By Meghan Hall
Amy King has been in the business of construction and commercial real estate for quite some time; as an owner of Square Peg Development, a local construction company, and Pallett SPC, a manufacturing company, King is well-versed in the challenges of development here in the Puget Sound region. However, King never imagined that she would one day be the founder of a non-profit — WELD Seattle — that would work to provide formerly incarcerated individuals with employment, resources and housing by working closely with City officials and the local real estate and construction community.
“We operate all our companies in the space of housing across the spectrum, everything from emergency shelters to transitional housing through WELD to permanent solution products,” explained King.
According to King, Seattle’s rapid pace of development and shortage of construction labor prompted Square Peg to begin hiring individuals recently released from the criminal justice system. Through working with these individuals, the idea of WELD was created.
“We started hiring these individuals because obviously there is a shortage of workers across the country and in Seattle,” said King. “By necessity, we started hiring people with a criminal background, and then we got to know them really well and tried to understand the barriers to re-entry that they faced. We learned a ton, and we realized what a social injustice it is to re-entering citizens trying to put their lives back together. We really felt compelled to do more.”
Investing in re-entry outcomes is a priority for the state of Washington, according to the Statewide Reentry Council’s Report to the Legislature, dating December 2018. In 2017, Washington state saw a 125 percent increase of former prisoners released with no place to live. Between 2013 and 2016, Washington’s Department of Commerce found that 38 prisoners were released to homelessness each month; in 2017 that number increased to 85. Overall, eight percent of people leaving the criminal justice system are released directly into homelessness.
“From a commercial real estate perspective, we struggled to find landlords that were second-chance friendly and are willing to take a chance on someone who doesn’t present well on paper but has truly rehabilitated their life” said King.
“We were trying to help [our employees] find housing opportunities, and we were just hitting a wall,” she added. “After not being able to find a place for them to live, we started our own program. It’s very grassroots and organic.”
WELD saw an opportunity in Seattle’s growing rate of development; working in the real estate industry, King saw that houses slated for development would often sit vacant for several months to a year, making them prone to squatters and other criminal activity.
“Developers would board [the properties] up, and then they were sitting vacant until the permits broke,” King said. “We saw this happening in our own properties, and so we built WELD as a transitional housing supportive program.”
Square Peg Construction began hiring its first employees from the criminal justice system in October 2014, and by October 2015 King was searching for properties in which to house workers. In 2016 — the year WELD was officially created — the organization began housing Square Peg employees in vacant properties. In June of 2017, vacant housing legislation was passed, further enabling WELD’s mission to work with local developers to provide transitional housing.
“We have really had to lean into strategic partnerships, and we try to build really meaningful relationships with developers and construction professionals here because we’re also contractors,” said King. “We really understand them, and we are living in the same world that they live in.”
In 2018, WELD served 83 people and had the capacity to house around 50 at any given time. In 2019, King hopes to be able to accommodate 100, although that largely depends on available housing stock. Typically, properties are available for six to nine months, while program participants themselves typically move through the program in a matter of a few months to about a year. WELD never places more than two people to a room and program participants pay $500 per month in member dues which not only covers their housing but access to services, as well. Member dues, in addition to philanthropy efforts, also help WELD to cover its operating costs. The program has been successful; WELD’s recidivism rate is just under three percent, compared to the national average of 76.6 percent.
“We think that what really helps to feed our success is the combination of stable housing with services, a job and a supportive community,” said King. “Those three pieces foster that growth effort; they have built-in accountability where they live.”
King cautioned, however, that WELD’s transitional model is very specific to Seattle and that such efforts may not work well in cities with a lower rate of development or less robust construction pipelines.
“We don’t develop necessarily, which is a model that works in this market because there are so many projects just sitting, waiting for permits,” said King. “So that transitional model is built around the economic climate and the development market here. Not every city has high rates of turnover.”
Over the course of the next several years, King hopes to expand WELD beyond King County and across the state of Washington. However, King is cognizant that the current rate of development will not last forever, and WELD is looking into other ways to provide transitional housing for its members. Among them is developing its own properties.
“This was a really out-of-the-box strategy to help provide housing and maximize the utilization of vacant properties,” explained King. “But it is dependent upon the market here, so now we are looking at development opportunities.”
In the future, that development is likely to be comprised of properties catering to a variety of income levels, with some affordable residences supported by market-rate units, said King. Until that becomes a reality, however, WELD will continue working to change the stigma around formerly incarcerated individuals. Part of that effort includes the founding of WELD Works, a temporary labor program, this spring.
“I think it is really important that cities and jurisdictions take a look at what they are doing to incentivize business and community involvement. Historically, we see incarceration in a negative way,” said King. “I think as a business owner, if you are going to successfully address a humanitarian crisis in your city, you really need to embrace the business community. With this one, small, grassroots effort, we were wildly successful. I think by bringing business and development and the public together, we were able to achieve something really good.”