As development funds dry up, Vashon HouseHold becomes more creative

Chris Szala, director of Vashon HouseHold, says the organization will focus on maintenance now that housing development money has virtually dried up. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Chris Szala, director of Vashon HouseHold, says the organization will focus on maintenance now that housing development money has virtually dried up.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

With the completion of Mukai Commons, Vashon HouseHold’s latest project, the affordable housing organization finds itself in an unusual situation: For the first time in years, it doesn’t have another project in the pipeline.

That’s due in large part to the state’s tough fiscal situation. The Housing Trust Fund, a part of the state Commerce Department and one of the biggest sources of housing development money, issued all of the funds it had available for the 2009-2011 biennium last year and this year has no money for new projects.

“We’re fresh out,” said Lisa Vatske, managing director of the Housing Trust Fund.

Vashon HouseHold’s current situation also reflects a reality of life on Vashon, where a moratorium on new water shares in Vashon town and other issues make development particularly hard, said Chris Szala, the agency’s director.

The organization is working on a new sweat-equity home ownership project called Sunflower. But it has no other housing development projects in the wings nor any property that it’s poised to purchase.

Szala said this is not necessarily a problem. After 21 years of housing development, the organization now owns and manages several apartment buildings, some of which are starting to show their age. Asset management and project maintenance are now a big part of the mix, he said, “and ones the organization hasn’t focused on in a while.”

“Really, taking a breath and sort of regrouping ... is an important thing to do,” he added. “Creating projects is one thing. Long-term management is a completely other set of skills.”

Emma Amiad, a real estate agent and civic activist, said she’s not surprised by the plateau Vashon HouseHold has reached. “Vashon HouseHold has put it out before: All of us have run out of potential building sites,” she said.

And even if the organization could find some building sites, she added, the funds to develop those projects are scarcer than ever.

“There’s no money right now,” Amiad said. “We’re all experiencing it at some level.”

But Sue Gardner, chair of Vashon HouseHold’s board of directors, said the organization is hardly at a standstill. The organization, which has often had to be creative to chart its course, is now looking into a new project — Homeshare, a program that would place people in need of housing in the homes of people who have some room to spare.

Other communities across the country have developed such programs, including Tacoma, which has a homeshare program that has proven quite successful. What’s more, Gardner said, a national housing organization has produced a planning guide that fully describes how an agency sets up such a program. “It’s a no-brainer,” Gardner said.

The fact that the organization doesn’t have any projects in the wings is of some concern, she acknowledged. “I don’t want to say it doesn’t worry me at all,” she said.

At the same time, Gardner, like Szala, sees this period as a time to look to the future in new and innovative ways.

“Because we don’t have the pressure of project development, it gives us the opportunity now to really get creative — the Homeshare project being one of those things we can put on the front-burner now,” Gardner said.

Vatske, with the Housing Trust Fund, said she applauds the approach Vashon House-Hold is taking. State funds will likely continue to be scarce, she said.

“Preserving what we have in the portfolio is a big priority,” she said.

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