Forum focuses on regional affordable housing barriers

Discussions about challenges and opportunities were coordinated by WSU-Vancouver

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More than 30 people interested in talking about the need for more affordable housing attended a forum, March 31, at Camas High School. Students from WSU-Vancouver moderated the discussions.

A forum about affordable housing attracted more than 30 people to Camas High School.

They included Eddie White, a Camas resident and executive director of the Clark County Family YMCA.

He is a participant in Leadership Clark County, and his team project is focused on barriers to affordable housing.

“People need a safe place to live,” White said. “If people don’t know where they are going to sleep at night or don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, how can we expect them to function at a high level, especially our children?

He said people who sat at the same table that he did during the March 31 forum determined that it will take an engaged community to make change.

“I don’t think there is one silver bullet but a mixture of adjustments that need to be made for us to see progress in affordable housing,” White said.

The forum at CHS was one of six hosted by Washington State University-Vancouver and the Thomas S. Foley Institute’s Initiative for Public Deliberation, to discuss challenges and opportunities related to affordable housing. The topic emerged from the results of the 500,000 Voices project, a survey conducted by the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington.

The region — including Clark, Skamania and Cowlitz counties — has more than 500,000 residents. Last year, approximately 2,000 people participated in a survey regarding what they value in their communities, priorities for government action, economic growth, public transportation, education and job training and protecting the environment.

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins had seen the results from the 500,000 Voices report, and he was invited by Dr. Carolyn Long, to attend the forum at CHS.

Long is an associate professor of the WSU-Vancouver School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs.

Higgins said many factors make affordable housing a challenge in any community.

“Federal regulations and state regulations of important requirements can drive up the cost of development,” he said. “Real estate values do the same.

“I would like to have more affordable housing options in Camas for an aging community as well as for young people,” Higgins added. “I am hopeful in the future we will start to see some of those options.”

Higgins said he did not hear of any “magic bullet” to fix the complex issue of affordable housing.

“We had good discussions at our table about some minor code modifications that could potentially allow for some more affordable options for builders,” he said.

Options presented for the forum attendees to discuss included reducing or waiving impact fees, expediting permit processing, increasing income thresholds for government assistance, and amending development regulations to allow for smaller units or lot sizes.

Matthew Clarkson, owner of Soaring Eagle Homes, has lived in Camas for 13 years.

He attended the affordable housing forum, to be part of the discussion.

Clarkson suggested Monday making building permit fees based on the value of the houses, rather than having the current $20,000 fixed fee.

Teresa Torres, of east Vancouver, said she knows people who make a decent hourly wage but struggle to find affordable housing.

She is the Cascade Park Community librarian.

“I have people working at my library who get paid above minimum wage but are getting hit with rent hikes that are much higher than a cost of living wage will cover,” Torres said.

She said it is important for people to have civil conversations about difficult issues.

“I have held community conversations at the Cascade Park Community Library for the past two years, but when I learned about the training Dr. Long is doing with her students and the forums, I wanted to come see one in action,” Torres said.

Camas City Councilman Greg Anderson said lack of affordable housing is a big problem.

“When folks have to spend more of their income for housing, there is less for them to spend on food, utilities, and other necessities,” he said. “If children are involved, this leads to lower performance in schools.

“Rural housing tends to be lower cost than urban,” Anderson added. “Yet the folks living in rural area have to spend more on gasoline and vehicles just to get to and from work, and daycare is harder to find. It is a vicious circle.”

Margaret Milem, of Vancouver, attended the forum at CHS because she is concerned about the lack of housing opportunities in this area.

“Based on the statistics I’ve heard about a 2 percent vacancy rate, I understand that housing costs are increasing,” she said.

The people at Milem’s table talked about solutions including adding dense housing, such as smaller units on smaller properties. However, a downside was determined.

“Denser housing/population also means more traffic,” Milem said. “Would that be alleviated by better mass transit?”

The other forums were held in Longview, Battle Ground, Vancouver and Stevenson.

The project will culminate in a summary report that will be made available to the public.