Housing Group nonprofit plans to expand sites
SNOHOMISH — At the corner of Bonneville Avenue and 14th Street, workers are leveling ground for a unique affordable housing complex.
Future low-income tenants in the six- to eight-unit building will neither apply for housing through a government agency nor get government financial subsidies.
Their rent could be less than a third of prevailing market rates.
The complex will be the fifth property built and run by the Snohomish Affordable Housing Group (SAHG) since 1992, and the nonprofit stands ready to add more.
“We have the capacity to build another 30 units if we can find the land,” said Bill Raser, a retired banker who serves on the housing group’s board of directors.
That’s a big if, since the SAHG model depends on acquiring land and constructing buildings at well below market prices.
All of the real estate and building materials for the group’s existing 103 units were donated, discounted, or sold at cost.
The savings are passed on to tenants, who qualify by earning less than 50 percent of the median income for Snohomish County.
Tenants must also be working (unless disabled or older than 65), receive no government housing stipends, and earn a monthly income three times greater than the cost of their reduced rent.
Though SAHG does not provide social services, it does require housing applicants to present a two-year plan for transitioning into market-rate housing (except for the elderly and disabled).
“Our ideal tenant is someone who has to finish up two years of school to get a desired job,” said board president Doug Thorndike, a former Snohomish City Councilman.
An average two-bedroom SAHG apartment with medium amenities rents for an average of $475 a month. Comparable apartments in Snohomish County rent for $1,527, or $1,400 with Section 8 subsidies, according to a survey by the Alliance for Housing Affordability.
One former SAHG tenant said the cheaper rent allowed her to climb out of a financial hole.
“During the most difficult season of my life, I would not have been able to survive without the apartment provided by Snohomish Affordable Housing Group,” said the former tenant, who asked not to be named because she is a domestic violence victim. “With reduced expenses, I was able to get back on my feet.”
The group operates on four key principles:
• It does not accept government subsidies for low-income housing. SAHG gets assistance from Snohomish in the form of various discounts on permits and utilities, including a $1-a-year, 50-year lease for the Centennial Trail senior housing comple and a state-approved property tax exemption.
• It encourages upward mobility via the two-year plans.
• It retains well-connected board members with community roots and diverse talents. The current board includes a banker, developer, builder, real estate broker, attorney, property manager, clergy, accountant, and business owners.
• It minimizes costs.
“I believe affordable housing is a critical need,” said group secretary Ann Lewis, co-pastor at Snohomish First Presbyterian Church. “It’s exciting to have a unique model to offer the community.”
Vacant land is scarce, and the group competes against private developers and government-subsidized units.
Land for the Bonneville Avenue development was donated by a board member. It will be SAHG’s first complex since 2009.
“The problem is, where do you find land at a price that makes sense, competing at market rates?” says Raser.
Perhaps outside the city of Snohomish.
Since 2014, SAHG representatives have been presenting the group’s model to other Washington cities. They have had some interest but generated no action until last year.
In what Lewis called a “defining moment,” a developer donated a vacant lot in
downtown Everett to SAHG large enough to build 15 units.
Raser has compiled board members for an Everett Affordable Housing Group, but the project remains uncertain. The nascent group needs to raise between $400,000 and $700,000 and does not yet have a funding plan.
If the new entity fails to raise money, SAHG could sell the Everett property. The group does not want to administer housing outside Snohomish.
“The original premise was local people helping our community,” Raser said. “What we’ve done is unique, but it’s hard. It takes a special effort by some dedicated people.”
Until SAHG built sufficient equity in its properties, it needed personal guarantors for loans -- people willing to put their financial resources at risk.
The Snohomish Affordable Housing Group was founded by the late Newell Dana* as a grassroots effort to create affordable housing. Hank Robinett and Dan Smoots are the remaining board members from the original founding group.
“It might be a bit of a pipe dream to find the same solidarity in a different community,” Thorndike said. “We always figured that somewhere there would be someone who would latch onto the idea.”
As Snohomish County struggles to meet affordable housing demand, SAHG is “a critical piece” of the puzzle, said Chris Collier of the Alliance for Housing Affordability.
“We just don’t have very many actors in this space,” Collier said. “I hope they can successfully replicate their model, because the work they do is needed in every city.”
* - CORRECTION
In the June 16 story about the Snohomish Affordable Housing Group, founding member Newell Dana’s name was reversed. He was a proprietor of The Hub restaurant in Snohomish, which stayed in the family for a half-century. The Tribune regrets the error.
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