With rents and home prices skyrocketing, low-income housing advocates say the Eastside should be doing more to create affordable housing for its residents.
Raymond Martinez was living with his two children in a converted storage unit in the basement of a Kirkland apartment building and paying $1,200 a month for rent when a small fire started on the hot plate that was his stove. The firefighters told him the unit’s two tiny bedrooms lacked windows for escape and didn’t meet code.
The 40-year-old widower, who works 50 hours a week at two part-time janitorial jobs, makes about $1,600 a month, plus survivor benefits from Social Security. On the increasingly expensive Eastside, where a median-priced two-bedroom apartment in Kirkland rents for $2,250 a month, according to Zillow, he couldn’t find anything he could afford.
“The apartments were so expensive. They wanted an income three times the monthly rent to qualify,” Martinez said.
Eastside housing by the numbers
Average cost of a single-family home in 2014, up from $388,519 in 2001.
Average cost of a condo in 2014, up from $200,593 in 2001.
Average monthly rent in 2014, up from $1,026 in 2001.
Source: Central Puget Sound Real Estate Research Committee
Through his church, he found a vacancy at a subsidized 65-unit apartment complex with a grassy central courtyard, children’s play area and a common room where residents can hold birthday parties or barbecues. He pays $1,056 a month for three bedrooms and now shares the rent with his fiancée.
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Plum Court’s manager, Gwyn Desimone, said she gets about 10 calls a day asking about vacancies. All of last year, there were three openings.
Housing advocates say efforts on the Eastside to build or preserve more affordable housing aren’t keeping up with demand as rents and home prices skyrocket. The average Eastside house now costs almost $772,000 and the average monthly rent is $1,500, according to regional estimates.
Fifteen Eastside cities contribute annually to ARCH, A Regional Housing Coalition, a government agency that pools the money and works with affordable-housing providers to build and preserve housing.
But while the Seattle housing levy, a voter-approved property tax dedicated to affordable housing, raises about $20 million a year, the cities’ contributions to the ARCH trust fund totals about $1.5 million annually, an amount that has remained flat over the past decade.
The Eastside has also fallen behind its own goals to build housing for the lowest-income workers, those who make less than $44,100, half of the county median household income of $88,200. The ARCH member cities targeted creation of 445 new units between 1993 and 2012 for low-income residents, but built only 110.
“The problem with ARCH is they get very little resources and few projects get funded. They should be producing 10 times what they’re producing,” said Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which builds subsidized housing in King County.
Some Eastside cities have actually reduced their contribution to the ARCH trust fund over the past decade even as housing costs have soared. Sammamish, where almost 74 percent of households earn $100,000 or more, trimmed its contribution from $200,000 in 2007 to $20,000 in 2011, and hasn’t increased it since.
Bellevue, the Eastside’s largest city and biggest economy, contributed $824,000 last year, the same amount it gave in 2007.
City leaders in both Bellevue and Sammamish said they’d give more if they were asked.
“We’ve had a request from ARCH come through every year. We’ve never said no,” said Bellevue Deputy Mayor Kevin Wallace.
Kelly Rider, policy director of the Housing Development Consortium, an advocacy group that includes nonprofit-housing developers in King County as well as local housing authorities and government agencies, notes that the ARCH contribution of most Eastside cities is a tiny fraction of the city’s budget.
“ARCH’s governing board is the cities,” she said. “They set the budget expectations.”
Rider and other housing advocates say they’d like to see the Eastside come up with a dedicated funding source for affordable housing. It could be a regional-housing levy like Seattle’s. Or officials might consider options being discussed by a Seattle task force, such as a real-estate excise tax dedicated to affordable housing or a fee paid by commercial-property builders toward affordable housing.
“We like to see the cities recommit to increasing the ARCH contribution,” Rider said.
No one says it will be easy. Seattle’s task force was announced in September and last month was granted an extension until the end of June to complete its recommendations.
David Wertheimer, who works on housing and homelessness for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is the task force’s co-chairman, said the issues are “remarkably complex,” particularly in a market where land values are high and nonprofit affordable-housing providers must compete with private developers for land and aging buildings slated for demolition or expensive upgrades with commensurate rent hikes.
But the need, he said, is also great. “We’re losing affordable housing to development, to rent increases, to expiring multifamily tax exemptions,” he said.
Arthur Sullivan, ARCH’s program manager, said Eastside cities should get credit for supporting and funding a coordinated effort to build and preserve affordable housing through ARCH. Around the country, he said, it’s very uncommon for suburbs, particularly affluent ones, to actively support low-income housing.
Sullivan said many of the cities have adopted different land-use strategies to create incentives for affordable housing. Redmond, for example, requires that 10 percent of units in new residential developments — both single-family homes and multifamily projects of 10 or more — be affordable for those making 80 percent of the county’s average median household income.
It’s required in most neighborhoods across Redmond. That’s made it predictable for developers and means housing isn’t concentrated in any one neighborhood, he said.
Sammamish, Issaquah, Newcastle, Kirkland and Kenmore also require affordable units in new construction in some neighborhoods. And Kirkland and Redmond have allowed microhousing, sometimes known as aPodments, which may be as small as 150 square feet, but rent for a relatively affordable $600 to $750 a month each.
Sullivan said those strategies have been relatively effective in creating new units for moderate-income households, those making above $44,100 a year. But for low-income residents, ARCH has met just 20 percent of its housing goals.
Sullivan noted that city revenues took a hit during the recession. Mayors and councils were challenged to maintain essential services such as police, fire, roads and parks. And with the cities also funding salaries and operations for the five-person ARCH staff, Sullivan is reluctant to criticize any whose general fund contribution has declined.
He noted that Sammamish and Redmond, for example, have donated land in addition to their financial contributions.
City leaders say they support ARCH and its goals to provide more affordable housing.
Bellevue this year added housing to its list of City Council priorities and has asked staff to draft a plan to achieve more affordable housing for a range of income levels, said Planning Director Dan Stroh.
Councilmember Lynne Robinson said city leaders don’t want the cost of housing to put the city out-of-reach for its workers.
“We would love to see our teachers, police, firefighters and clergy who work here be able to live here as well,” Robinson said.
Bellevue leaders are also looking ahead to light-rail service opening in 2023 and say they plan to include affordable housing around the future stations.
But affordable-housing providers say it’s increasingly hard to compete with private developers for land and existing properties.
Plum Court, the affordable, garden-style apartment complex in Kirkland, was up for sale in 2002 when it was purchased by DASH, the Downtown Action to Save Housing nonprofit, for $7.2 million.
The nonprofit worked with a seller willing to wait for a complicated financing plan to come together. It involved money from ARCH as well as county, state and federal governments, said Kim Loveall Price, DASH’s interim executive director.
But the nonprofit’s recent offers on land in Bellevue — $4 million each, one property downtown and another near a planned light-rail station, were rejected by sellers who could get more money from private developers, she said.
She thinks the Eastside needs 2,500 more affordable units and agrees with other housing advocates that the Eastside cities should find new revenues to help meet the need. “Seattle has a housing levy. The Eastside lacks a dedicated funding source,” she said.
With far more demand than supply, residents who win a spot in one of the Eastside’s low-income apartment units express gratitude and relief.
Tracey Claybon, 45, moved here from East Texas in 2006 to take a contract tech job with Microsoft paying about $25 an hour. She had to return home to help a family member with deteriorating health, and when Claybon came back in 2013, she said, she struggled to find work and a place to live.
By then, rents had nearly doubled, to between $1,200 to $1,300 a month, she said. But the job she took to make ends meet — a manager at a storage facility — paid $12 an hour, or about $1,900 a month. That made market-rate apartments “impossible.”
Claybon couch-surfed with friends and stayed in a Bellevue women’s homeless shelter for several months before winning a lottery for one of the apartments at August Wilson Place, a new building in downtown Bellevue built by the Low Income Housing Institute.
Claybon’s studio features a kitchen, a full bath and a washer and dryer. She’s got a view of Mount Rainier from her fifth-floor room. She said she continues to apply for tech and technical-writing jobs, but no longer has to worry about where she’ll sleep at night.
“It gives me stability. It takes the worry off my mind. It means everything,” she said.