On Oct. 3, the Burien City Council voted against renewing its main affordable housing scheme, the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program (AHDP), cutting off new avenues for affordable housing development in the city.
The vote fell amid an escalating housing crisis both in Burien and the wider Sound area. According to the website RentCafe, the average rent in the city rose from $1,524 to $1,762 between September 2021 and October 2022, a 15.6 percent increase. In Seattle, the average rent is $2,334. Burien is the last city in King County to maintain its eviction moratorium, which is set to expire on Oct. 31 alongside the end of Gov. Jay Inslee’s state of emergency around COVID-19.
The AHDP allows affordable housing developers to construct up to five projects in the city that might otherwise not be allowed by existing regulations. To date, two projects have been approved under the program — a townhouse development by Habitat for Humanity and a six-story supportive housing apartment building being built by the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in downtown Burien for currently and formerly homeless disabled people. A third nonprofit developer, EcoTHRIVE, applied to the program and is in the planning stages of an environmentally conscious cottage development in the northern end of the city.
The program is due to expire at the start of November. In preparation for a potential renewal, Burien city staff developed a number of proposed changes to the program after receiving feedback from affordable housing developers and other stakeholders. These changes included expanding the amount of allowed projects from five to eight and adding more flexibility around income requirements to allow residents with a range of income levels to live in the housing, so long as the tenants’ average income remains at or below 60 percent of the area median income (AMI).
The Burien Planning Commission approved the changes on Sept. 14, and city staff presented the proposal to the City Council on Sept. 26. Affordable housing supporters were shocked when the City Council summarily voted down the program’s renewal 4-3.
“I was kind of at a loss,” said Cydney Moore, one of the three council members who voted for the AHDP renewal.
At the meeting, Burien Mayor Sofia Aragon raised concerns about the program’s AMI requirements, saying that they could be too complicated and discourage developers. Deputy Mayor Kevin Schilling criticized the fact that the AHDP allows housing to be built in all residential areas of the city and said that the program didn’t take concerns about neighborhood character into account. Both voted against the renewal.
Unlike Seattle, Burien operates under a council-manager system, meaning that the mayor and deputy mayor don’t have executive power, but instead serve as council members with additional duties. The council selects a city manager who oversees the day-to-day business of the city.
Councilmember Hugo Garcia, who was elected in 2021 and previously served on the Planning Commission, criticized the stance of his colleagues who voted against the AHDP renewal. He said that the program approved two projects that include more than 130 affordable homes despite difficulties caused by the pandemic.
“During the [preparation] of the demonstration project, the Planning Commission was very intentional about making sure that projects were open to anywhere that the city allowed housing,” he said. “We did not want to specify a neighborhood or an area because nobody really wants to, unintentionally or intentionally, set up any sort of redlining to our city.”
Garcia also said that the change from a hard income threshold to an average would address the concerns Aragon raised about developers being confused by AMI caps.
The Oct. 3 vote comes after a nearly two-year-long controversy surrounding the DESC development. Some well-organized and vocal residents were upset with the prospect of formerly unhoused residents having a dedicated living space near the city’s commercial core. A few of these community members went as far as suing the city to stop the DESC project. Their lawsuit was dismissed in May, and DESC is now in the process of finishing the permitting process and finalizing the funding for the project.
Former Burien Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx, who was a strong proponent of the AHDP, said that the backlash against the DESC apartment building contributed to her reelection loss in 2021. “We lost a lot of votes,” she said. “There’s also a misunderstanding of what permanent supportive housing is.”
Marx speculated that other council members might be afraid of losing their reelection campaigns if they came out in favor of the AHDP. She said that, according to the city’s housing action plan, Burien needs to build more than 300 housing units a year and that the ADHP is a way to do that without having to spend any city money on development. The city of Burien currently does not develop any affordable housing on its own.
In an email to Real Change, Burien City Councilmember Stephanie Mora said that she was against the changes proposed by staff. Mora, who beat Marx in the general election last year, wrote that she was in favor of extending the AHDP as it currently exists, though.
“The type of housing I would like to see more in Burien is mixed income housing like Seola gardens, or Greenbridge,” Mora wrote. “There is a certain stigma associated [with] the ‘projects’ or low income housing communities, I know this personally. I want to bring our community together and I will not vote in favor of secluding low income families.”
Nancy Kick, a Burien resident and housing activist, said that the City Council’s refusal to extend the AHDP is going to give the city a bad reputation and make it hard for developers to trust the city to be consistent.
“I’m also disappointed that it could get watered down, because market-price developers are building here anyway. What we need to incentivize is affordable housing,” Kick said.
One of the developers whose plans could be derailed is EcoTHRIVE, which began its application process to the AHDP in July. However, EcoTHRIVE Board President Denise Henrikson told Real Change that she’s talked with all of the city council members and that they support the development of affordable housing, including her organization’s project. On Oct. 14, The Urbanist reported that the organization managed to secure an important loan from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission to assist with land acquisition. Henrikson wrote that EcoTHRIVE still needs to raise a total of $1.5 million to $2 million in cash for the project.
Aragon said that all of the city council members support building more affordable housing and that some council members were looking at putting forward a different version of the AHDP or allowing more affordable housing outside the confines of the program.
Moore said that her colleagues’ reservations about the AHDP didn’t seem to align with the changes city staff had made to allay their concerns or with the fact that there wasn’t going to be another DESC-type development slated anyways.
“I don’t see any valid reason not to extend the program,” she said. Moore also said that the City Council’s job was not to bow to backlash from a small and vocal minority and that council members shouldn’t have voted against a program they didn’t fully understand.
“That’s a poor way to legislate,” Moore said.
The Burien City Council voted to strengthen just cause eviction laws on Oct. 17. It will also have another chance to revisit the AHDP extension, though Aragon did not say when that will be.
“Us taking our eyes off the wheel ... on housing is going to have a lot of implications,” Garcia said. “And those implications are going to be on our most vulnerable and also our folks that look like you and I — Brown folks, Black folks — folks that look like Miss Mora, [Councilmember] Jimmy Matta, Sofia. We tend to be the people that need this affordable housing and have lived in it, more often than not.”
Update: This article has been updated to clarify details relating to the lawsuit concerning the DESC development.
Read more of the Oct. 19-25, 2022 issue.