apartments are at Sixth Street and Pine Avenue, adjacent to the Centennial Trail. Belonging to the neighborhood has meant a lot to residents, but when nonprofits were unable to muster up funds to preserve it, private developers also saw the value of the central location and acted quickly to buy in.
Amy Emmer is a Pilchuck Ridge resident, and her sister Katy, who has Down Syndrome, is another. Katy moved in just two weeks ago and the sisters are sharing a 617-square foot apartment.
With “all the talk about affordable housing” Emmer expected someone would act to retain Pilchuck Ridge’s status, but that hope has fizzled.
Amy Emmer has spina bifida and chronic migraines and is unable to work. She helps her neighbors though and tends a small garden she is becoming resigned to losing.
Jill Clayton, 85, took pride in her garden, too. But she no longer sees the point. She moved to Pilchuck Ridge a year ago from worse housing, after rent increases squeezed her out of her prior home.
When the women came to Pilchuck Ridge, those plots were largely bare, but with time and care, the plants and the community flourished.
Every tenant is at a disadvantage: all are low-income and many struggle with significant challenges from single-parenthood to life-threatening illnesses.
But they watch out for each other, tend their shared space and as Emmer says, “we have value” and “we add value” to our community.
Pilchuck Ridge was built in 1990. Developers benefitted from incentives from the USDA Rural Housing Services program in exchange for providing affordable housing. The affordable housing requirement ended about 10 years ago said Annette M. Wood-Brannen, a partner in the group which owns the complex.
When the group, Shinoda Gardens Associates, finished a years-long process of prepaying their loan in December of 2017, they listed the property for sale at $3.19 million.
Shinoda was required to offer the property for six months to nonprofits that would maintain the apartments as affordable housing, but none submitted an offer.
It wasn’t for lack of interest.
Six months isn’t nearly long enough for an agency to source $3.2 million and the hundreds of thousands of additional dollars required for required updates, said Duane Leonard, the executive director at Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO).
Even if there had been enough time, it wasn’t feasible to purchase the building at full price and fund refurbishments with the low returns that come from affordable housing.
“There was no way to make the numbers work,” Leonard said. “There’s just no resources.”
The property is currently under contract and the prospective owners are performing a feasibility study due to be completed at the end of the month. They declined to comment for this article. The Tribune is not naming the developers because the sale is not finalized.
Tenant Eva Bartha, 71, worries about her future. She shares a small apartment with her daughter and granddaughter.
“I’m extremely nervous and upset. I have no savings, my daughter has none… how are we going to move, and where?”
Emmer hopes the city will support and expedite the building of new affordable housing so that tenants will not have to leave the city. At the Aug. 21 council meeting, Emmer and Clayton shared their plight.
Councilman Steve Dana remarked later in the meeting, as the council deliberated about its 2019 budget, that “we’re not doing anything that’s going to help them.”
Dana said proactively zoning for high density development in areas near services for those in need of affordable housing was crucial in a follow-up interview.
Tenants will not be evicted immediately when the sale is finalized. They will have limited assistance during a transition period: the USDA Rural Housing program offers clients a letter of priority and temporary rent subsidy vouchers.
The letter of priority lets tenants jump to the top of USDA affordable housing developments. There are 25 such USDA-system developments in Snohomish County, including one more in town, but that one is restricted to seniors. Those units are often filled to capacity, and turnover is low according to USDA Rural Development spokesman Phil Eggman.
Rent subsidy vouchers will help bridge the gap between current rents and new rents. Emmer and other tenants will learn more about the assistance at a Sept. 11 meeting but she hopes to receive at least one year worth of vouchers. It’s Emmer’s understanding that rents will stay stable until leases expire.
She’ll miss the apartment. It’s perfect for her, she says, with accessibility options like an adjacent parking ramp that’s hard to find in other rentals.
She’ll miss the amenities, like a local fitness center where everyone is welcome and encouraged.
She’ll miss her friends, too. Clayton and Emmer have become close over games of Scrabble and cribbage, and shared trips to doctor appointments. Neighbors look out for each other, watching children and pet sitting.
“That’s what breaks my heart,” Emmer said.
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