Facing a regional affordable-housing squeeze, nine South King County cities are for the first time working together in an effort to maintain the area’s historic role as a source of affordable housing.

South King Housing and Homelessness Partners will start small, providing policy advice and advocating for members, with the eventual goals of building and potentially running affordable-housing developments, as a long-standing consortium of Eastside cities already does.

Long a bastion of affordable housing, South King County is seeing prices rise as developers and landlords cater to people fleeing Seattle’s housing market and the area grapples with a regionwide housing shortage.

While Zillow-estimated median rent in Seattle rose less than 1% from January 2018 to June 2019, rents in south county cities within the partnership jumped about 4.5%.

“We want to make sure people who work in this community can live in this community,” said Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

That trend of flight south from the city has displaced residents, particularly immigrants, refugees and people of color — the demographics of many clients served by Muslim Housing Services, a Seattle-based nonprofit that aids needy families. About five years ago, the organization started placing families in South King County due to high Seattle housing prices.

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Now, the organization is getting priced out of South King County, too, limiting the number of chronically homeless families it’s able to assist — and whose need is greatest, said executive director Rizwan Rizwi.

“When there’s fewer affordable units, the time spent in (homeless) shelters goes up,” he said. While the organization’s clients came from Seattle shelters, the 2019 King County point-in-time count estimated nearly one in five people experiencing homelessness were in Southwest King County, the largest proportion outside Seattle.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, who chairs the partnership, said it will apply an “equity lens” to its work, focusing on people most affected by the affordable-housing crunch. Much of what the partnership will look like is still to be determined.

The decade leading to 2017 saw a loss of 36,000 affordable units countywide, according to a task force report. Backus stressed the importance of a subregional approach that includes a focus on preserving South King County’s historical stock of affordable housing.

“What works in Seattle isn’t necessarily going to work in Auburn,” she said.

One of the challenges facing South King County is the increased burden that comes with the suburbanization of poverty, said King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove.

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It’s an ongoing trend: Brookings Institute research found an 80% increase in people who met the federal definition of poverty living in Seattle suburbs from 2000 to 2011. Overall, two-thirds of Seattle metro-area residents in poverty lived in suburbs.

Auburn, where Zillow-estimated yearly median rent prices have jumped 24% in five years, has dedicated city staff to getting the partnership up and running. Auburn, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Federal Way, Kent, Normandy Park, Renton, Tukwila and King County have signed on to the agreement, with the option for other cities to join later.

Several south county cities, including Auburn, had previously funded a staff position with the nonprofit Housing Development Consortium to provide policy advice, coordination and advocacy work among them. When that position came to an end around a year ago, they reached out to other cities about expanding the effort, Backus said.

With a starting budget of $230,000, the partnership is hiring two staffers to help provide the representation and expertise that smaller cities can’t afford.

Member cities pay in to the partnership proportionate to their population, with additional funding coming from the county, its housing authority and several charitable partners. Kent is paying the most, with over $26,400 the first year, and Normandy Park is paying the least, at around $3,100 a year.

Not all south county cities have signed on to the agreement. SeaTac Mayor Erin Sitterley said while the city hasn’t ruled out joining later, any potential benefits were outweighed by financial concerns.

Backus said she understood why smaller cities would want to see benefits before making a financial commitment, and the partnership hopes to add other cities over time.

While the idea is to coordinate efforts and eventually pool members’ funding to build projects they couldn’t individually, cities are still taking action individually, including capital projects, while it gets established, said Jeff Tate, Auburn’s community development department director.

The Eastside consortium, known as ARCH, includes King County and 15 Eastside cities. It has helped create over 3,250 units of affordable housing over the last 26 years. ARCH recently helped fund the first permanent 24-hour homeless shelter for women and children on the Eastside.

Staff reporter Sydney Brownstone contributed to this report.