The city of Seattle is preparing to pare down its real estate portfolio with a series of land transfers that could benefit nonprofits that serve Seattle’s most vulnerable residents.
The Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) initiated a process in August that would allow the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) to take control of the building that houses the Greenwood Senior Center. FAS also intends to use the same process to give Neighborcare, a nonprofit provider of health services, ownership of its clinic on Rainier Avenue South.
The Greenwood Senior Center and Neighborcare are the first two beneficiaries of this process, and FAS will continue to look at offloading other properties such as the Central Area Senior Center in 2018. The move benefits the city by getting it out of the de facto landlord business and the nonprofits, which are able to expand their services and plan for the future.
The city currently holds six of these types of properties, said Hillary Hamilton, the real estate services manager with the city of Seattle, down from a total of 12. Some, such as the Greenwood Senior Center and Central Area Senior Center, were purchased by the city with the intent that they be used for social services.
The Greenwood Senior Center transfer is the beginning of a new trend, Hamilton said.
“Over the years, we’ve gradually tried to find ways to transfer [the properties] to the existing tenant,” Hamilton said. “The feeling on both sides is that can be better for the facilities.”
That’s because under the current system, the city is responsible for maintenance of the buildings but some facilities require large capital improvements. Greenwood Senior Center, for instance, doesn’t have an elevator to move its clients from one floor to the other, forcing them to exit the building and reenter on a different floor.
That’s a problem when clients with mobility issues need to go from an activity scheduled for the bottom floor to a meal served on the top, PNA Executive Director Lee Harper said.
“It’s time to figure out mid- and long-term solution for accessibility and a bigger space for serving seniors in northwest Seattle. For us that’s it,” Harper said.
PNA purchased the Phinney Center from the Seattle Public School district in 2009, and spent three years raising the funds to make improvements on that building. Getting control of the Greenwood Senior Center — and for free — would allow the organization to mount a similar campaign.
“You can’t have a capital campaign when you’re on a year-to-year lease,” Harper said.
PNA already owns a small piece of property next to the senior center, which could allow the organization to expand the senior center or, if the zoning were to change, build housing for seniors on the site.
Ownership opens the door for that kind of long-term planning, Harper said.
The timing of the transfer is also fortuitous, because the state legislature quietly passed a bill that exempts nonprofit senior centers from paying property taxes, meaning that the cost of owning the building dropped.
Neighborcare Health, a nonprofit community health center, has leased its building at 440 37th Ave. in Columbia City since 1990. In 2016, 94 percent of the patients served at that site lived on 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, 10 percent were uninsured and another 10 percent were homeless, according to the clinic.
Getting ownership of the building will allow the clinic to expand the services offered at the site, and possibly take on new projects, wrote Mary Schilder, director of marketing communications for Neighborhcare Health, in an email.
“It will allow us to explore possibilities for expanding services and new partnerships, such as with an affordable housing partner, in order to continue meeting the needs of the community,” Schilder wrote.
Both transfers are in early stages, and the opportunity to offload other publicly held properties such as Fire Station 6 in the central district is complicated by how well the properties can be repurposed for a new use, Hamilton said. The city must also tease out the various funding streams used to buy the properties to ensure that transfers are allowed.
Still, the city views the transfers as a way to give community organizations ownership within their neighborhoods, and is being looked at as a tool to combat displacement and gentrification, Hamilton said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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