By Jack Stubbs
The city of Seattle and the broader region continues to been plagued by issues around affordable housing, and organizations are taking steps towards combating the increasingly prevalent epidemic.
“As a city and as a region, the crisis of housing affordability and growing economic disparity and homelessness are the central challenges we face. One of the core steps of addressing this crisis is to built more affordable housing like this that we are celebrating today,” said Steve Walker, director of the Seattle Office of Housing at a grand opening ceremony held for an affordable housing project in Seattle’s University District.
On Monday, May 7th, Bellwether Housing, a Seattle-based non-profit dedicated to creating affordable housing for low-income families and individuals transitioning from homelessness, celebrated the opening of Arbora Court. The apartment community will bring 133 affordable units, 40 of which will be dedicated to households transitioning out of homelessness.
The seven-story project, which serves individuals making below 50 percent of area-median income, will also offer various amenities to residents including an outdoor play area for children; rooftop deck; and a community kitchen and gathering room.
According to Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, the grand opening—which was attended by about 100 community members and various individuals from Bellwether Housing, Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and the project’s development team—comes at a time when housing affordability remains as pressing a crisis as ever, especially considering the current political climate. “Given everything that has gone on in the public sphere in the last couple of weeks, I think we’re doing the right thing by celebrating our investments in affordable housing, which really make a difference,” she said. Bringing well over 100 units, Arbora Court is the largest building Bellwether Housing has built to date.
The team for the project—located at 1750 15th Ave. NE.—includes architect Weber Thompson, general contractor Walsh Construction, Wellspring Family Services, and law firm Foster Pepper, who helped secure the land for the project. Funding for the project was a joint effort between the Seattle Office of Housing; the Washington State Housing Trust Fund; Seattle Housing Authority; King County; the Washington State Housing Finance Commission; and non-profit Enterprise Community Partners.
And according to Walker, the collaborative effort represents a coming together of various public and private entities to combat the increasing issue of affordable housing throughout the city. “[Arbora Court] ishows what we can do when we come together to tackle this crisis…[with] government, [the] faith community, service providers and philanthropists. This is the kind of partnership we need to keep building on to build a more inclusive and vibrant city,” he said.
The project was also made possible by University Christian Church’s below-market land sale to Bellwether Housing roughly two years ago: the Church sold the four-parcel site—totaling approximately 30,000 square feet and formerly home to two under-utilized parking lots—to Bellwether for $4 million in August 2016. Bellwether broke ground on the project in September 2016; and residents began moving in only recently on May 1st. According to Boyd, the now fully-realized Arbora Court project was in part due to the ability of University Christian Church to realize a higher and better use for the site. “The congregation owned this land and operated a parking lot here for decades. During much of that time, they knew the power of this site to be much more than a parking lot,” she said.
The grand opening of Arbora Court marks the latest chapter in the longer process for the project itself, and also represents a landmark moment in terms of addressing the larger crisis of housing affordability throughout Seattle, according to Boyd. “The impact of this building goes far beyond its walls. Our work makes it possible for those who would otherwise be left behind to find stability and opportunity in this city,” she said.
For Bellwether, the opening of Arbora represents the most recent indication of the nonprofit’s commitment to combating the city-wide affordable housing crisis. Between 2018 and 2021, Bellwether will bring over 1,000 apartment units online—throughout South Lake Union, First Hill, and Greenwood, among other neighborhoods—to house individuals and families with a wide range of incomes, for people transitioning out of homelessness; people earning modest incomes; and seniors on a fixed income. Between 350 and 400 of these units will be two- to four-bedroom units to serve families and children.
Bellwether has another soon-to-open projects in the works: Anchor Flats, a 71-unit building located in South Lake Union set to open in June 2018, will have rents ranging from $840 to $1,200, a figure that is approximately half to eh current market rents prevalent in South Lake Union, Lower Queen Anne, and other surrounding neighborhoods. Anchor Flats is the second development supported by Seattle’s Future Fund, an investment tool created by Bellwether in 2014 through which the non-profit raised $1.9 million to fund the project.
Some of the organizations other development’s in the works include 6600 Roosevelt, a joint venture between Bellwether and Mercy Housing Northwest that will bring 245 affordable homes to Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood, and Madison/Boylston, a joint project by Bellwether and Plymouth Housing Group that will be the largest building constructed by any affordable housing provider in Seattle: the project will include between 300 and 400 affordable apartment units across 12 to 15 floors for low-income families and individuals.
With regards to the funding for recently-opened Arbora Court, the project was also helped along by the city of Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan, an initiative that requires developers to either include affordable homes in their projects or contribute to a city fund for affordable housing. According to Boyd, approximately $10 million worth of financing for Arbora Court was secured through MHA, an initiative that is currently being implemented neighborhood-by-neighborhood throughout the city. The University District was the first neighborhood to be up-zoned in February 2017; other neighborhoods including Uptown, Chinatown/International District, downtown and South Lake Union have since been up-zoned as well.
In terms of the city’s continued investment in combating the crisis of housing affordability—with MHA serving as one such initiative towards this goal—the opening of Arbora Court represents a landmark moment, but should also be followed with the creation of more affordable units, according to Walker. “As we add these 133 homes today, we know we need to do more. Our strong investment in affordable housing can and must continue,” he said. Looking ahead, from 2018-2021, the city expects to create 2,500 new city-funded affordable units and an additional 1,900-plus multifamily tax-exempt affordable units.
In the broader context of the evolution of Seattle—in terms of how the city has been striving to make moves towards addressing housing affordability issues—Boyd thinks that more work is yet to be done, even though promising transformations have already occurred. “Over the years, SHA has transformed the face of this city through the redevelopment of Holly Park, Rainier Vista and now Yesler Terrace…these are areas in the city that were once known as ‘projects’ but are now neighborhoods,” she said.
Ultimately a multi-faceted effort between various public and private entities, Arbora Court—and the larger issues around housing which it seeks to address—was made possible by this spirit of collaboration, according to Andrew Lofton, executive director of the SHA. “I want to recognize the tremendous work that has been done in putting this together. These kinds of projects don’t happen [because of] one individual or organization; they happen because there is a partnership within the community that many individuals believe in,” he said. “This building adds to the physical environment of the surrounding community; but it also adds to the social fabric of the community; and at the end of the day, that is what really matters,” he said.