The Eastside Dabbles With Affordable Housing | KUOW News and Information

The Eastside Dabbles With Affordable Housing

Nov 24, 2014

Seattle has struggled to provide affordable housing, and now suburbs are grappling with the same problem. Cities on the Eastside have been updating zoning laws to encourage more affordable housing. But critics say those cities should press developers for more.

Hill’s Barber Shop has been serving people in Redmond for more than 40 years. Last year, Young Choi, an immigrant from South Korea, bought the business.

“This location is really good,” he says, gesturing out the window. A block away, massive new apartment buildings promised hundreds of potential customers within walking distance of his door. That makes Choi’s investment look like a smart move.

“I guess I’m a lucky guy,” he says.

There is one problem with Choi’s new arrangement. His commute from his home in Shoreline is horrible. He wants to move closer to his work, but he says housing in Redmond is pricey.

Feeding Housing Demand

Down the block from the barber shop, developer James Geimer is putting in 177 more apartment units. He’s calling the complex, “One Mile.”

One in 10 of those units will be affordable to families making $70,000 or more (that’s 80 percent of King County’s median income). That’s not serving the region’s most vulnerable population, but it does reduce rent by 10 to 15 percent for those units. Redmond has required all developers to include affordable units for 15 years.

The requirement hasn’t slowed development, with at least half a dozen large projects scattered around Redmond’s small downtown core.

A wall of housing rises in downtown Redmond, where more than 1200 apartments are coming online this year and next. One in ten those units is considered "affordable," but how affordable depends on who you ask.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Geimer says Redmond’s approach has made developers happy.

He said developers “know what they’re getting into from the very beginning. And so when they’re putting their project together and their project budget, they can account for that.”

Out on the street, Redmond City Councilmember Kimberly Allen meets me to walk around Redmond and show off new development.

She points out townhomes built to the property line.

“We had to change the zoning to allow that,” she says. We walked by a couple of microhousing projects, which she proudly says met zero opposition in Redmond. (They have been controversial in Seattle.)

In many ways, Redmond’s downtown demonstrates how a city can increase housing supply by removing barriers to developers.

“Developers want two things,” Allen says, “speed and certainty.”

Provide those conditions, she says, and developers won’t balk when you ask them to include affordable housing.

The Redmond Model

Bill Kirlin-Hackett, a housing advocate with the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, says Redmond may have given away too much for too little.

Kirlin-Hackett says Redmond’s modest affordability requirements are “not going to make a big dent in providing affordable housing for those who truly need it.”

He says calling apartments targeted to 80 percent median income “affordable” just isn’t accurate. “That’s what we call ‘workforce housing,’” he says. “That’s practically market rate housing.”

Communities in east King County have modeled development after Redmond, writing affordability requirements into their zoning codes.

Redmond City Councilmember Kimberly Allen
Credit Joshua McNichols / KUOW
Developer James Geimer says he's happy to abide by Redmond's modest affordable housing requirements. He says developers are much more concerned with having "an even playing field," and avoiding unexpected changes in the law that can affect the value of their properties.
Credit Joshua McNichols / KUOW

Kirkland, Sammamish and Newcastle have experimented with mandatory affordability requirements. Bellevue (in the Bel-Red area) and Mercer Island have offered voluntary versions of the program, rewarding developers for building affordable units. Issaquah has combined mandatory and voluntary approaches.  

These communities aren’t ignoring housing needs of lower income residents, says Arthur Sullivan, who runs ARCH, a coalition of affordable housing programs on the Eastside.

Sullivan says that while Eastside communities haven’t invested in low income housing on the scale that Seattle has (through its voter-approved affordable housing levy), the communities are pooling their funds to build one big project at a time, in one city at a time.

The collaborative approach pioneered by ARCH may be unique in the country, Sullivan says. Still, the demand for affordable units exceeds the supply.

Until Eastside communities find a way to meet that need, service workers like Redmond barber Young Choi may need to brave the long commute.