Over in “the other Washington,” the husband-wife team in charge of the federal government’s response to the growing crisis of housing unaffordability and homelessness found itself in hot water.
CNN reported that Ben Carson — who has said that the pyramids maybe were grain silos and that poverty is a state of mind — and his wife, Candy, had selected a $31,000 dining set for Carson’s office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Compared with other Cabinet members in the Trump administration, the Carsons’ extravagancy was more Kay than Cartier. But Ben Carson is the secretary of HUD, the agency meant to provide housing assistance in a time when no states have enough affordable housing to serve their poorest residents.
And that dining set? Worth more than many of those families in Seattle make in a year. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is proposing to cut HUD by 14 percent.
In the absence of support or leadership on the federal level, state and local governments in Washington state have stepped in to push back on the rising tide of homelessness and housing prices by solidifying funding streams for affordable housing production and fighting for renters’ protections for those left to fend for themselves in the private market.
But creating affordable housing is complicated. Finding the land for housing that meets the needs of a developer’s budget and the residents’ lives can be difficult and rife with red tape. Lawmakers and advocates in Olympia and Seattle are trying to shift that dynamic.
At the state and local levels, governments are working to make it easier to transfer public property into private hands to incentivize the kind of housing that nearly every community in the United States needs: housing for those who have been left behind by economic forces that push money upward.
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An affordability crisis
The scale of Washington’s housing affordability crisis is staggering.
A new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that Washington has 29 available affordable units for every 100 residents in the state making between 0 and 30 percent of the area median income (AMI) — $20,200 and below for a single adult, $28,800 and below for a family of four in Seattle in 2017. Overall, Washington is short 163,726 units for to people making under 30 percent of the AMI. The Seattle metro area accounted for more than half of that, and in Seattle alone there were nearly 20,500 households that reported income below $25,000 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Given the high cost of housing, it’s next to impossible for the private market to create the needed units naturally. Some housing policies require private developers to keep certain units affordable for a set period of time — anywhere from 12 to 99 years.
And while Washington’s Housing Trust Fund released more than $100 million in the most recent funding cycle, that’s well short of the $3.2 billion that local officials say is needed to build sufficient housing in the Puget Sound area.
Location, location, location
Where governments are cash poor, they are often land rich. Converting those resources into housing, however, takes a few more steps.
Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, sat before the Senate Transportation Committee at the end of February to push the state another pace forward.
Ryu was there to talk about 3SHB 2382, the opaque name for a piece of legislation that would give state and local governments the ability to transfer properties at low or no cost in the name of affordable housing. To ensure that the properties fall into the right hands, the bill also mandates that state agencies list available properties and gives other levels of government the right of first refusal to purchase them.
That means that instead of a onetime cash windfall that could be funneled into the general fund or even earmarked for affordable housing, governments could transfer properties to organizations with experience in creating affordable housing.
“We just happen to have the perfect storm,” Ryu told senators. “We have the unaffordability of housing, a shortage of more than 200,000 housing units and an urgent need to address the root causes of homelessness. We also need to, of course, bring down the ongoing cost of homelessness to the state, to the communities and, most importantly, to the individuals.”
But even when there’s money available to build, getting the land to the right organizations can be challenging. In many circumstances local government is under an obligation to ask for market rate on parcels of land under its control, even when the property will be used for a public good.
That’s one reason that the Fort Lawton project — a proposed 238-unit mix of affordable rental and ownership options at the old base in Discovery Park currently grabbing the local spotlight — is unique. The federal government agreed to transfer that property for affordable housing at up to a 100 percent discount.
It’s not that cities and affordable housing developers have been unable to find workarounds. The city of Olympia transferred a parking lot to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) for $100,000, and Seattle has found inventive reuses for defunct fire stations. A local senior center has plans for some limited affordable housing on a plot that it already owns, but it will be situated adjacent to the building where those folks can receive services, which it does not.
In an email, LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee listed off four properties that were at one time city-owned on which new housing now stands: Nova Townhomes in SODO, Lake City Family Housing to the north, and Ernestine Anderson Place and Abbey Lincoln Court in Central Seattle.
The last two were as much a factor of economic circumstance as an intention.
“The parcels were sold to a private developer under Mayor [Greg] Nickels — but during the recession, when the developer could not proceed, LIHI acquired them,” Lee wrote.
There are roughly 300 city-owned properties in Seattle that could be ripe for affordable housing, according to an analysis from the King County Assessor’s office. They’re at least 4,000 square feet and close to transit.
If affordable housing developers could get access in a predictable way, it’s unlikely to solve the crisis that’s built up over the course of the past 40 years, but it might make a dent. Until then, local agents will have to hope that the federal government feels as loose with its funds for building housing as it does for decorating Ben Carson’s office.
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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