Twisp officials, residents have questions about proposal
By Ann McCreary
A Spokane-based nonprofit organization is exploring the idea of purchasing and renovating the Idle-A-While motel on the north end of Twisp to create affordable rental housing.
Representatives of Spokane Housing Ventures described their concept for the affordable housing development in a meeting last week with about a dozen interested community members, business owners, social services providers and civic leaders at TwispWorks.
While no one at the meeting disputed the need for more affordable housing in the Methow Valley, fast-approaching deadlines to finalize funding for the project and close the deal on purchase of the motel property made some people uneasy.
Spokane Housing Ventures develops and manages housing for people with limited incomes around the state, including two apartment complexes in the Methow Valley — Riverview Apartments in Twisp and Cedarwood Apartments in Winthrop.
The Idle-A-While, which has been for sale for many years, was seen as an opportunity to create additional affordable housing units quickly and comparatively inexpensively by remodeling nine cottages and a house on the property into 11 two-bedroom units, said David Roberts, senior developer for Spokane Housing Ventures.
Their concept also includes a second phase that would remodel the two motel wings into eight two-bedroom units. A third phase would involve constructing new townhouses on land behind the existing motel. A total of about 30 units would be created if all three phases were completed, Roberts said.
Spokane Housing Ventures has a purchase and sale agreement for the Idle-A-While that needs to be finalized by the end of the year, he said. There is one significant contingency to the purchase, however — approval of funding requested from the Federal Home Loan Bank, a cooperative of banks and financial institutions that supports affordable housing projects.
A decision on Spokane Housing Venture’s funding application is expected by mid-December, Roberts said.
The funding question isn’t the only issue facing development of Idle-A-While as affordable housing. The property, located on Highway 20, is in an area of Twisp that is zoned “C2” for tourism and commercial uses. Residential development in a C2 zone carries restrictions, including a requirement that 50 percent of the ground floor of any structures be for commercial uses.
And Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who met recently with Spokane Housing Ventures officials to discuss their proposed project, has made it clear that any future proposal to change the zoning to residential may not be viewed favorably by town officials and business owners, who are reluctant to decrease the amount of commercially zoned land.
“For the town, the location is not deemed appropriate because it is zoned for commercial. I have had talks with members of the Twisp Chamber of Commerce and businesses opposed to rezoning it from commercial,” Ing-Moody said.
“We know we have housing needs in this valley and want to assess and plan for that,” Ing-Moody said. “If someone is coming in from the outside and wanting to do something like that, I want to make sure that whatever we put in place is sustainable and meets the needs of the local community.”
More information requested
Ing-Moody was not able to attend the meeting last Thursday (Nov. 30), but Twisp Council members John Fleming and Alan Caswell said the community as a whole needs more information about Spokane Housing Ventures and its proposal.
“This is the first I’ve known of this. As a council member of the Town of Twisp … I think we need at least one more information session where the entire community can find out more,” Fleming said after hearing an outline of the project proposal.
Twisp officials would need to consider the financial implications to the town, including a potential loss of revenue if the property were used for residential rather than commercial uses, Fleming said. “What is the property generating? What if someone else comes in with other plans, or the Idle-A-While were able to hang in there as a motel?” he said. “Haste is not a prudent thing at this moment. Give us a few more weeks here.”
Roberts and Fred Peck, executive director of Spokane Housing Ventures, agreed to return to Twisp after they learn the outcome of their application for funding from the Federal Home Loan Bank. They said they expect to be able to schedule a meeting during the week of Dec. 18. “We’ll schedule another meeting and find a larger meeting room” to invite more members of the community, Peck said.
Even if the Federal Home Loan Bank funding falls through, Roberts said, Spokane Housing Ventures would still be interested in developing new affordable rental housing in the Methow Valley through conventional financing.
Spokane Housing Ventures is a “mission-driven” organization that seeks opportunities to create affordable housing throughout the state, Roberts said. “We look to address the need when we see it, where it is feasible.”
Spokane Housing Ventures has been working in Spokane and Lincoln counties for 25 years and merged with another housing organization — Northwest Association for Housing Affordability — in 2014. Through that merger, Spokane Housing Ventures acquired properties around the state, including the Riverview and Cedarwood apartments in the Methow Valley and Vistaview Apartments in Omak. The organization manages 1,300 units throughout Washington, Peck said.
Roberts said Spokane Housing Ventures became aware of the shortage of affordable housing in the Methow Valley through a housing assessment conducted last year as part of the long-term recovery effort following the wildfires of 2014 and 2015.
“We learned of the study and got a copy. We started investigating. There’s a need there and no party that has the capacity locally to do anything about it. If there is going to be development of new units, you need an organization with the capacity. We understand what to do, how to do it, what it takes,” Roberts said.
Local housing advocates at the meeting last week agreed with that assessment. “We don’t have anyone in this community with the expertise and capacity to do this kind of thing,” said Danica Ready, executive director of Methow Housing Trust. The housing trust is a new nonprofit organization that is purchasing property and building homes that are affordable to people earning 60 to 100 percent of Okanogan County median income. The trust is not creating rental units, however.
“There’s no question about the need,” Ready said. “We are a ‘yes in our backyard’ community. You’re helping us initiate the conversation.”
Elana Mainer of Room One, the valley’s social services organization, said Room One has assisted 40 families this year who identified themselves as homeless. She said the Okanogan County Housing Authority has a waiting list of more than 400 people for Section 8 housing vouchers, a federal program that provides assistance with rent payments in designated apartments to qualified low-income residents. Only about 20 people in the county are expected to receive the vouchers next year, Mainer said.
“The prospects for getting more affordable housing are pretty dim. You could help us serve people on a really limited income,” Mainer said. People with limited incomes in Okanogan County, she said, “are a proportionately larger population than the state as a whole.”
The housing proposed for the Idle-A-While property is intended to provide housing for people earning 50 percent of Okanogan County median income or less, Roberts said. In 2017 the annual median income in Okanogan County is $49,000 for a four-person family, so eligible residents would earn less than $25,000, he said. Rental assistance would most likely be provided through federal vouchers, he said.
Spokane Housing Ventures developed its proposal for the Idle-A-While property because of the identified need for more affordable housing in the Methow Valley, and because “a funding opportunity availed itself in the form of the Federal Home Loan Bank,” Roberts said.
The idea also makes sense from a management standpoint, Roberts said. Spokane Housing Ventures already employs a manager for Cedarwood and Riverview apartments with a total of 32 units, and the development of new units at the Idle-A-While property could add another 20-30 units.
The company views 50 units under one manager as a threshold that offers “better management efficiency for us and better service to the community,” Roberts said. “We look at what is efficient, what is sustainable for us. We identified an appropriate site where we could get more units online with one site manager to manage 50 units.”
That approach was questioned by Twisp business owner Meg Donohue, who owns Blue Star Coffee Roasters with her husband, Dan.
“I feel like the tail is wagging the dog a little bit here,” Donohue said. “I feel like you’re identifying this property [for development] and it feels a little opportunistic. It fits in well with your business strategy.”
“As a resident of Twisp, I feel we don’t have enough commercial property,” Donohue said. “I don’t think it’s ideal to have residential property on the highway. There are some contingencies that could kill the deal … I don’t understand why you’ve got an active sales agreement.”
“We’re employers in this valley and we live here and are acutely aware of the [housing] needs … but I want to see this from a holistic perspective. There may be other sites,” Donohue said.
“Economics plays a role in everything,” Roberts said. “This was a site where we could make this work with what’s here, rather than a multi-million-dollar project.” He said the proposed “adapted re-use” of the motel property is viewed favorably by the Federal Home Loan Bank in funding considerations.
Dave Thomsen of Caldwell Banker/Winthrop Realty, who represents Spokane Housing Ventures, said the Idle-A-While purchase is “strategic, in that it made sense” for the organization. He said the purchase arrangement would need to be finalized by the end of December. “There is a window for this. Whether it’s the right thing or not, the town has to decide,” Thomsen said.
“We’d love to have unlimited time” to address questions related to the Idle-A-While purchase and proposed development, Roberts said. “It’s difficult to ask for unlimited time from a seller.”
The Idle-A-While property “was appealing because of the quick turnaround” in creating new housing, Roberts said. But Spokane Housing Ventures will continue to explore options to create affordable housing in the Methow Valley even if that location doesn’t work, he said.
Peck said the Federal Home Loan Bank has indicated that it will welcome applications for affordable housing funding next year. “We see 2018 as a year of opportunity,” he said.
“There are lots of little communities that don’t have the opportunity you are presenting,” Twisp council member Fleming told Roberts and Peck. “Everybody in this room would be enthusiastic supporters of the next informational step.”
“It’s a meaningful discussion for the community, whether this [Idle-A-While proposal] pans out or not,” said Mainer, of Room One, after the meeting. “The opportunity to work with an entity like Spokane Housing Ventures is an important asset in moving forward, particularly their management experience and ability to access federal funding, which is complex. The question of affordable housing is not going to go away.”