Antonesha Jackson still remembers riding bikes near the three-bedroom Central District apartment she shared with her sisters and mother growing up. From there, it was just a brief trip to her grandparents’ house and an even shorter walk to Garfield High School.
But when she tried to return to the neighborhood after 12 years studying and working in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, finding a place to rent in her now-gentrified neighborhood proved nearly impossible. She looked for an affordable apartment for months.
Until acquaintances told her about a then-new affordable housing development right here in her neighborhood: Liberty Bank Building, an equitable development project led by Capitol Hill Housing and Africatown. She moved in this March, finally returning to the area she’d grown up in and now operated a fashion boutique out of.
“A lot of the people that live in my building, I have seen around growing up. [They] are from this community,” Jackson said. “It’s beautiful to me.”
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Thanks to a new policy called “community preference,” approved by the City Council last month, others could follow a similar trajectory.
The policy, which follows in the footsteps of comparable programs in San Francisco, Portland and New York, encourages nonprofit developers receiving city money to offer a portion of their affordable units to communities with ties to the neighborhood, particularly those with a high risk of displacement. The goal is for lower-income residents to return or stay in their neighborhood.
For gentrified neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and the Central District, the policy could be particularly impactful.
“It’s an anti-displacement tool,” explained Emily Alvarado, Manager of Policy and Equitable Development at the City’s Office of Housing. The office of housing is exploring whether the policy could also extend to residents who work or attend school in a neighborhood or access services such as childcare in the building, Alvarado said.
With the opt-in policy, the City bolsters its “affirmative marketing” policies meant to ensure that everyone who would be eligible but perhaps less or unlikely to apply for affordable housing can do so — especially those from historically marginalized groups with less access to housing options.
Affirmative marketing has proven successful in affordable development projects such as the Liberty Bank Building. Though community preference was not in place as a City policy yet at the time, it was the intended purpose of their affirmative marketing plan, said Capitol Hill Housing CEO Chris Persons. The nonprofit developer also said their efforts on affirmative marketing and community preference have been “central to the development of City policy.”
Other affordable housing developers had been implementing and advocating for a form of community preference policy as well. But now that it is officially in place, the City’s Office of Housing can help shape and oversee the process, which would include setting aside a percentage of affordable units for community preference.
The City is currently working on the policy’s guidelines, but is already talking to some developers about implementing it in affordable housing projects. That could happen as early as the beginning of next year, Alvarado said.
Mental health agency Community House, which is building 128 units of low-income and affordable housing in the Central Area, and others have expressed interest, according to Alvarado.
Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute, is working with local churches and nonprofit organizations to build potentially up to a 1000 units of affordable housing in the Central Area. She said that some of the units could be marketed to residents who are at risk of displacement or used to live in the neighborhood.
Capitol Hill Housing (CHH) will likely apply community preference in future projects such as the Africatown Plaza affordable housing and commercial retail development on 23rd and Union, which CHH is working on with the Africatown Community Land Trust. The building will have 138 affordable units, specifically for “those displaced due to rising rents.”
Another project primed for community preference is CHH’s LGBTQ+-focused affordable senior housing project coming to Broadway. The project hopes to be an anchor for a community at risk of displacement and focus on health and social services to residents.
“The city’s lower-income residents are being displaced. This displacement has disproportionately impacted communities of color and members of the LGBTQ community,” Persons, of Capitol Hill Housing, said. “Community Preference and Affirmative Marketing are two tools that can stem this racist and exclusionary trend.”
Affirmative marketing is not new, but Seattle has been working to expand and deepen the federally (and city-) mandated policy on a city level. The City now requires affirmative marketing practices, which emphasizes outreach through community-based organizations, for multi-family tax-exemption and incentive zoning programs as well as the Mandatory Housing Affordability Program. Last month, the City expanded its list of Affirmative Marketing requirements.
Affirmative marketing is necessary, said Kathleen Hosfeld of the Homestead Community Land Trust, in part because “the methods used in traditional marketing (…) aren’t always culturally appropriate or effective in reaching those ‘least likely to apply.’”
“It’s about relationships,” Hosfeld said.
Homestead and Edge Developers are planning to build 10 affordable housing townhomes for ownership in the Central District, and will be working with Africatown as lead outreach partner.
“Africatown has done a great job of building relationships with and an outreach system to those with historic ties to [the central] area,” said Hosfeld.
Wyking Garrett from the Africatown Community Land Trust echoed the sentiment. He said Liberty Bank’s affirmative marketing outreach was so successful thanks to “being actually connected with the community.”
Africatown worked with partners Byrd Barr Place and Black Community Impact Alliance to get the word out and handed out flyers at youth football practices, churches and community meetings. Africatown and CHH also dedicated a standalone website to the project, a first for the nonprofit developer.
Thanks to these efforts, 86% of the Liberty Bank residents— who applied on a first-come, first-served basis — are African-American.
Though community preference is explicitly meant to combat segregation and housing discrimination, it’s a tricky legal balance to keep. Nonprofits and the City are walking a tightrope between opening up chances for disadvantaged communities and breaching federal, state and local Fair Housing laws meant to counteract discrimination based on race, disability, and sexual orientation, among others.
“We’re reviewing [projects] on a case by case basis,” with the Office for Civil Rights and City’s Attorney’s office, Alvarado said, “to ensure their consistency with fair housing law.”
But, Alvarado stressed, these policies are meant to undo past explicitly discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining, and address Seattle’s history of racial and other discrimination.
Like Affirmative Action, the concept might be hard to grasp for people who are not of those communities, said Laura Loe, founder of housing advocacy organization Share The Cities.
“The community preference is another way to say: Our government system is set up to basically fail certain groups of people,” Loe said, referring to intergenerational wealth gaps, health outcome and pay equity disparities, “and come up with policies reversing those failures.”