By Meghan Hall
Seattle is not short of jobs, but it is most certainly short of housing. For Seattle natives, many whom have spent their entire lives in the Puget Sound, the rapid transformation that has overtaken the region in the past decade has produced a tsunami of change. In many cases, that change is not always welcome: As locals have seen their neighborhoods change physically before their eyes, they are also feeling changes in their wallets as housing prices continue to skyrocket. In an effort to combat these impacts, which at times, almost feel personal, local firm Hybrid has been working with local homeowners on an innovative new way to increase Seattle’s housing stock while also giving residents a voice by redeveloping their own, often single-family properties, into a multi-unit project.
Hybrid got its start more than a decade ago as a competition team dedicated to studying the challenges posed by urban density and land use. Over time, however, Hybrid grew from an architecture and design firm to a general contractor and development firm in an effort to tackle Seattle’s housing crisis from a variety of angles.
“15 years ago, Seattle was quite a bit of a different city than it has been over the past few years,” explained Robert Humble, principal and founder of Hybrid. “We were feeling even as just as an architecture and design firm that we were putting ourselves in a limited box, so about 12 years ago we started developing our own projects. Now we’re a design build development company that really focuses on urban infill housing at a very granular scale as it relates to townhouses within the existing neighborhood fabric.”
The number of challenges facing the Seattleites navigating the housing market continues to mount as officials and those in the AEC community determine how Seattle can “grow gracefully,” stated Humble.
“I think some of the biggest problems are affordability and displacement and the incompatibility of these new buildings within the existing urban fabric,” said Humble. “When you have these big up-zones and you’re putting a relatively large structure next to an existing house that might be much smaller, it [can create] a lot of NIMBYISM and anti-development momentum within communities, which can be difficult.”
Additionally, noted Hybrid’s Alex Herbig, a project manager, those wishing to move but stay in their original neighborhood are now finding themselves pushed out, beyond the communities in which they have established roots.
“Housing prices are increasingly becoming unattainable to the average Seattleite, and there is only so much you can do with rising construction prices to make units affordable,” said Herbig. But there is something you can do with existing homeowners who do have large amounts of equity in their home, but the only way they can traditionally access that equity is to sell…What we’ve found is that the ability to partner with those long-term property owners helps us fight displacement, and the partnership allows them editorial control and an economic interest in the redevelopment of their lot.”
In the face of these challenges, Hybrid’s approach to development has been unique: instead of simply purchasing the land from a multitude of property owners and then developing the land on its own—as is typical for many developers—Hybrid partners with individual property owners to redevelop their lots. Together, Hybrid and the property owner form an LLC in which both parties are equal partners. The land is redeveloped using the property owner’s equity, as well as loans procured by Hybrid, into a handful of for-sale condominiums. The profits are split 50-50 with the owner, and often, the owners will live in one of the units after the project is completed.
“A lot of the time, these people are property rich and cash poor; they don’t have the money to pay engineers and permit fees to redevelop the property themselves,” added Humble.
The ultimate goal is to produce housing that is attainable and affordable, as opposed to high-end, luxury units that have become a staple in many developing markets.
“We are not that vested in serving the highest priced buyers,” said Humble. “It is not very much of a challenge architecturally or creatively.”
Most projects that Hybrid takes on of this nature average about four or five smaller units, priced at a point that is more appealing to the middle-income buyer—which Humble acknowledges is still expensive—but not as pricey as luxury units that are priced at over one million dollars. Units are laid out creatively and can accommodate a home office or a separate rental unit, making it possible for buyers to supplement their investment with rental income if needed.
Hybrid is nearing completion on two projects in the Central District and Delridge, which feature the flexible space configuration for potential buyers. Pricing for Delridge is expected to start below $600,000, providing a rare opportunity for buyers in Seattle’s market.
“In Seattle, people feel like development happens to them, that they don’t have a lot of control, and that is why they don’t feel empowered and that their city is changing and they don’t have any say,” said Humble. “What is unique about our model is that development doesn’t happen to people, it happens with them and because of them. They become an active participant in the process and imbue these projects with their own values and what they think this city should be moving forward. And I think that’s the most exciting part.”