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March 8, 2007

Conversions preserve history, fill affordability gap

  • Condo conversions help provide an affordable option in neighborhoods that may be otherwise financially inaccessible.
    Pioneer Property Group

    Photos courtesy of Pioneer Property Group
    The Pittsburgh, a century-old building on lower Queen Anne, has been converted into affordable condos that will open in April.

    Over the last decade, the gap between workforce wages and housing costs has ballooned in and around Seattle. This shift leaves an unfulfilled demand for affordable for-sale housing in Seattle’s urban core, and forces many prospective buyers to look for homes significantly outside city limits.

    According to the King County assessor, the county’s median house price increased nearly 50 percent during the past two years. Therefore, a prospective home buyer who earns Seattle’s median income can purchase the median-priced home in only one Seattle neighborhood. These statistics signify a movement toward a time when only the well-to-do will purchase new homes in Seattle, particularly in neighborhoods close to downtown.

    To begin to fill this gap, we must examine all potential options for creating more affordably priced workforce housing. Condominium conversions are one way to use the city’s existing housing resources to meet the growing need for affordably priced owned housing, while helping to preserve Seattle’s architectural heritage along the way.

    Preserving Seattle’s past

    Condo conversion can be a powerful tool for historic preservation. From the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush to the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle history is still evident in many facets of the city’s urban landscape. Today, many of the commercial and residential buildings that mark these significant times are being torn down to make way for new developments.

    However, the conversion process has enabled Seattle real estate developers to integrate turn-of-the-century schoolhouses and commercial and residential buildings into a modern urban environment. Many vintage condo conversion projects merge the best of old and new to create custom living spaces that maintain the architectural beauty and integrity of the building’s roots. Some buildings are registered as historic landmarks to ensure preservation for future generations.

    For example, The Pittsburgh and Queen’s Court are two vintage condo conversion projects on the 100 block of Warren Avenue in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood, which date back to 1907 and 1930, respectively. Through the restoration process, these buildings have maintained the intricate architectural details of the time, including elegant crown molding, Juliet balconies, refinished wood floors and built-in kitchen cabinets. These trademark historic features are blended with contemporary amenities such as kitchen appliances, granite countertops and gas fireplaces. The combination of vintage charm, modern amenities and a variety of floor plans bring home buyers quality homes in highly desirable neighborhoods, at lower prices.

    The conversion of these buildings and other historic landmarks, such as the Betsy Ross, an intimate 1897 luxury building at the crest of Capitol Hill, serves a dual role in the community. It prevents these buildings from being torn down, while adapting them for modern living.

    Affordability crunch

    The National Association of Realtors’ study on housing affordability for 2005 showed the lowest affordability rate nationwide in four years. Despite low mortgage rates, the average household needed 132.6 percent of its income to purchase a home. In high-priced markets such as Seattle, the pressure on those with a moderate income is even stronger. Condo conversions help ease this burden by providing an affordable option in neighborhoods that may be otherwise financially inaccessible.

    As a primary source of new, low-cost owned housing, condo conversions are less expensive than single-family residences, townhomes and newly built condos. They fill a void for affordably priced owned housing in neighborhoods where revitalization is driving up housing costs.

    The lower Queen Anne neighborhood is a prime example of how affordably priced condo conversion projects blend with single-family homes and new condos to create an economically diverse community. The Pittsburgh and Queen’s Court projects enable buyers to purchase new homes for as little as $150,000. In this vibrant community, just steps away from Seattle Center and minutes from downtown, some new condo developments start at more than $400,000.

    Neighborhood revitalization projects are under way throughout Seattle, with the ultimate goal of turning Seattle into a 24-hour city. Convenient access to public transportation and amenities including grocery stores, restaurants, shopping and entertainment will be the cornerstone of these vibrant neighborhoods. However, in order to build a diverse urban environment, it is necessary for these communities to offer owned workforce housing to those who provide the services that enable them to thrive — from teachers and police officers to restaurant managers and small business owners.

    Keeping tenants in mind

    For condo conversions to be a successful solution to the need for new low-cost owned housing in Seattle, fairness to tenants must remain a priority. A combination of common courtesy and personal gestures can make the process more pleasant for developers and residents alike.

    Developers should evaluate tenants’ situations on an individual basis. In many cases, the amount of money that tenants need to move is more than the relocation assistance mandated by the state. Additionally, some tenants may have special health-related needs or other life circumstances that prevent them from moving out of the building in the allotted time frame, and it may be necessary to help them find a housing solution. For example, a tenant who had lived in the Queen’s Court building for more than 30 years was allowed to remain in his unit indefinitely because forcing him to relocate could negatively affect his health.

    When thoughtfully executed, condo conversions offer a creative and effective means for filling a void in the Seattle housing market. They provide a way to preserve Seattle’s beautiful turn of the century architecture for future generations, while retaining diversity of age, occupation and wealth amongst the homeowners in Seattle’s close-in neighborhoods.

    dedicated to preserving Seattle’s architectural heritage and providing sustainable and affordable housing opportunities that maintain the city’s vitality and diversity. Ben Rankin is co-founder of Pioneer Property Group, a boutique real estate firm

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