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Churches and parking garages: Capitol Hill’s reps in Olympia get creative in drive to create affordable housing in Seattle

Studios starting at $1500/month (Image: Coulter Architects)

Studios starting at $1500/month (Image: Coulter Architects)

(Image: City of Seattle)

(Image: City of Seattle)

Broad changes and new programs will be required to reach the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda goal of 20,000 new units of affordable housing in Seattle in the next decade. But there will also need to be surgical strikes and a few leaps of faith along the way.

It might be surprising to find Olympia at the source of some of the more creative leaps forward in finding new ways to create affordable housing, but House Speaker Frank Chopp tells CHS he is in the middle of discussions around several offbeat solutions to Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. One idea 43rd District rep is especially fond of is building on “under-utilized” land or on-top of structures, like publicly-owned parking garages and community centers.

“There’s a lot of innate support for this kind of thing,” Chopp said.

To bring help bring his creative housing visions to life, Chopp is now working with a group of legislators, officials, and nonprofits to identify places in Seattle that might be good candidates for development. As of now the group has identified seven potential parcels on Capitol Hill, including land owned by Seattle Central College and Sound Transit, and one parcel of land that belongs to a church that Chopp says has expressed an interest in affordable housing.

Chopp said it was too early to name the church because he is still in the early stages of discussion, but said that it was a good candidate for development because the church has a community center that could be built up several stories, and the upper floors could be dedicated to housing.

Inspired by a proposal at North Seattle College, Chopp has been floating the idea of building affordable housing above the SCC’s E Pine parking garage. A SCC spokesperson said the college was still evaluating sites for housing, but said the garage is on the table. The idea will likely find a warm reception with president Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, who told CHS in May that building affordable staff housing was one of her top priorities.

Sound Transit is a discreet landlord around Seattle, but its various non-transit holdings present a clear opportunity for building affordable housing. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen thinks one parcel at E Madison and Boylston may fit the bill. The property was initially purchased by Sound Transit for a First Hill light rail station before those plans were dropped.

Pedersen, who represent’s the 43rd District alongside Chopp, is now trying to link Sound Transit with a nonprofit developer to build on the site. Plymouth Housing Group is one such developer that had taken an early interest in the site. Plymouth deputy director Betsy Hunter said the nonprofit was “definitely still interested” in the property, but it was still waiting on Sound Transit to make the property available.

Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray said that he could not speak to the fate of the parcel because Sound Transit is “still in the early stages of discussions” with the Sound Transit Board and the City about the future of the parcel. Gray said that when Sound Transit did sell the property it would be through an open, competitive process. “Whether it’s market rate, affordable housing, or some combination thereof, everybody will be starting from the same place,” he said.

Pedersen and Chopp’s matchmaking between public landowners and nonprofits is extremely beneficial, said Hunter.  “We in the affordable housing community are very fortunate to have the support of those two,” she said. “Especially in a time when there’s such a hot private development market, in the absence of that kind of leadership, nonprofits are competing with private developers.”

One scheme to link a nonprofit developers with Sound Transit property is already underway. Developer Gerding Edlen plans to create 100,000 square feet of housing, commercial, and community projects on the now-empty lots surrounding the light rail station. The plans include a seven story, 86-unit Site B-North building that Gerding Edlen selected Capitol Hill Housing to develop, own, and operate. Half of the building’s units will be restricted to households making no more than 30% of the area median income. The other half will be made affordable to households at or below 60% of AMI.

While pushback from surrounding neighborhoods is not uncommon in discussions about affordable housing, Chopp says there has been no such resistance on Capitol Hill.

“There’s such a crisis that people are saying, okay, we gotta do this now,” Chopp said. “The biggest thing for Capitol Hill is where is the land available.”

Hunter and Chopp both said that while the brunt of fundraising for these developments typically falls on nonprofit developers, legislators can help by increasing the money that goes to programs like the Housing Trust Fund, which Chopp said currently sits at around $80 million. The trust fund is earmarked for affordable housing in Washington and is voted on every two years.

So far, Chopp’s group has only just begun to identify viable sites around Seattle. Once all the sites have been identified, the next step is to continue the “matchmaking” process between the sites and potential developers. “Over several years it’ll just sort of blossom,” Chopp said.

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3 thoughts on “Churches and parking garages: Capitol Hill’s reps in Olympia get creative in drive to create affordable housing in Seattle

  1. The current issue of Real Change has an excellent article on the history of the homeless crisis in Seattle. I was surprised to read about the staggering number of apartments in the ID that have stood vacant since the 1970s, when the city imposed safety codes the landlords could not (or would not) afford to implement. I’d love to know why 40-some years later, the city cannot work with these landlords to resolve these issues for today’s crisis.

  2. How is $1500 a month for a studio apartment “affordable housing”? Remember that 85% of us are not tech workers yet we are expected to pay the majority of our income to some building owner who uses the tech boom as an excuse.