By Jack Stubbs
“Now we’ve got all the people moving to the city, and [with] the high wage jobs and the pressure that that creates in the real estate market…there’s nothing left at the bottom of the market,” said Susan Boyd, CEO at Bellwether Housing, an organization that provides affordable housing throughout the city of Seattle. Boyd spoke about Bellwether’s values and how these values run parallel with the increased need for affordable housing, which remains as pressing as ever.
Bellwether aims to provide stable housing to those at all levels of the income spectrum in the high-cost urban areas of Seattle, including low-income working people, seniors, individuals transitioning from homelessness and people with special needs. Bellwether buys, builds and manages apartment complexes in urban locations; provides technical assistance to other non-profits so that their clients can live in stable apartment environments; and advocates for resources to increase the availability of affordable places to live throughout the city, according to the organization’s website. Residents of Bellwether’s developments live in Seattle, and their consulting partners’ clients are located throughout Puget Sound.
The organization has a nearly 40-year history in Seattle, founded in 1980 by the Downtown Seattle Association as the Seattle Housing Resources Group (SHRG) to provide affordable housing options for low-income employees in the downtown core. The organization’s conception occurred at a time when the housing market was experiencing sustained pressure, according to Boyd. “The construction market basically stopped, and there was no housing stock being produced for people to utilize…people were competing, rental prices went up, there was a temporary moratorium on condo development. It was a rental and housing crisis,” she explained.
Bellwether’s founding by the DSA sets it apart from other affordable housing non-profits. “We have an entrepreneurial spirit that still lives with the organization today. We were founded by the DSA, which gives us a bit different of a genetic code,” Boyd explained. SHRG became HRG in 1995 and rebranded again in 2011 to Bellwether Housing, a name that reflected the organization’s growth into the largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing in Seattle, according to the company’s website.
According to Boyd, some of the company’s earlier portfolio properties were assets in the downtown core that people who worked downtown were dependent upon—the company’s initial focus was to preserve and repurpose some of the older buildings that provided affordable housing options for low-income citizens.
Currently, Bellwether strives to provide support to people at all levels of the income bracket, and the current structure reflects that moving target. “Our income targets have always been broad, between zero and 80 percent of Area Median Income. As we’ve become more dependent on the low-income housing tax credit program and other city subsidy programs, our income targets have aligned with those,” Boyd explained.
Bellwether operates a portfolio within the Seattle city limits: the organization has 1,850 units that it is currently operating and managing, with another 200 units under construction. The majority of the residential projects contain a mixture of studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom units. The organization operates projects throughout the city, with several located in Capitol Hill, First Hill and Downtown, among other areas.
Asked to elaborate upon current projects in the construction pipeline, Boyd highlighted two in particular: Anchor Flats in South Lake Union and Arbora Court in the University District. In October 2016, Bellwether broke ground on Anchor Flats at 1511 Dexter Avenue, the organization’s first development in the South Lake Union neighborhood that will provide 71 affordable units, targeting people at 50 percent Area Median Income. “Anchor Flats was a bit of an opportunistic land acquisition during the recession; we were able to acquire it for a relatively reasonable cost, given its location in South Lake Union,” Boyd explained. The development’s location is one of its key elements, according to Boyd. “Being so proximate to core job centers [is important]…if there is a chance for us to do that, we will fight really hard [for] that,” she said.
One month earlier, in September 2016, Bellwether broke ground on 133-unit Arbora Court, the organization’s first property in the University District, which reflects another prominent milestone. “This project is the biggest new construction development that we have ever done…this particular development is exemplary of the mix of different housing options…it’s an exciting project because of its scale and location, and the diversity of folks that we can bring into the building,” Boyd said.
More generally, Bellwether’s development strategy mirrors that of any other organization aiming to provide housing for people in the city. “Our focus is in identifying sites in places where we can ensure that people have easy access to transportation, jobs, to great schools, services and whatever else they need. [It’s] the same kind of analysis any developer would go through,” Boyd explained.
Bellwether is also planning another development in Tukwila, their first venture outside of the Seattle city limits. Increased pressure in Seattle has prompted a search for other viable housing alternatives, according to Boyd. “There are some challenging realities that South King county is facing, with the threat of economic displacement from the city…Tukwila was an incredibly open jurisdiction to us and to the idea of preserving the affordability for people in the community,” she said.
Bellwether has tried to adopt a new strategy when it comes to tackling the affordable housing crisis that the city is facing. “One of the ways that we are trying to address the issue of affordable housing is to bring in private capital that hasn’t been in affordable housing before, whether it’s philanthropic or socially-motivated investment,” Boyd said. Bellwether partners with local small-scale investors that contribute to the Impact Investment Fund, a resource that Bellwether utilizes to stretch the resources from low-income housing tax credits and other public resources.
Currently, the rapid growth that the city is experiencing is exacerbating the affordable housing crisis, according to Boyd. “The scale of the growth is something we’ve never seen in the city before, and we weren’t ready for it,” she said. And while many people are quick to highlight the tech sector as the main contributor to the lack of affordable housing in the city, Boyd does not see it that way. “The fact that we’ve got all this amazing intellect, technology and innovation in the city…is all the more reason to ensure that people on the low end of the economic spectrum have access to that and can participate in that,” she said.
While the dearth of available housing throughout the city is often viewed as an insurmountable obstacle, further progress moving forward might be enacted by a change of mindset, according to Boyd. “It’s a challenge of communication…I think Seattleites across King County…understand the problem and care about it…but I think they’re frustrated by policy changes and believe that they’re unable to impact the [housing] problem,” she explained.
Ultimately, the city’s infrastructure contains available resources for housing developers. The biggest challenge is not a lack of financial resources, but rather how to most effectively utilize and leverage them, according to Boyd. “There a lot of untapped resources out there still, both in terms of public land availability and private capital,” she said.
Moving forward, an infrastructure model that has potential is how non-profits might be able to collaborate with commercial market-rate developers to create sustained, affordable housing for families and individuals. Ultimately, time is of the essence. “We’re facing a city that is densifying and creating high-rise zoning around transit corridors and downtown cores…if we don’t figure out how to densely build together, the affordable housing will continue spread out to the edges of the city or beyond,” Boyd said.