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From Governor to Giving Back:  A Remembrance of Mike Lowry

  
I first met Mike Lowry in the mid-1980’s while visiting members of the Washington Congressional delegation to support the passage of the 1986 tax reform act that created the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, the primary source of affordable rental housing in the nation today. I had the opportunity to spend a little more time with him when, as Governor, he was responsible for appointing the members of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

However, it wasn’t until well after Mike left politics that we became good friends—as he built a legacy of hope through affordable housing.

In 2002, Mike worked with a number of partners to create the Washington Agricultural Families Assistance program, known as WAFA, to develop affordable housing and other homebuyer assistance for low-income agricultural workers in rural central Washington. Qualified first-time homebuyers have to earn a minimum amount of their income per year from agriculture and be legal residents of the U.S. in order to participate in the program.

It was through the work of WAFA that I really got to know Mike. He first approached the Commission for a construction loan to help build homes that agricultural workers could afford to buy in Ephrata in 2004. Through the Commission’s Program Investment Fund, we were able to make WAFA a series of construction loans that were paid back when each newly built home was sold to a qualified agricultural worker family. He worked closely with the Housing Authority of Grant County, the Housing Services Division of the state Commerce Department, the Federal Home Loan Bank and our own House Key loan program to build those first 11 homes—high-quality, safe, healthy, sustainable and affordable homes—and create 11 new homeowners.

Mike served as executive director of WAFA, pro bono, as did his board of directors and other partners in this effort. His long-time co-worker, Ivy Sigmond, who is fluent in Spanish, spent endless hours with Mike in Eastern Washington at fairs and other events to promote WAFA’s program among agricultural workers and to help them qualify for a loan to buy their first home. Ivy relates that Mike’s work with WAFA was, “a labor of love and compassion with all of the hard work that goes with it.” She talks about Mike borrowing a truck and getting furniture for their poorest clients, unloading the truck, buying supplies for the house and even crawling under the house to check that the work was done properly, on many occasions.

Overall, during the course of the past fifteen years, WAFA has built 68 occupied homes for agricultural worker families with five more homes ready for purchase by new owners. These houses were built in Ephrata (15), Quincy (35), Moses Lake (8), Royal City (6) and Bridgeport (4), Washington. WAFA also helped five families in Moses Lake buy existing homes. Right now, 14 more homes in Moses Lake and Bridgeport are ready to build.

In addition to a total of $2.3 million in loans from the Commission, WAFA also made use of financial investments from the State Housing Trust Fund, Community Frameworks, local housing authorities, USDA Rural Development and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

WAFA has done more than just build homes for farmworker families. They have also established a scholarship program with their own and donated money for the children living in the new homes. As a result, twenty-eight children, many of them girls, from these agricultural families have gone to college and graduated from two or four year schools. Ivy says with every success, WAFA’s saying was, “We are winning! One less for the onion fields!”

When I once asked Mike why it was important to him to start WAFA and help agricultural workers to buy their own homes, he said he remembered how hard the agricultural work was when he was growing up in Endicott, Wash., and how terrible the living conditions of the agricultural workers were at that time. He said he just felt that he should give back to those rural communities and workers now that he had the time and resources to make a difference.

For those sixty-eight families now living in their own homes and those children who went on to get an education, Mike, Ivy and everyone connected with WAFA made a difference in their lives. And that is how I will always remember former Governor Mike Lowry.

    

         

 

Kim Herman is the Executive Director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission. In addition to helping WAFA, the Commission has helped finance more than 78,000 affordable rental units in our state, including 1,100 set aside for agricultural workers, and more than 60,000 home loans.

  

 
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