LYNNWOOD, Wash. - Like most cities, Lynnwood does not have enough affordable housing.
It could soon have even less, with hundreds of low-income units scheduled to be demolished, leaving an impending sense of doom that has left many residents in a panic.
“In my head, I’m still trying to stay positive, but it’s really hard,” said Whispering Pines resident Darla Rae, who lives in one of the more than 70 units at Whispering Pines set aside for Section 8 tenants with federal subsidized Housing Choice vouchers.
The remaining 240 units at the complex on 52nd Avenue are Low Income Tax Credit rentals for tenants earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, though most earn far less than that, according to the owner of the complex.
The complex is owned by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County, which has notified tenants the building will be demolished.
“The structure is 50-plus years old and [there] are things about the infrastructure that are falling apart,” said Duane Leonard, executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County, or HASCO.
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Among other things, Leonard says, the building’s underground sewer and fire alarm systems are in need of major repair that are too costly to simply fix.
On top of being too expensive, a rebuild would have left the complex with fewer units – 219, down from 240 – because of current zoning regulations.
So, HASCO went to the Lynnwood City Council last year and proposed rezoning, so it could build up 300 to 400 mixed income units, in part by increasing the height limit to allow six story buildings on part of the property.
In the months that followed, the City Council held various meetings, the proposal got some tweaks and they heard from Whispering Pines residents worried about displacement.
But the council also heard from those with single family homes near the property opposed to the rezone.
“Please do not allow the expansion to proceed,” said one homeowner.
“What about increased noise, lights shining on neighborhood properties, exhaust fumes, parking, neighborhood traffic impacts?” another homeowner worried.
One woman complained about “smashing too many human beings into the same vicinity … we are not sardines.”
And others just didn’t like the idea of living near a large housing project.
“High rise, low-income housing … they put people in those places and they’re turned into war zones,” one homeowner said.
More than 100 homeowners signed a petition against the rezone before a final vote that shut the proposal down this spring.
“We don’t have a lot of good options,” HASCO’s Leonard said. “That’s one of the reasons we started this process really early so they [tenants] would have time to prepare,” Leonard said.
Residents have until September 2021 to move. And while that might seem doable to most, for some low-income renters, it’s the same as being told to get out tomorrow.
For Rae, it doesn’t matter how much time she has to prepare – finding housing is going to be a problem with the long wait – months to years — to find an open unit that will accept her housing voucher. Even if she does, her $700-a-month income and physical disabilities present more obstacles.
“With my income, I don’t have money to rent movers, I don’t have money to buy boxes — I don’t have anybody to help me move out of here. I don’t have a deposit and then have the money to move in,” Rae said.
That’s why she and others are asking the City Council to approve a proposal that takes advantage of a state law to help provide relocation assistance to the Whispering Pine tenants.
Lynnwood Councilman George Hurst has been fighting to help the Whispering Pine tenants for more than a year, while also urging the council to develop an affordable housing plan for the city, and pass a requirement for developers to include some affordable units in projects.
Despite some minimal support on the council, Hurst’s efforts have failed. That included an idea to take advantage of a state law allowing the city to require relocation assistance from landlords, specifically in situations where low-income housing is being demolished.
The law provides tenants with up to $2,000 of relocation assistance, landlords pay half and the city covers the other half, but the city can use the heavily spending-restricted pot of money it collects in Real Estate Excise Tax to cover its half. It just has to vote to do so.
Hurst first floated this option late last year.
“It just seemed like this was a good fit for our city,” Hurst said.
But the appetite wasn’t there on the City Council.
“There were comments like, ‘This isn’t something that government does, it will be too complicated for the city to administer it,’ and so it was decided (to) send it off to the Human Services Commission,” Hurst said.
Hurst’s wife sits on that commission, and says it never even had a chance because it was presented to the commission as something the City Council was against.
Hurst says now that the upzone and expansion have failed, it is time to try again to give the Whispering Pines residents peace of mind. And facing a challenger in next month’s election, Hurst says this could be his last chance.
He also believes more tenants will need this help in the future as light rail and more development head to Lynnwood.
At Monday night’s meeting, he will try again, backed by residents like such as Rae, who says that without relocation help, she could end up in the nearby homeless encampment.
“I don’t have the money to move whether it’s down the street, another apartment, or out of state,” Rae said.
Her message to the council:
“Please help us, don’t forget us, don’t sweep us under the rug. Help us so we are not homeless and we can be successful citizens,” Darla said.
She will echo that plea for help at Monday night’s City Council meeting, where council members may need to consider an even bigger problem.
According to HASCO, due to new spending restrictions, HUD has placed on the county housing authority, any tenant on the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program who moves out of their current unit will get hundreds of dollars less in assistance. That will likely not be enough to cover rent anywhere else in the city, county, or state.