About 85%  of employees who work for the city of Kirkland don’t live in Kirkland. Mirroring the booming real-estate market across the Eastside, Kirkland houses sell for more than $1 million and one-bedroom apartments lease for around $2,000.

Most public-sector employees, from seasonal laborers for the parks department to 911 police dispatchers, commute in, with some driving from as far away as Marysville.

The issue of low and middle-income workers not being able to live in the city where they work extends far beyond Kirkland, as average rents have increased by nearly 70% since 2010 in many parts of the Eastside. But the Eastside city is among a handful of public employers to approve an initiative aimed at allowing more of its employees to live close to their job.

The Kirkland City Council voted last week to work with a development company that will set aside 34 units in two downtown buildings, Plaza and Areta, specifically for city employees. The 12-year pilot agreement also includes plans to have an additional 23 income-restricted units at Plaza, which is currently being built, under the state’s Multi-Family Tax Exception (MFTE) program.

Kirkland employees won’t receive a rent discount for the units. The options, however, are cheaper than other downtown Kirkland buildings. A one-bedroom apartment, for example, leases for about $1,400 to $1,900 at Arete, and prices for Plaza will be similar. A one-bedroom at the nearby Uptown at Kirkland Urban start at $2,250. Rent increases will be capped at 3% per year; average rents in Kirkland increased by about 5% from 2018 to 2019.

“One of the reasons why there is a huge benefit is the access,” said Kirkland City Manager Kirk Triplett. “The units are so popular that if you just left them up there, you just hoped [city] employees got on the list. Even though they pay the market rate, they have a chance to get in.”

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The Kirkland City Council voted 6-1 to approve the initiative; Councilmember Tom Neir was the sole “no” vote, and cited his concerns about the agreement lasting 12 years, which, he said, “is not an experiment and it’s not a pilot.” He also said the city should be focused on the “human resource problem” of paying staff members enough to live in Kirkland rather than the current ordinance.

The city acknowledges that many, if not most, of its employees can’t afford to live in Kirkland with just public-sector incomes, and Triplett said it wouldn’t be possible to pay everyone enough to do so with city revenue.

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It’s unclear how many employees will take advantage of the new program; a survey of city employees who are renters found that only nine employees were interested in a studio. For a one-bedroom, more than half of the people surveyed said they weren’t interested or thought that the cost was too high.

Depending on interest and availability, the units could also be extended to employees in the Lake Washington School District and Lake Washington Institute of Technology.

“When big things happen, you want [city employees] close, and by having them close you get other benefits, you create more fabric in the community,” said owner and former Kirkland City Council member Robert Pantley, who started working with Triplett on the project two years ago.

Only a few other public entities in the region have taken that step. The University of Washington is building apartments that will be subsidized for its faculty and staff on university-owned property because many couldn’t afford to live near campus. Microsoft earlier this year pledged $500 million that will, in part, develop housing for low- and middle-income workers in Seattle and the Eastside.

The new Plaza building is expected to be finished this month and will have 111 total residential units. Of those, 23 will be limited to residents earning 80% of the area median income, which is $61,800 for one person and $70,600 for a two-person household. These units are available to anyone, not just city employees.

The development company building the Plaza, Kirkland Sustainable, will pay the city 65% of the property tax savings received through the MFTE program. That amounts to about $98,000 in the first year, according to city officials. That funding will go toward housing programs for low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness, including the new Eastside Women and Family Shelter.