Tiny House group bemoans big connection fees

Members of an affordable housing project tried to secure a discount for fees it already paid.

Members of an affordable housing project made a final effort to secure a discount for the permitting and participation fees it already paid to the city of Langley.

Tiny Houses in the Name of Christ — or THINC — petitioned the city council Monday night for help in waiving the $80,500 the organization paid for permits, water and sewer utility connection fees related to its low-income housing project.

For several years, the nonprofit organization has been trying to raise enough money to construct nine tiny homes on a piece of property within Langley city limits. Its latest hurdle was the hefty bill it received from the city for costs related to permitting and utilities.

THINC paid the bill using the majority of its funds but that didn’t leave much behind to cover construction costs. Now, the organization is hoping city officials might have a change of heart and refund some of the money in the form of a discount.

Deborah Hedlund, a board member of THINC who is also a retired lawyer, pointed to a section of the state’s code as evidence that the city could potentially offer a discount for nonprofit organizations.

She said state law, for example, allowed the city of Puyallup to reduce fees by 20%.

Hedlund suggested Langley could waive the fees altogether, or bill the property as one connection. The property has an existing home on it, which has been transformed into housing for a family with a modest income, an apartment for an on-site manager and community space for future tiny home residents.

“We need a community effort here if we’re going to have affordable housing,” Hedlund said. “We’ve been at this for three years. We’ve dug the hole, we’ve paid the $80,000 but we need that money back to construct the building.”

Council members were largely sympathetic to the nonprofit’s plight.

“It’s ridiculous to think of building these tiny houses and then paying this kind of money in connection fees,” Councilmember Christy Korrow said, adding that she thought there hasn’t been the “political will” to move the project forward so far.

Councilmember Thomas Gill agreed that the fees seemed “outrageous.”

“It’s downright criminal to do it to this degree,” he said. “I think this is a drastic overcharging.”

Mayor Scott Chaplin, on the other hand, was skeptical that the homes built by THINC would remain permanently affordable. Councilmember Dominique Emerson agreed and said the city should also be mindful about avoiding a gift of public funds.

Public Works Director Randi Perry said the city of Langley did not currently have any policy allowing for discounts for non-profit organizations. She said staff “really went out on a limb” to do the 50% discount for the water and sewer utilities. THINC was charged one commercial rate, which is the cheapest rate offered in the city.

“It costs a lot of money to bring you safe, clean drinking water,” Perry said. “All the ratepayers have to bear that cost.”

Perry also pointed out that even if new legislation passed, it might be too late for THINC, since it already paid into the system and building permits have been issued.

Meredith Penny, the city’s director of community planning, said ordinances are not retroactive and that the nonprofit would need to pull its building permit and re-submit it under a new ordinance.

Penny said the city’s affordable housing subcommittee is currently looking at incentives for affordable housing development and at an oversight program that ensures those developments will stay affordable. She said an overarching structure needs to be set in place before the city can commit to fee waivers, reductions and other incentives. She also acknowledged that it would likely be established too late to assist with THINC’s project.

Coyla Shepard, THINC’s founder, said they waited two months to be included in a council meeting and decided to move ahead with the project after waiting long enough.

“We finally caved,” she said. “We had to start. We’ve been waiting all summer.”

Hedlund urged the council to discuss the question of retroactivity and refunds with the city attorney.

In the end, the council supported Gill’s suggestion of asking the attorney about retroactivity and getting a second opinion from the Municipal Research and Services Center and the Association of Washington Cities about the issue.

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