If Seattle is going to add 20,000 units of affordable housing like Mayor Ed Murray wants, Capitol Hill-based Bellwether Housing stands poised to be an important part of the process.
Back in 1980, a group of businessmen decided to do something about housing affordability. They founded a nonprofit called the Seattle Housing Resources Group, which over time has transformed into Bellwether Housing.
Of course, 1980 was a different era. Interest rates were around 20%. Housing prices were in the early part of a six-year drop, according to the folks at Seattle Bubble. The Boeing bust had hit, and the Microsoft boom hadn’t yet started. In that same story Seattle Bubble notes the median home price in King County in 1979 was a little more than $192,000 (in 2007 dollars). Today, it’s more than $500,000 (in 2015 dollars).
But despite what would be considered relatively cheap housing today, Bellwether’s founders decided they needed to act.
“They recognized at that time that having affordable housing downtown was important to downtown,” said Doug Daley, executive director of Bellwether. “That perspective hasn’t changed much today.” The group has grown into major provider of affordable housing in Seattle, and shares its expertise by consulting with groups in other parts of the state working on similar issues.
Recognize these buildings? They’re all part of the Bellwether system.
Since its founding, the nonprofit has built 1,903 units of affordable housing which it also manages, ranging from single-room occupancy to three-bedroom townhouses. Bellwether operate 30 properties, six of which are on Capitol Hill and five on First Hill. The bulk of the rest are in downtown and Belltown with a few in Rainier Valley, and a pair north of the cut in Wallingford and North Green Lake. They have 3,200 residents, of whom 600 are children and 500 are senior citizens. One new project is on the way in the U-District.
Each of the properties has different standards for income level, but generally they are available to people making from 30%-80% of the area median income. For a family of two, that would be a cap of between $21,504 and $57,344.
Demand for the units matches supply. Across Bellwether’s properties, there is a 98% occupancy rate. The nonprofit manages four buildings which get subsidies from the federal government. The waiting list for a spot in those buildings is two to three years.
In 2013, the group merged with Common Ground. Daley chalks that up, at least in part, to the funding decreases social services groups had seen in the wake of the Great Recession. Bellwether gets most of their funding from grants from the city, county and state.
“We rely on public funding for a lot of our equity,” Daley said.
Some of that equity is being put to use here just off the Hill. Bellwether has just begun planning on a $10 million renovation of the Cambridge Apartments at 903 Union St. Daley said when they renovate, the nonprofit works with residents to ensure they aren’t displaced during the construction.
Besides housing, Bellwether also works to connect people with social services. Sometimes, Daley said, it can be as simple as finding a speaker of another language a translator to help them fill out a form. Other times, it can be connecting people with medical, dental or other health services groups with which Bellwether works.
“We find it’s a more effective way to do it,” Daley said.
For more information on Bellwether or to see if you qualify for one of their apartments, visit their website.