When Rev. Dr. Julie Josund walks outside of Edmonds Lutheran Church, some 15 miles outside downtown Seattle, she sees a large rectangle on the church grounds. Though it looked like an unassuming gray block when it was first installed in June, it drew a crowd of 350 people.
“It’s so new,” Josund said. “We just let people come and see what it looks like.”
It may not look like much from the outside, but the boxy building is, in fact, an innovation in affordable housing — a 260-square-foot studio apartment complete with a toilet and a kitchen. Its appliances are “smart,” making its usage of electricity and water more efficient. Throw on some solar panels and the unit is practically energy neutral, Josund said.
Designed by Seattle-based Blokable and purchased by Compass Housing Alliance, the building is a type of modular housing — units made out of pieces built in a warehouse and then assembled onsite. Unlike the demonstration unit at the church, which is just a single space, these modular units can be stacked one upon the other. This approach allows builders to create energy-efficient apartment buildings in half the time and at a fraction of the cost of traditional brick-and-mortar units.
The promise of both speed and lower costs have gotten the attention of local lawmakers.
“To tackle the housing crisis, we need to explore different options to get people housed quickly,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in the press release. “Modular housing has shown great promise, and may play a key part in our regional response.”
King County has announced two projects — a shelter and a microunit apartment building — that will take advantage of the design and could provide a roof for as many as 97 people. The county has also forged a partnership with the city of Shoreline to collaborate on permanent supportive housing development with up to 100 units.
A traditional unit of housing costs nearly $350,000 to build compared to an estimated $150,000 for a modular unit. A project that might take between three and five years to build from scratch can go up in 18 months.
The modular approach is also appealing because of its feasibility within the existing legal structure. State law allows governments to sell public land to nonprofit housing developers for a song.
This is good news, said King County Assessor John Wilson.
“If you can cut the cost of building the housing and the cost of land, then we’ve at least got a chance to build housing at the scale we need,” Wilson said.
Wilson is something of a modular housing evangelist. He attended the block party at Edmonds Lutheran Church and watched as the unit came together in just a few hours.
“I just wish it was in King County,” Wilson said.
Wilson has worked closely with Constantine and Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw to push the idea of modular housing and the reuse of existing buildings as emergency shelter for years. It’s not as easy as he might have hoped, though.
Recently, the Seattle Times reported that the path forward has been littered with procedural stumbling blocks, largely to do with permitting and zoning.
Officials have tentatively planned to put the shelter campus on a county-owned site in Interbay on Elliott Avenue, but the site is zoned commercial, rather than residential..
When the Port of Seattle agreed to lease the former Tsubota property at 1601 15th Ave. W. to the city of Seattle as a new, temporary home for Tent City 5, a Magnolia resident sued on environmental grounds. TC5 reduced its footprint from 18,000 square feet to 12,000 of the total to avoid triggering the environmental review, and the community was allowed to stay.
Tiny house villages, like TC5, work around land use issues using temporary use permits. The larger modular units require additional layers of review by the state and city, and whether or not the project is subjected to an environmental review depends on the county’s design, said Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.
The county has not yet submitted a proposal for the department to review, Stevens said.
In Edmonds, the Lutheran church plans to partner with Compass Housing Alliance. The housing and service provider plans to develop an entire complex of modular units.
Compass’ path to developing the property will likely be less rocky than even a short time ago, since the corridor along Aurora Avenue, where the church is located, was rezoned. This is part of a broader city attempt to attract mixed-use development and transform the strip’s 1950s design into a modern space that encourages walking and community, said Brad Shipley, an urban planner with the city of Edmonds.
“We knew the church wanted to do something, so we worked with them to get the zoning that would make it feasible to do something,” Shipley said. “From the outset, we were looking at the entire corridor.”
The city and the church congregation share a common goal, Josund said: Build affordable housing and get people inside.
Homelessness in Edmonds doesn’t have the same look as it does in Seattle. In Edmonds, there are no tents lined up on sidewalks. But that doesn’t mean no one is living on the margins; people hide in sheltered spaces and among trees, Josund said. She sees the real impact every week when the church holds a community dinner. Every time, she says, 100 to 150 people come to get a warm meal.
When word got around that the church was going to help with the housing project, Josund started getting calls. Retired school teachers realized they were slowly getting priced out of their housing and contacted the church to inquire about a spot in the new complex. Homeless people come knocking on the door to find out how to get in line. Modulars are a quick way to get people inside, she said, rather than waiting on new buildings from the ground up.
“What good does it do to say, ‘Oh look at the land? There’s a bulldozer there right now!’” Josund 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. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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