Seattle’s new social housing developer will soon receive its first stream of funding as it moves forward with plans to create a new form of affordable housing in one of the country’s most expensive real estate markets.
On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council passed its supplemental budget, which contained two pieces of critical funding for the developer, totaling $200,000.
The city contributed $20,000. The second and larger cash installment, $180,000, came from the state of Washington during this year’s legislative session. The Legislature set aside $200,000 for the developer, but it’s only seeing 90% of it, according to Penny Thomas, Department of Commerce spokesperson, due to the department’s administration costs.
The state’s new budget took effect last month, but required the city to accept the money first before it could be funneled to the Seattle Social Housing Developer.
Local elected leaders — including Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle — worked to get the request pushed through in April after learning that the new developer might not receive any substantial form of startup funds until the end of the year.
After voters approved Initiative 135 in a special February election to create the developer, it immediately ran into a financial brick wall. The new public development authority is tasked with building, acquiring and maintaining a form of affordable housing, known as “social housing,” that mixes incomes and is majority tenant-run. The model is more common in European countries, where it was pioneered.
Language in the approved measure requires the city of Seattle to provide startup costs to hire two staff members and establish an office space, but the mayor’s office said due to the city charter, it wasn’t able to award startup costs until the fall budget session.
One of the main criticisms of the initiative was that it did not include a long-term funding mechanism, but organizers say they feared a dedicated funding mechanism could get the initiative thrown out in court.
Tiffani McCoy, co-chair of House Our Neighbors, a group of homelessness and housing advocates behind the social housing ballot initiative, said the group is currently exploring the possibility of filing a progressive revenue ballot initiative that would help fund the developer. She said they hope to have that request filed by November.
Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales’ office worked with the mayor’s office to have $20,000 added to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s supplemental budget proposal, according to Devin Silvernail, policy director for Morales.
That is the maximum amount of funding the city can spend on the developer outside of regular budget negotiations, according to McCoy.
The social housing developer, which has a 13-member board, recently submitted a $950,000 request to Harrell’s office to cover startup funds.
Jamie Housen, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said it is reviewing the request but has not committed to a proposed amount yet.
Morales’ office has taken the lead on City Council to implement changes to support the new developer.
Silvernail said some of that work includes working with the Office of Housing to create legislation that would provide social housing with the same development advantages as other forms of affordable housing, and working with the Office of Planning & Community Development to expand a city initiative that tries to get land-use policy to be more equitable.
Regardless of what happens in the budget negotiations, McCoy said that the newly allocated $200,000 will allow the developer’s board to hire a consultant for the rest of the year. It will also go to a national search for a CEO and chief financial officer.
Even without funding, the developer’s board and several volunteers have pushed forward.
House Our Neighbors teamed up with volunteers from the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Homelessness — a group of Seattle architects focused on helping unsheltered people through advocacy, education and service — to conduct a feasibility study on an unused city-owned lot to mock up what a social-housing site could look like.
The vision will be presented in the upcoming Seattle Design Festival this month. Organizers offered a recent sneak peek to The Seattle Times.
House Our Neighbors identified seven promising unused city-owned lots. Juliette Dubroca, owner of Seattle-based Dubroca Studio, looked at a 4,000-square-foot lot close to Ballard High School, alongside other local architects, and came up with a Tetris-style five-story building that features 10 one-, two- and three-bedroom units that could hold up to 32 residents. The design contains commercial space on the first floor and features two towers connected by an outdoor staircase.
It features plans for a shared community garden on the rooftop, an open air courtyard and several places for neighbors to gather outside.
The building is estimated to cost about $3 million to construct. The volunteer group is hoping that after local architectural firms see their initial feasibility study that more will come forward and volunteer to complete studies on the remaining six lots.