Chris Bric on water and Vashon’s housing crisis

Bric was an Oregon public accountant in 1990 when he first heard about the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series on water and affordable housing by Mary Bruno of the Vashon-Maury Island Groundwater Protection Committee. Part one looked at the complexities of supplying water on Vashon. In parts two and three, Vashon housing veterans Jason Johnson and Chris Bric discuss how access to water limits their efforts to build more affordable homes.

Chris Bric was an Oregon public accountant in 1990 when he first heard about an “obscure new [federal] program” called the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

Soon after, Chris joined a large West Coast utility company that seized this opportunity to invest in affordable housing in exchange for valuable tax credits — not to mention the social and PR upsides — and Chris became both a fan and an expert.

“Without the [tax] incentive, affordable rental housing projects do not generate sufficient profit to warrant the investment,” Chris said. “To this day, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program has probably been the most successful housing program out there.”

Fast forward to 2024. Chris is the Vashon-based president of Shelter America Group, a nonprofit that has financed and built more than 25 affordable housing developments throughout Washington State. This year, Shelter America will break ground on its first Vashon housing project: Creekside Village on Gorsuch Road, which has been nine years and $22 million in the making.

When complete, it will transform the former mobile home park into 40 units of affordable workforce apartments.

Mary Bruno: You’ve lived on Vashon for 23 years and worked on affordable housing for many more. How did we get to this place where even people with full-time jobs can’t afford to live on the island anymore?

Chris Bric: When I moved here almost 23 years ago there was still a fair amount of rental properties. Affordable housing used to be served by single-family rental homes. Those places don’t exist anymore. In the market studies we commissioned, that was the story. As real estate values continue to escalate on the island, former rental properties have become second homes or investment properties listed with Airbnb and VRBO — which has pulled them out of the rental market. Gentrification has changed a lot of things.

What are the top three challenges you face as you try to bring more affordable housing to Vashon?

Here on the island, there’s no stronger barrier to developing anything than having water. So number one would be access to water — to all the utilities [water, sewer, gas], but water first.

Number two is zoning. We have a lot of land on the island. The challenge is working with King County to get it rezoned. Doable, but quite challenging.

Number three is building the community and political will to get it done.

A friend of yours compared Creekside Village to “Haley’s Comet.” The kind of opportunity that only comes along “once every 76 years.” How did it happen?

Mike [Masi, former owner of the seven-acre property on Gorsuch Road] came to me and said that he’d been slowly moving his way up the queue with Water District 19, and that he had a chance to buy a number of water shares that might be enough for us to develop affordable housing. That got my attention right away.

In October 2015, we financed the purchase of 21 shares for $223,650. That gave us a total of 33 shares for the entire site. Water District 19’s calculation had been one share per home. But under the multi-family concept, one water share could go further than one dwelling, so we had enough shares for 41 units — 40 residential and one manager’s unit. Over the years, we built the political base and the community base we needed to move things forward.

[Note: In a July 2015 letter to Mike Masi, Water District 19 explained that in a multi-family development, “the District rates each apartment at 75% of a water unit so that you could then develop a maximum of 41 apartments.”]

So you lucked out on water, but the money piece got complicated?

When I started talking to our public funders — King County, the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, the Washington State Department of Commerce — and I indicated that we had the water shares, they opened their eyes. Because nobody has this kind of access to water and utilities for a site on Vashon.

They didn’t open their checkbooks right away, but the project became interesting to them. I started with that. I knew it was going to take some time. I didn’t realize it was going to be the campaign it turned out to be.

A nine-year, $22 million campaign. That’s a long time and a lot of money.

That is a lot of money and it’s reflective of a couple of things. When you look at what’s happened to interest rates in the last 15 months, and the cost of materials, and then you add in the island premium, you’re talking those kinds of dollars. This project would have been about $4 million cheaper when we started making application than it’s turned out to be today.

You raised that $22 million with a combination of grants and loans from King County, the Washington State Dept. of Commerce, and the Washington State Housing Finance Commission. But you never did qualify for the State Housing Finance Commission’s tax credit program. Why?

This is the first project that I can think of in my career where we’re doing something without a tax credit. We made all these applications. Year in, year out, year in, year out. We just kept missing. The problem was sort of structural. The Commission, to its credit, designs this program to serve the greatest number of households. Well, the greatest number of households are not here in unincorporated King County. They’re along the I-5 corridor from Tacoma up to Everett.

We couldn’t compete on efficiency either. We were going up against development companies that are vertically integrated. They have their own teams of engineers and architects, and deep pockets. They can build a unit cheaper than you ever dreamed you could build it for.

So you finally gave up on the tax credit option.

Our last application was in 2022. But in the meantime, we had built up tremendous community support. I have letters from all the major island employers and organizations. Those letters went out to all these agencies, saying Vashon wants this housing.

I also had political support from former state senator Sharon Nelson, and State Senator Joe Nguyen. Former County Councilman Joe McDermott got behind the project. Dow Constantine’s senior policy people got behind it. And everybody made their voices heard.

With political support, the water shares and the patience of Job, you finally raise the money and buy Mike Masi’s property in December 2023. When do you start building?

As soon as we have permits we’re on it.

Ahh, the permitting hurdle.

If we could start in June and have six months before the rains begin, then it’s a 12-month construction schedule. The concern right now, and it’s a universal concern in the development community in King County, is getting through the [county] permitting department because of the backlog. We’re working with a senior planner over there who’s very good. But there’s a tremendous amount of work going on in King County right now and her priorities are not under her control.

Guess it’s time to work those political contacts.

I think so. In fact, I’m trying to get our King County funding group to help us see if we can set a better stage with the permitting department. Otherwise, it is what it is. That’s the developer world.

I understand you had a water-related “setback” recently because of Gorsuch Creek, which runs through the Creekside Village property.

When we started the project, the county’s characterization of wetlands required a 65-foot setback from Gorsuch Creek. That went back in for review, and now the county requires a 165-foot setback. This is a seven-and-a-half acre site, and now we’re only able to develop two and a quarter acres. But overall, given their political and financial support for this project, I couldn’t ask any more of the county. So I can live with setbacks.

A lot of planets have to align to build affordable housing. Water, zoning, money, local buy-in, political support, the skill and determination of housing advocates. Are the planets aligning on Vashon?

I’ve encountered tremendous support, on balance, here on the island. When you walk through Thriftway and somebody tugs on your sleeve and wants to know, ‘How soon will you have this housing available?’, you know you’re doing the right thing. People, by and large, know what’s at stake here and they want to find solutions.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the Creekside project — and I always learn something — it’s don’t give up. You just have to keep going. I was a raven-haired youth when I started doing this, and look at me now. But it’s a cup-half-full proposition if you’ve got the energy, the will, and the desire to make it happen. I’ve been thanked more than once for hanging in there for 10 years on this. But that’s what it took.

Will you be building any more affordable housing here on Vashon?

I’d like to. I don’t have anything on the drawing board right now.

Have you considered partnering with the business community on some kind of worker housing?

No, I haven’t. But if you could pull together the school district, Thriftway and Sawbones and have some kind of a joint venture maybe that would happen. We have to take care of our service sector employees. If we don’t have housing for our bank tellers and grocery store clerks and school teachers, those services will begin to erode. You end up like Nantucket where you’re ferrying your employees in and out every day. And that changes the fabric of our island community very much.

There’s a growing sense among Islanders that we need affordable housing. The next question is: ‘Would I tolerate it next door?’ [We have to demonstrate] that this affordable housing project isn’t going to lower your property values. Which is a historic issue. [People say], ‘If it was market rate it’d be fine, but it’s not. It’s low-income housing. I don’t want that next door.’

Low-income housing is a very unfortunate term, by the way. When you look at the median income in King County, the workforce households we’ll be serving at Creekside Village will be earning more money than I’d ever imagined I’d earn when I was a young man.

Hey, just out of curiosity, would bankrolling Creekside Village have been easier and faster if you’d gotten tax credits from the Housing Finance Commission?

I had big companies, big syndication organizations that love to invest in tax credits. They were telling me, ‘We’d love to work with you on this. Keep us posted.’ I could get the money if I had the tax credits. Not a problem.

This article is part of a series about water and affordable housing on Vashon.

Part 1: Does Vashon have enough water?

Part 2: Jason Johnson on water and Vashon’s housing crisis

Part 3: Chris Bric on water and Vashon’s housing crisis