Imagine a brand new apartment with a Columbia River view just off Marine Drive, a balcony to view oceangoing ships passing by, all appliances included, garbage disposal, laundry facilities, indoor children’s play areas, big-screen television rooms, computer centers, a gym and much more.
Imagine all this for between $290 and $730 a month.
The investors, developers and government partners behind Gateway II, a 33-unit, four-story affordable housing complex on Marine Drive, cut the ribbon Thursday and showcased their project to Astoria.
“It’s almost kind of a ‘Robin Hood feeling,’” said Len Brannen, owner and founder of Shelter Resources Inc. of Bellevue, Wash. “You’re taking from these wealthy investors and giving to people with limited income.”
Brannen’s affordable housing development company masterminded the Gateway I senior housing center next door to Gateway II, along with Salmonberry Knoll in Seaside, Shorewood in Cannon Beach and others across the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Arizona.
Residency requirements can be complex. Applicants have to prove their income, which Shelter Resources has to in turn prove to its compliance office in Everett, Wash.
In general, a one-person household must earn no more than $23,520 a year, and a four-person household must earn no more than $33,540 a year. There are various brackets of availability based on income, family size and unit size.
Susan Kauffman, manager of both Gateway buildings for Legacy Management Group, found none of that to be a challenge.
“There’s an extreme need for affordable housing,” she said. “My phone has been ringing off the hook. For the past five months, I’ve been averaging 30 calls a day.”
Gateway II filled up well before any open house. All the residents will move in by mid-November. Kauffman said she had to focus on the poorest people, rejecting many other, still-needy applicants. If a similar unit sprouted up next door, it would fill up just as fast.
“A lot of the people we cater to are low-income, and this might be the best housing they’ve ever experienced in their lives,” said Lynn Blankenship, regional manager for Legacy, which manages most of Shelter Resources’ properties.
Brannen faced an uphill battle of a huge need and limited funds while building Gateway I in 2005, repeatedly being refused in favor of more urban projects.
“I’m the one who told him ‘no’ four times,” said Rick Crager of Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS), an agency to help state residents gain housing.
It wasn’t a lack of interest, but a lack of funds that held back Brannen’s original Astoria project. Crager said he turns down half of well-meaning project managers who ask his office for help.
The eventual success of Gateway I jump-started the development of Gateway II in 2006, still a tempestuous process after the bottom fell out of the real estate market and investors taped their wallets shut to affordable housing. It cost $7.4 million.
Private investment financed more than half the project. Brannen reached across the country and found two main partners. Michel and Associates from Boston and JP Morgan Chase covered $4.2 million.
Crager’s OHCS jumped in a little quicker on the second Gateway project with nearly $2 million in federal stimulus money, tax credits and block grants.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program, which helps develop affordable housing outside urban centers, provided a low-interest $1 million mortgage to fulfill the project’s cost. It has helped with 200 other affordable housing units in Oregon alone, affecting all 36 counties.
“You can go to sleep and feel good at night,” said Vicki Walker, director of Oregon’s program, in thanks to Brannen.
In Astoria, surrounded on all sides by water and forests, there are few places to go but up. Thus came the Gateway district.
“We wanted it to be a densely populated neighborhood, but didn’t want it to be a ‘rich person’s neighborhood,’” said Astoria City Manager Paul Benoit.
The city passed the Gateway Master Plan in April 1997 with an emphasis on cleaning up the area around the former Astoria Plywood mill, closed in 1989 and later designated a “brownfield” toxic site by the Environmental Protection Agency. It wanted more buildable land within the urban growth boundary for mixed-use developments such as Mill Pond Village.
The city helped Brannen jump through the hoops involved in building a large housing unit. Building Official Jack Applegate and city inspectors regularly dropped in on the building site. Benoit said they always sent back gleaming reports of Lovelace Properties and Construction, the Grants Pass company that built Gateway I.
“The need was validated by the end gain: We’re full, and we’ve just opened the doors,” said Brannen.
The need is great, but the funding might not be there.
Being less profitable, affordable housing depends more on the federal government, not a very dependable funding source as of late.
“This is a tough time for us in the federal government,” said Walker. “Our agency has had to do buyouts and is losing staff. We’re going to do our best to make it right.”
Brannen said he will hold tight on new projects until he knows the government funding sources will be there to help. Today, the low-income families will tour their new homes at Gateway II.
For more information on Shelter Resources, log on to the website at http://sites.google.com/site/shelterresourcesinc/