Green and affordable: the unicorn of Seattle's housing quest

You may need a guide to find one of the city's affordable, non-public housing projects. In the dense landscape of market-rate construction, these projects are much less common, somewhat like rare gems. But once you find them you'll make an interesting discovery. Energy and climate consciousness have been in their operating mix since Earth Day 2002. Back then Mayor Greg Nickels urged a lean “Green City Government” and more sustainable approaches to managing the built environment in a socially equitable way. The area's first “SeaGreen Affordable Housing Guide” was born. It was a collaboration between affordable housing experts, the City's Office of Housing and sustainable building experts. High on the agenda was promoting "more sustainable approaches to managing the built environment in a socially equitable way."

Fast forward to 2015. Within Seattle 85 city- and state-funded affordable housing projects have been built to green sustainable standards since 2002 with over 4,600 units. While demand far exceeds supply, non-profit housing developers are making bold strides because of missions that compel them to build housing for the homeless and low income population and public funding that mandates environmental standards. Compass on Dexter, owned by the Compass Housing Alliance, is a case in point. The 74 unit apartment complex in South Lake Union which finished leasing at the end of last month. Compass stopped taking applications when the number of applicants reached 600.

In a red-hot rental market dominated by high tech and medical research workers, Compass staff say they feel good about being able to provide housing to lower-wage workers. “If you take a look at the South Lake Union neighborhood there are people making minimum wage jobs,” says Compass Program Manager Robert Bowery. “Where are they going to find housing?” Most take buses from Everett, Renton and elsewhere, he points out. “And that's sad and we're doing something about it.”

All affordable housing builders are required to follow the state's Evergreen Sustainable Development Standards, a green building performance standard adopted in 2008. The ESDS criteria safeguard health and safety, increase energy and water efficiency, promote sustainable living, and preserve the environment. The Department of Commerce project also provides capital funds from the state's Housing Trust Fund. Compass on Dexter received $875,000 from the fund, $16 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits, just over $4 million in City of Seattle funds, and a million from its own Compass Housing Alliance, among other sources. That still doesn't mean financing is easy or land affordable, says Beth Boram, Compass Property Development Manager. The land the new green housing complex was built on was sold to them by Denny Park Lutheran Church for a million dollars, a fraction of the market-rate price. The church is one of four that are part of Compass Housing Alliances “Road to Housing” project, begun in 2012.

How the standards translate to green features at Compass on Dexter include a tight building envelope that will keep heat loss to a minimum, quality building materials, water and energy conservation features, a roof garden and native plants to absorb runoff, and even an elevator that generates electricity and puts it back into the building grid by operating on a belt system rather than a cable.

“We may not be as deep a green as the Bullitt Foundation," says Boram, "primarily because of cost." But energy efficiency and enhanced design will help the non-profit save. Compass Housing Alliance intends to own and operate the building for as long as 75 years. Residents pay their own electricity but Compass pays for everything else.

Just who benefits from these rare gems of affordable green housing? People who would otherwise be unable to live in the costly Emerald City. In the most recent January homeless count there were 3,772 people who could be found, a 21 percent rise since last year's count. Some homeless advocates estimate there are there three times that number in King County. Providers say it's almost impossible to determine how many people have applied for one of the city's non-profit affordable housing. Many buildings don't keep waiting lists and instead lease on a first come, first served basis. Fifty-four of Compass on Dexter's units are designated for the homeless. “Traditionally, says Compass program manager Bowery, homelessness has been seen as “that individual we see standing on the street corner. Someone who may be suffering from a mental health condition or what have you.”

In reality, he says, “the face of homelessness that goes unobserved is family homelessness. If you have an infant are you really going to stand underneath a dumpster? No, you're going try and be in whatever unhealthy environment you can find as long as it has a roof over your head.” In the case of the lucky 72 individuals and families selected to live at Compass, it will be a healthy environment. One that comes with furniture and bedding, job search support, computers, a children's playroom, and perhaps best of all, say providers, a community.

Another increasingly costly neighborhood to live is Ballard, where you'll find Cheryl Chow Court. Currently leasing, the Low Income Housing Institute project has 51 units for seniors. Two hundred people applied for the coveted spots. There likely would have been more, say LIHI officials. But they stopped taking applications after they'd received four times more applications than available units. LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee says the site was chosen because of the need for affordable housing and for its walkability. “Ballard is a wonderful village,” she says, “but it's also become more homogenous in terms of people's income.” Cheryl Chow Court will also accommodate some of Ballard's chronic homeless population. The west wing of the Court's front entrance will boast the city's third Urban Rest Stop, with showers, restrooms and laundry facilities. LIHI opened the city's first Urban Rest Stop downtown 14 years ago and runs another in the University District.

“Why deny that some portion of the neighborhood is homeless?” asks architect Wendy Lamb of  GGLO firm. They're living in their cars, their vans and under the eaves of churches, she notes. “Creating environments that aren't isolated, that are part of a community, are also sustainability goals,” she says. Zoned mixed use, the land required some kind of retail space. An Urban Rest Stop made the most sense, says LIHI's Lee, and it is supported by a substantial part of the community. Currently the library, churches and merchants, much like those all over town, struggle to accommodate some of the personal hygiene needs of the homeless.

The challenge for Cheryl Chow Court, says architect Lamb, was how to maximize the site and break down the scale of the building to accommodate a private entry for the senior residents and another for Urban Rest Stop clients. “The first thing we did was split the building in half and push the east half back and pull the west half forward.” The result will be a semi-private outdoor community space for the seniors directly off their lounge and computer library. “The whole project is about two things,” says Lamb. One, creating a community inside the building for the people who'll live there and, two, recognizing the need for homeless services.

On the green construction side, a baseline for any developer, points out Lamb, is water conservation. Cheryl Chow Court will have low-flow toilets, aerators in the faucets, a centralized laundry. The state's Evergreen Sustainable Development Standards set a high benchmark, she says. Other highlights include permeable paving, a green roof area that slows and filters heavy rain, horizontal venting in every unit which is more energy efficient than running an exhaust through common vertical shafts. “If you look at the design,” says LIHI's Lee, “it bucks the stereotype. It doesn't look like low-income housing.”

The daunting task for non-profit, low-income housing developers — such as LIHI, Compass Housing Alliance, Bellwether, Plymouth Housing and others — is how to buck the cost of building more low income housing in the face of super-charged market-rate development. Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council called together a Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda late last year. Seattle's 20-year comprehensive plan calls for 70,000 more housing units, 30,000 of which will be for very low income households, says Todd Burley, communications director with the City of Seattle's Office of Housing. “Those are the households that are the most cost-burdened. In many cases they're paying 50 percent of their income on housing costs and that's just unsustainable for any family.”

Joanne Quinn, sustainability specialist with the city's Housing Office, says what's needed for affordable housing to really take off is more funding, plain and simple. A new housing levy comes up for a vote in 2016. Regional collaboration between the city, the county and the state is critical to furthering the city's private housing goals, she says. In the meanwhile, Quinn says, private developer involvement in affordable housing would be a good thing. "We're all market driven,” she notes, “vying for projects and land to build on. But creative ideas and leadership could push the affordable green housing movement further.” Until then, she suggests, “the for-profit development community could look hard at their heart and soul to see what could they could do, to do the right thing, the way public funders and non-profits are already doing.”  Given the crisis in affordable housing, it's something the City of Seattle and other urban enclaves may want to look at encouraging.

Second in a two-part series. The first article is here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.