November 21, 2002

Architects welcome low income housing challenge

  • Local firms, large and small, find satisfaction in the challenges of designing high quality affordable housing.
    Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County

    Plymouth Place
    Rendering courtesy Stickney Murphy Romine
    Plymouth Place, designed by Stickney Murphy Romine, is now under construction at the corner of First and Denny. Because the project is for low income residents and is near transit, it was not constrained by parking requirements.

    In Seattle, low-income housing has come a long way since the days of public housing projects, distinguishable by their size and nondescript blandness. In their place are attractive apartments and townhomes earning design acclaim from the architectural community and raves from the public for the way they blend into neighborhoods.

    They’ve been developed by members of the Housing Development Consortium, some of the most sophisticated and savvy nonprofit developers in the country.

    Established in 1988, the HDC is a nonprofit trade association comprised of 29 nonprofit housing developers in the Seattle-King County area, 29 associate members and two government members. Members have developed over 13,500 units of affordable housing, serving the working poor and homeless, seniors, children and the developmentally disabled.

    Today, more architects welcome the challenge of working with nonprofit developers to design affordable housing. Last year, the nonprofit members of the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County developed 2,158 affordable housing units.

    HDC’s architect members have used their expertise to help nonprofits reduce costs by getting involved at the conception of a project, planning layouts that maximize design and function, selecting durable materials and tracking feedback to improve future projects. They are on the cutting edge of working with recycled products and “green building,” both very important to low-income housing developers.

    Now green building is becoming mainstream. And in many ways, the concerns of architects working on low-income housing match those of any good designer working on almost any project type. But there are some important differences.

    A few HDC associate members describe their own experience with low-income housing, comparing it with market-rate development.

    Bob Hale, Kovalenko Hale Architects: “Financing is the big challenge for nonprofit developers. There are sometimes limitations on what you can spend per unit that isn’t a factor for market-rate developers. Low-income development is dependent upon funding rounds and tax credits. Because low-income housing tax credits are tied to tax years, if your project doesn’t get finished, the investors lose their tax credits for the year. Projects typically take a couple of years and you have to anticipate inflation. It’s a little harder to get site control when it might take a year or two to obtain funding.

    “I’ve found that it’s usually easier for nonprofits to get money for a new project versus finding money for future maintenance. Therefore when nonprofits build low-income units, they must buy materials that are going to last. To save on future operating costs, nonprofits are willing to pay more in the beginning to get a system that won’t require as much maintenance later on.

    “I believe reduced parking requirements for low-income housing are a good thing. We recently did a project in Bothell where two parking stalls were required for each apartment. That added a tremendous cost to the overall project, which most nonprofits are unable to bear.”

    Kovalenko Hale designed The Harrison at 15th for Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program. The owner was looking for a model for Urban Villages that would fit into an established neighborhood and be accepted by the community.

    Ron Murphy, principal at Stickney Murphy Romine: “When designing for low-income housing, financing is a major factor. Consider historic tax credits. A private or market-rate developer may be reluctant to take advantage of these tax credits because of the hoops they must go through and potential restrictions on layout. Nonprofits generally must consider every source of financing available, no matter how complicated it is to obtain.

    “Working with nonprofits allows us to take irregularly shaped or small lots, often passed over by private developers and develop good projects. They can take a piece of land and make it work within their funding to save an old building, whereas a private developer may want to demolish the building because the land has a higher and better use.

    “With market-rate housing, parking is often a driving force. Normally, architects don’t worry about parking when designing in-city low-income housing. The Seattle land-use code has lower parking requirements for low-income developed in many neighborhoods outside the downtown core.

    “One example is Plymouth Place, currently under construction, at the corner of First and Denny in Seattle. Private developers may have looked at this small, odd-shaped lot and said it wouldn’t work when parking was added. However parking wasn’t a concern for the nonprofit developer Plymouth Housing Group because they serve extremely low-income residents.

    “We were able to get 73 units into the footprint because the building’s tenants didn’t need parking, but did require a convenient location near public transportation and services. Most of the new apartments and condominiums in Belltown reflect the market demand for larger one- and two-bedroom apartments with space for an office or den and privacy. Because of Plymouth Housing Group’s tenant profile, they can adequately serve their low-income tenants with studios or small one bedrooms.”

    Stickney Murphy Romine does about 90 percent of their business with the nonprofit, government and university sector.

    Kim Lokan, architect at Tonkin Hoyne Lokan: “Low-income projects developed by nonprofits consciously fit into a neighborhood. Generally, the developer, along with the architect, listens to community concerns early on — trying to allay ‘NIMBY’ fears.

    “The challenge revolves around providing good durable materials that improve the neighborhood context within a limited budget. Market-rate residential projects tend to focus on the shorter term, rather than looking at a 40- or 50-year life to the building. Generally, we’ve found that low-income housing typically includes a social community space, which encourages community and space for social service providers. This usually isn’t a priority for market-rate apartments.

    “I predict that there will be more opportunities to develop mixed-income projects in the future. It is a type of housing that encourages neighborhood development, meeting the goals of the Growth Management Act, as well as Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan.”

    Tonkin Hoyne Lokan completed Westwood and Longfellow Courts for LATCH last year. These townhouses surround common parking and outdoor play areas. The enclosed nature of the courts and the limited number of units within each supported the communal aspect of ‘mutual housing,’ serving an income mix from below 30 percent to 50 percent of area median income.

    Chris Libby and Clayton O’Brien-Smith, principals at GGLO: “As architects and designers, GGLO approaches nonprofit affordable housing projects in much the same way as purely market-rate endeavors. Subtle differences lie mostly in the expectations of the developer and the requirements of the end users. Budgets are similar, but the application of available funds often varies.

    “A private developer, concerned with market demand, may focus resources on amenities, sales or leasing offices and distinguishing features that appeal to potential renters or condo buyers. A nonprofit developer will tend to direct resources toward elements that complement sustainability, since they want to keep maintenance costs down over the long term.

    “There’s a growing awareness of the mutual benefits of combining mixed-use projects and housing in public-private development partnerships. Nonprofits bring knowledge of funding sources and access to financial instruments that increase the chances of a project getting off the drawing board, while private developers provide construction experience and expert knowledge of market conditions that help ensure the resulting project is an economic success.

    “Stewart Court, an innovative partnership between the nonprofit Housing Resources Group and commercial Clise Properties Inc., resulted in the sale of housing bonus credits that allowed the commercial project to obtain additional space, while the affordable housing development gained much-needed equity. In mixed-income housing projects, nonprofits can use the income stream from market-rate units to effectively subsidize lower-income units.

    “Because of its success, we expect to see more collaborations between private developers, public entities and nonprofits in affordable and mixed-income housing projects.”

    GGLO’s current project at 23rd and Judkins expands the range of possibilities for mutually beneficial development partnerships. Housing Resources Group, collaborating with AIDS Housing of Washington and the city of Seattle, will create four affordable units for families living with AIDS.

    Peter Watson, multi-family housing market leader, and Tejal Mehta, project manager, OTAK: “Compared with market-rate housing, low-income housing is dictated more by the requirements a developer needs to provide in order to secure financing. Low-income housing tax credits, which nonprofits use as a primary funding source, often have a direct relationship to the number of units built. Typically, low-income units tend to be smaller. Our challenge is providing the highest quality design for the client’s budget. A private developer who retains long-term ownership of their properties shares a similar concern for quality as a nonprofit developer. They do not want to cut corners in construction if it results in expensive repairs or replacement a few years later.

    “Market-rate developers have more flexibility in the layout of floor plans and can provide several different unit types in a project since their design is based on market demand. With affordable housing projects, unit types tend to be more consistent, responding to programmatic and lending constraint requirements ... i.e. senior housing, transitional housing, single-parent families.

    “We’re seeing a trend toward mixing market and economic levels with housing. Our private developers are finding that some municipalities offer them other project concessions when they include more affordable units than zoning requires.”

    OTAK is currently working with the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute on the renovation of J.C. Penney’s in Auburn into mixed-use, low-income housing. They recently completed a very successful mixed-income project in Portland that targeted both renters and homeowners.

    Carla Okigwe is executive director of Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County.

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