Seattle nearly doubled affordable housing funds. It's not enough.

Last year, the city invested $153 million in dozens of new housing projects. But as costs hit historic heights, the need for affordable units isn't slowing down.

a group of five people pose outside the bertha campbell pitts apartments in Seattle

Nailah Jones of Atlanta, from left; Dr. Jeffrey Holmes of Atlanta; Viessa Lyons of Oceanside, California; Jayla Holmes of Dover, Delaware; and Ronna Roberson Smith of Redlands, California; family of the late Seattle civil-rights activist Bertha Pitts Campbell, pose for a photo at the opening of a permanent supportive housing building in Seattle's Central District named in Campbell’s honor, June 14, 2022. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

A funny thing about new affordable housing projects is that they are, at a glance, essentially indistinguishable from expensive market-rate apartment buildings. A casual observer might see the Bertha Pitts Campbell Place project with its glassy ground floor space and splashes of color on the façade and think it’s yet another new complex with built-in bowling alleys, movie theaters and $3,000 per month rents. 

In reality, the 100 new studios at 12th Avenue and Spruce Street in Seattle’s Central District will provide deeply subsidized homes for people exiting homelessness.

Plymouth Housing, the nonprofit developer behind Bertha Pitts Campbell Place, held a grand opening for the project on June 14. Plymouth specializes in permanent supportive housing for people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness. It combines long-term living spaces with on-site health care, counseling, career services and other support that residents often need after living on the street.

“Adding 100 units of housing is a major contribution and major investment, and King County is proud to be participating in this project,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at the grand opening. The county’s Health Through Housing program provided some of the funding for Plymouth’s project. “Dozens more people will be connected to the tools we know make a big difference in the lives of residents ... and also, fundamentally, [get] a secure, safe place to call home. All of that gives people the opportunity to rest, to heal, to ultimately take the steps to take more control to move forward with their lives.”

Bertha Pitts Campbell Place is one of dozens of affordable housing projects in Seattle either opening in 2022 or under construction, the product of the city’s steady increase in housing spending over the past five years. The city and the county celebrate these new homes. But the need for new housing is so great — some estimate King County is short hundreds of thousands of housing units — that they’re only making a dent. 

The new project has three apartments for live-in staff, offices for on-site case management, a nurse’s office, community rooms and an outdoor community space. The ground floor space will be operated by St. Francis House, a nonprofit that has been providing food, clothing and day shelter for the homeless for 55 years.

The building is named for Bertha Pitts Campbell, a longtime Central District community leader and civil rights activist. Residents begin moving in at the end of June.

“At the Office of Housing we know that providing permanent supportive housing is the solution to ending homelessness,” said Seattle Office of Housing director Maiko Winkler-Chin at the grand opening. “We’ve seen time and again, when we are able to get people into homes, we are able to address the other things they need to thrive and lead great, healthy lives.”

The exterior of the Bertha Pitts Campbell Place permanent supportive housing building, which has 100 studio apartments for single adults exiting long-term homelessness, is pictured on 12th Avenue in Seattle’s Central District. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

Affordable housing developers rely on a mix of financing to fund their projects, including grants and low-interest loans from the city, county and state, federal tax credits and traditional loans from banks. Most subsidized affordable housing projects in Seattle get money from the Office of Housing’s rental housing loan program as part of that mix.

In 2017, the Office of Housing awarded $93.4 million to affordable housing developers to build 944 units of new housing. In 2018, the number dipped to $75.19 million in awards, but that was enough for 1,197 units of affordable housing. Last year, the Office of Housing’s affordable housing investment grew to $153 million, enough to build or acquire 1,910 units (several affordable housing developers were able to buy existing market-rate apartment buildings during the pandemic and operate them as subsidized housing).

Part of the reason the Office of Housing could expand its annual investments is its own pool of money has grown. The office’s rental housing program has historically relied heavily on the $290 million Seattle Housing Levy, a voter-approved property tax that expires next year, as well as developer fees and federal grants. 

In 2021, however, the rental housing program doled out just $15.2 million from the Housing Levy. About $50 million came from the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which requires for-profit residential and commercial developers to either build affordable housing in their projects or pay a fee to the Office of Housing. The rental housing program also had $71.4 million from the “JumpStart” payroll tax on big businesses, along with $16 million in federal money, including pandemic recovery grants.

Like any large construction project, affordable housing apartment buildings take a long time to plan and build. It’s not uncommon for projects to take five years from conception to grand opening, as was the case with Bertha Pitts Campbell Place. That means there are many thousands of units of affordable housing in various stages of planning and construction in Seattle that will be opening in the years to come.

Years of insufficient housing construction, combined with Seattle’s seemingly endless cost-of-living increases, mean those new apartments still won’t be enough to meet the needs of Seattleites being squeezed out of the city or pushed into homelessness. But it will start to make a dent in the city’s stated goal of building 20,000 units of subsidized affordable housing between 2015 and 2025. 

The current affordable housing construction boom is complicated by the rising cost of essentially everything. Land costs are up. Construction costs are up. The cost of employing on-site staff to provide those wraparound services is up. Affordable housing projects that the city funded 30 to 40 years ago need expensive repairs and maintenance, and those costs are rising as well.

All of that means the increased investments from the Office of Housing aren’t going to go as far. Winkler-Chin, the office's interim director, told Crosscut that there are no easy answers to deal with those rising costs. One piece of the puzzle, she said, will be renewing, and likely increasing, the size of the Seattle Housing Levy when it’s up for a vote in 2023. She couldn’t say yet how large the next Housing Levy might be.

“We're at this great permanent supportive housing building,” said Winkler-Chin, referring to Bertha Pitts Campbell Place. “It's really pricey. And that's really what people need. It's a goofy statement, but the fix to homelessness is actually housing for these residents.”

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