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February 25, 2016

Survey: Low Income Housing Institute

Image courtesy of Runberg Architecture Group [enlarge]
LIHI wants to develop apartments on this site near Othello Station in south Seattle.

Specialty: Nonprofit developer and manager of affordable housing; provides services to increase people’s self sufficiency

Management: Sharon Lee, executive director; Lynne Behar, CFO; Robin Amadon, housing development director; John Syverson, facilities director

Founded: 1991

Headquarters: Seattle

Projects: Cheryl Chow Court, 50 affordable apartments for seniors near Ballard Library; August Wilson Place, 57 low-income apartments in downtown Bellevue; Gossett Place, 63 apartments for the homeless in Seattle’s University District

Sharon Lee, LIHI’s executive director, answered questions from the DJC about her organization and trends and issues in the industry.

Q: How can we get more low-income/affordable housing in Seattle and Bellevue?

A: On any given night there are 500 homeless families with children sleeping on the streets or in their cars. A few nights ago we moved a veteran family of six who had been living in their van into one of our three-bedroom apartments. They were lucky, but what about the rest?

We need more apartments that rent from $200 to $600 per month to get homeless people off the streets. Even with a minimum-wage job you can’t stop being homeless if there’s only apartments renting for $1,800 per month.

LIHI owns 1,800 low-income apartments, but we have to wait for someone to leave before we can move in a new family.

It is outrageous for wealthy cities such as Seattle and Bellevue to have so many people who are homeless or at-risk of becoming so. Rents are out of control — and as they go up homelessness increases. The January 2016 One Night Count showed 4,505 people sleeping unsheltered on the streets of King County — a 19 percent increase from 2015.

Mayor Murray proposed a larger Seattle Housing Levy for the ballot this fall. If it passes, it will help tremendously. We should also do what Portland did: tax Airbnb units and put the funds towards low-income housing. Also, Seattle and Bellevue should dedicate a portion of their general fund or issue bonds for affordable housing. We have 1 percent for the arts, but we don’t even have 1 percent for housing.

Q: Why aren’t more low-income housing developers building on the light rail line locally?

A: LIHI plans to start construction in summer 2018 on two projects on land it recently bought near Othello Light Rail Station.

One project called Othello Court will be at 7544 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. It will have about 150 apartments and retail. The other project will be at 7357 43rd Ave. S., across from Othello Park. It will have about 100 apartments. LIHI hopes to put a preschool on the first floor of that project, and include some apartments for immigrant families served by Refugee Women’s Alliance. Runberg Architecture Group is designing the projects.

We are purchasing a parcel at 8620 Nesbit Ave. N.E. on the Rapid Ride bus line in north Seattle near Greenwood. This is an up-and-coming area with new market-rate projects happening all around. When you build up, there are some great views of the downtown skyline.

We acquired a terrific site at 1253 S. Jackson St. in Little Saigon, with the new First Hill Streetcar stop right in front. We like walkable neighborhoods with lots of amenities. We try to be near transit, parks, shopping and schools.

Q: Is LIHI considering micro-unit projects?

A: We are about to open a building in the University District near 50th and Roosevelt Way Northeast. We have 49 studios that average 350 square feet. We figure it is better to include a bathroom and kitchen in each unit. We also have lots of shared common space, including a community kitchen. One floor is for homeless young adults and two floors are for low-wage workers. The new home of the University District Food Bank is on the first floor, and we will have a wonderful green roof with vegetables and herbs.

Q: Does LIHI have projects for suburban King County?

A: We are proposing to construct an attractive new apartment building in downtown Renton for low-income households. We will set aside some apartments for homeless families with children and also for veterans. South King County is showing a significant increase in the numbers of homeless people.

We would love to bring more affordable housing online in Bellevue and the Eastside. It is difficult to develop housing in King County outside of Seattle. In Seattle, we have the voter-approved Housing Levy. We also have Mayor Murray and the Seattle City Council jumping up and down on various housing solutions.

But outside Seattle, King County and the suburban cities provide little money for low-income housing. Unfortunately even the wealthy cities, such as Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah and Kirkland, have not prioritized investments in affordable housing.

This is sad as the people cleaning office buildings, serving food, working in child care and staffing hotels cannot afford the ever-rising market rents and must move or commute long distances. What would it take to get elected officials in the suburbs to give a damn about affordable housing?

Q: Will we see high-rise low-income projects, given the increasing cost of land?

A: Of course high-rise concrete and steel construction will cost more than the wood-frame buildings we typically develop. Yes it is time to build high-rises that serve low-income people.

I just toured a low-income tax credit financed tower in Honolulu, where land costs are at a premium. This high-rise was made possible because public land was conveyed at nominal cost. I think it was $1. And it is right next door to transit.

Portland has some nice examples of mid-rise buildings that are affordable. I hope we can get access to low-cost city, county or state land, especially around transit stations. The expensive per unit cost of mid- and high-rise construction can be partially offset by having public land which is donated.

Q: What are the biggest issues in your industry?

A: Nonprofit housing organizations serve people the market does not serve. Nobody else is going to deliver apartments that rent for hundreds of dollars below market.

Sometimes we get a bad rap because we have to follow strict government wage rate requirements, green building practices, and our cost per unit is typically higher than the private sector. But if a city wants a healthy mix of incomes and we want vulnerable people cared for (and not on the streets), it is important to invest resources so that nonprofits can double or triple their production of affordable housing.

At the state level, we have over 35,000 homeless school-age children. What kind of future do they have? We need our state legislators to increase the Washington Housing Trust Fund to $300 million per biennium.

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