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Vancouver’s tax levy for affordable housing

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Vancouver’s tax levy for affordable housing

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Overview

Facing an escalating housing crisis, Vancouver, WA, enacted a property tax levy that is expected to raise $42 million over the course of seven years for an affordable housing fund. The city built public support for the levy proposition using a carefully designed strategy to win industry and resident support.

City officials included industry stakeholders early in the process of designing the levy proposition and adjusted plans for the affordable housing fund in response to feedback. The city also involved residents in the process, conducting community meetings to gather input, making changes to address concerns, and running a homelessness awareness campaign to help residents understand their role in affordable housing and the importance of the levy. The city’s strategy worked: the proposed levy passed in 2016 with support from 58 percent of voters. This case study examines how Vancouver selected and implemented its strategy and the affordable housing fund’s accomplishments to date.

Key takeaways

  • Part of the city’s success is due to early engagement of residents and industry stakeholders in shaping the levy design. It was important for the City to be responsive to their concerns and to be willing to make adjustments to the proposed levy in order to gain the support of these groups that might have otherwise opposed increased taxes.
  • Citizen engagement and education was an important part of Vancouver’s process to generate support for the levy. The City gauged public opinion on affordable housing and worked to educate and encourage residents to own the problem and support increased taxes. It will be important for the City to be transparent about how funds are spent and progress toward its goals to retain residents’ support.

Description

In June 2016, according to Apartment List, Vancouver ranked #3 in the nation among cities with the fastest rent increases. Located across the Columbia River from Portland, OR, Vancouver saw its average rents increase by more than 38 percent between 2011 and 2016 while median income rose only about 3 percent. Driven by pressures in the Portland housing market, Vancouver’s increases in population and housing demand have resulted in gentrification and the ensuing displacement of many low-income households.

In 2016, Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Task Force reported that an estimated 11,675 households with very low incomes were cost-burdened (spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent) and nearly 700 people were living in shelters in Clark County, where Vancouver is located. Furthermore, more than 2,000 children and youth were identified as homeless or without stable housing, many of them couch-surfing or living in overcrowded conditions. The Task Force also noted that the volume of households seeking rental assistance had increased so significantly that the Vancouver Housing Authority replaced their traditional waitlist with a lottery system limited to households with the highest needs.

In response to these alarming figures, the Vancouver City Council declared a housing emergency, which according to State law, allowed the City to put forward a ballot measure to impose a property tax levy to establish an affordable housing fund. After a professionally coordinated public outreach campaign, voters approved the property tax levy in November 2016.

The levy is projected to raise $6 million every year for seven years between 2017 and 2023, for a total of $42 million. The funds are being used to assist people at risk of homelessness and to create and preserve affordable homes for residents with very low incomes, that is, with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area median. Ultimately, the City intends to create 336 affordable housing units, preserve 454 units, provide rental assistance to 1,500 households to prevent eviction, and increase the number of shelter beds in the city.

Process and timeline

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle attributes the levy proposition’s success largely to the work of a strong network of non-profit and faith-based organizations in the City, engagement with industry stakeholders, and the efforts of a public affairs campaign manager hired to communicate the importance of the proposition to the public. This section describes the process of designing the levy and how the city garnered public support.

2015

To examine strategies for addressing the city’s lack of affordable housing, the City Council created the Affordable Housing Task Force – made up of City Council members, nonprofit directors, developers, and other business leaders. The Affordable Housing Task Force completed its final report in December 2015, and proposed several actions the City could take to address the housing crisis. One of the proposed actions was to create an affordable housing fund that would be established through taxes or development fees. After reviewing several ways to establish the fund, the Affordable Housing Task Force determined that under state law a property tax levy would be the quickest and most flexible method of sourcing the fund. Also, a property tax was a simple and direct way for residents benefitting from rising housing prices to help other members of their community secure housing.

2016

To prepare for a public hearing on a proposed property tax levy, staff from the City’s Community and Economic Development Department conducted a survey and hosted several public meetings to understand the community’s position on a proposed tax and affordable housing fund. While many Vancouver residents were opposed to increased taxes, a large majority of residents expressed that the City had a responsibility to address the housing crisis. On June 20, 2016, City Council unanimously voted to allow the property tax proposition onto the ballot that November.

However, for property owners to vote to increase their own taxes, the public would need to learn about, understand, and take responsibility for solving Vancouver’s housing crisis. To generate support for the levy, the Bring Vancouver Home Coalition was formed. The coalition included nonprofit and for-profit housing developers, homeless service providers, mental health and health care providers, and education advocates. The Coalition raised more than $100,000 to fund a public outreach campaign in support of the levy. They hired professional campaign staff to design a strategy that included door knockers, a website, and advertisements about the affordable housing fund on cable television. The Bring Vancouver Home Coalition also hosted four community forums and met with neighborhood associations, churches, and activist groups for fair housing and homelessness.

Opposition to the tax levy came primarily from real estate agents, for-profit developers, and residents who worried they could not afford increased property taxes. To address some of these concerns, the City exempted the following groups from the tax: residents with low incomes, individuals with disabilities who have incomes below $40,000, and seniors living on fixed incomes. These provisions prevented the levy from burdening the very residents it was designed to assist. The City also allowed for-profit developers to access a certain percentage of the funds for housing development. These allowances helped the City gain support from developers and residents who may have otherwise opposed the proposition.

In November 2016, the levy passed with support from 57.6 percent of voters. For the next six years, the levy would tax property owners $0.36 per $1,000 of assessed property value — $180 annually for a property valued at $500,000.

2017-2023

The property tax levy went into effect on January 1, 2017, and the City’s Community and Economic Development Department has been managing the funds generated by the property tax levy, awarding grants from the affordable housing fund to developers and service providers, since then. Grants are allocated by the same process as the City’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and HOME Investment Partnerships Program. Applicants must outline their plans for eligible use of funds, which include affordable housing production, preservation, or homelessness prevention for very low-income residents.

The City keeps residents engaged with the affordable housing fund through its funding process. When applications are ready for review, the Affordable Housing Task Force invites businesses, non-profits, real estate agents, and faith-based organizations to participate in a community review panel. Applications are reviewed by city staff and the community panel and are scored according to criteria that prioritize applicants with relevant experience and a demonstrated commitment to equity.

The Affordable Housing Task Force tracks and reports data on the results of affordable housing fund spending, including the number of units preserved and created and the number of people assisted by income category. The City also continues to rely on the efforts of the nonprofit network built in 2016 to educate residents on how it uses the funds. The City hopes to renew the property tax levy in 2023, when it is scheduled to expire, and understands that continued education and transparency will help to maintain support for the affordable housing fund.

Outcomes

Between 2017 and 2019, the City created 137 housing units, preserved 7 units, provided rental assistance to 549 households, and added 30 new shelter beds for homeless households through the affordable housing fund. Additionally, 78 percent of households who received assistance had incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median. The target accomplishments for 2020 and anticipated total accomplishments by 2023 are reported in Table 1.

Table 1. Completed and Target Accomplishments for the Affordable Housing Fund

Projects completed 2017-2019Projects in process as of 2020End goal (by 2023)
Housing units created for households at 50% AMI or below137175336
Housing units preserved for households at 50% AMI or below7172454
Households prevented from eviction549621,500
Shelter beds created for homeless households30128TBD

Policy significance

By creating awareness of its housing crisis and generating support among property owners, Vancouver, WA, was able to pass a property tax levy and directly address the increased homelessness in the City due to rising housing costs and new development. Raising funds locally and quickly enabled the City to respond in a timely way to increased housing needs. Additionally, with the flexibility of local funds, the City could target funds directly to areas of immediate need, e.g. address evictions and create new shelter beds, while also creating and preserving housing for the longer term.

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