A Win for Affordable Housing in the Central District

Now What About the Rest of the City?

A Win for Affordable Housing in the Central District

Kelly O

CENTRAL DISTRICT’S SQUIRE PARK PLAZA The government contributed $9.7 million in taxpayer money to build 60 affordable housing units here, according to the Tenants Union. But, after only seven years in existence, Squire Park Plaza looked like it might be sold to a private developer who residents feared would raise rents.

Donna Mercer works in the tech-support department at one of Seattle's best-known companies—she prefers not to say which one—near downtown. Among her immediate coworkers, she's the only one who lives in Seattle, she says. Some commute each day from as far as Federal Way.

Mercer, unlike her colleagues, is able to live in Seattle due to some precious units of affordable housing in the Central District, and she loves it. For two years, she's rented a small apartment at Squire Park Plaza on Jackson Street and 18th Avenue. On the rooftop, there's a gorgeous view of Puget Sound, and on her small patio, she's growing fuchsias and setting up feeders for hummingbirds and goldfinches. She's currently paying $1,100 in monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment, not including utilities.

Over the past few months, Mercer was mentally preparing to be uprooted from her building and forced to move "further out," she says. The nonprofit Central Area Development Association (CADA), which owns Squire Park Plaza, had signed a purchase and sale agreement with one of the largest for-profit developers in the country.

The 60-unit complex was built in 2007 on government-owned land with $9.7 million in public financing, according to the Tenants Union. The return on taxpayer investment, everyone agrees, was supposed to be the long-term provision of affordable workforce housing to people like Mercer, designed to combat the interlocking trends of skyrocketing rents and gentrification. The building has a baseline affordability covenant that even a private developer must legally abide by, and that covenant lasts for another 13 years. It mandates that 51 percent of the building's units remain affordable to those who make 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). (That's $44,750 a year for a single person.)

But the affordability covenant doesn't cover people who, like Mercer, make less than $44,750 a year. The current owner, CADA, has been going above and beyond the minimum requirements, so that rent in an additional handful of units isn't crazy expensive for those at the 60 percent AMI level. (That's $37,080 a year for a single person, which is about how much Mercer makes. According to the Seattle Office of Housing, for her monthly rent to be truly affordable, it ought to be $993, utilities included.)

Mercer expected that if the building's sale went through, Squire Park's new owner would hike rents in all the units not covered by the affordability covenant to market rates or higher.

On July 16, she and a dozen of her tenant neighbors in the building held a press conference to protest the building's potential sale to a for-profit developer, especially given that the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) had made an offer to purchase the building and increase affordability levels in the units over the next 50 years. Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and a legislative aide to Council Member Nick Licata joined them.

Late that day, however, Mayor Ed Murray announced that the for-profit company had pulled out of the deal. Why? "The affordable housing requirement which was part of the original agreement does not pencil out," he said, via text. In other words, the company decided it couldn't keep a bare majority of the units at an affordable level for tenants who make about $44,000 annually and still earn the profits it wanted off the building.

Crisis averted, at least for Mercer. "I'm excited," she says. "Where there's a will, there's a way."

Murray says he grew up in a working-class family in West Seattle and that his family could not afford to live in the city today. "That's the extent of the crisis," he says. At present, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, just 8 percent of the city's housing stock is rent-restricted. "Assuming that the household income distribution remains the same," according to data compiled by city officials, "Seattle would need to add approximately 28,000 new affordable units over the next 20 years to meet future demand."

So what does Murray plan to do now that he's the mayor? His administration was at first curiously silent on the transfer of Squire Park Plaza to for-profit hands, with Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim initially telling me, "It wouldn't be appropriate for the city to try to tell CADA who to sell to," and then clarifying later that she meant the city couldn't compel CADA to sell the building to a nonprofit instead of a developer. After the sale to the developer fell through, Murray told me, "I think it's great that a nonprofit takes it over." But, he groused, "We're going to have to put more resources into that project [that doesn't pencil out], instead of a project where we could build more units in the same neighborhood." (Murray believes the city is going to have to contribute monetarily in order for a nonprofit like LIHI to take over Squire Park, and he believes those dollars can be better spent elsewhere.)

As for the rest of the city, the mayor plans to convene another of those grand-bargain-style stakeholder committees—forcing property developers, affordable-housing advocates, low-income tenants, and "people who work here but can't afford to live here" all into one room—to hash out a major plan to "keep this city affordable." Murray has had success with this method on the minimum wage and the fight between rideshare companies and taxi drivers. In both cases, the committees (after delays and much hemming and hawing) produced compromise proposals. Then the city council approved them as law. Murray expects the council to officially empanel this new committee before the end of the summer.

On the issue of housing, however, "It'll be far more difficult than the last two processes," Murray warns. recommended


Comments (28) RSS

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How many counsel meetings has Sawant missed now?
Posted by not showing up is worse than tardy on July 22, 2014 at 3:55 PM · Report this
Why doesn't the city buy the building? If the leaders of Seattle really want to address the housing issue, why don't they simply expand their real estate holdings via the housing authority? Why involve the for-profit sector at all? Why hold onto the pipe dream that a for-PROFIT entity can be convinced to not care about....PROFITS?

It is certainly a proper role for a city government to attend to basic needs of its citizens - stop trying to cram for-profit entities into the safety net mold where they do not belong.

Posted by AinWA on July 22, 2014 at 4:57 PM · Report this

and with what money shall the city start buying up housing??
Posted by how deep is your checkbook? on July 22, 2014 at 5:46 PM · Report this
Affordable housing is available near the Sounder station in Lakewood.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on July 22, 2014 at 6:04 PM · Report this
Lots of affordable housing in Tukwila and Seatac, an easy train ride from downtown. Coming soon ... Lynnwood!

Or do young, white hipsters insist on living on practically all white Cap Hill?
Posted by A member of the Tim Hortons crowd on July 22, 2014 at 6:53 PM · Report this

You're right about Lynnwood...they have some nice apartment complexes there!…

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on July 22, 2014 at 7:09 PM · Report this
Interesting how these socialists manage to push the agenda left once they're elected. According to centrist democrats this is inconceivable. The party narrative is that they are leftist kooks who, once elected, will accomplish nothing. Turns out that this is a gross underestimation or an outright lie.

Either way, I don't care. What matters is that social issues are being addressed to bring us in line with the rest of the world.
Posted by wasd on July 22, 2014 at 7:25 PM · Report this
@3:and with what money shall the city start buying up housing??
The city can do what any other entity would do: make hard choices about what their priorities are, and accept the fact they CANNOT do everything. Prioritize basic needs and stop funding those that, while important, are not AS important as having a roof over one's head, heat in the winter, and food in the fridge.

I suspect there are entire departments that could be done away with, freeing resources for a short list of crucial basics (shelter, food). Let's take a look and see:

Creating a Civic Leadership Institute for Refugee Women.

Increasing Construction Employment Opportunities for Seattle Residents.

To improve traffic flows through downtown during these construction projects, the 2014 Proposed Budget invests more than $4.1 million in Intelligent Transportation Systems, which utilize electronic communications technologies, such as sensors, cameras and electronic signs, to increase the efficiency of traffic flows.

The 2014 Proposed Budget creates a $250,000 reserve to create a Duwamish River Opportunity Fund

Investing in Seattle’s Historic Entertainment Facilities: Entertainment facilities are often the heart of a neighborhood, providing local residents, as well as neighbors from other parts of the City, a place to recreate. McGinn allocates more than $455,000 to three historic entertainment facilities.

$2.4 million for a new bicycle greenway parallel to the 23rd Avenue corridor.

$500,000 for improved pedestrian and bicycle facilities near the Northgate light rail station.

$350,000 for stairway rehabilitation and a new pedestrian crossing near the Montlake light rail station.

The 2014 Proposed Budget establishes a $1.5 million reserve to address gender
salary inequities.

All worthy projects, but do you really think fixing historical entertainment structures is MORE important than city residents being able to find a reasonably priced place to live? How about the greenway? Is THAT more important than housing?

Governments have to suck it up and decide what is crucial. I say it starts with the three basics: Shelter, food, safety. Greenways and restored theaters can wait.
Posted by AinWA on July 22, 2014 at 8:04 PM · Report this
kk in seattle 9
Gee, I sure do pine for the days of Saint Mayor McGinn, when the affordability of housing was of critical importance, and thousands of affordable units were made available.
Posted by kk in seattle on July 22, 2014 at 8:05 PM · Report this
kk in seattle 10
"But the affordability covenant doesn't cover people who, like Mercer, make less than $44,750 a year."

Huh? Of course it covers her. Count on Ansel to post without having the slightest understanding of what the fuck he's talking about.
Posted by kk in seattle on July 22, 2014 at 8:12 PM · Report this
@8, the City -- in this case, Murray as the CEO -- has made a choice. Ansel refers to Murray as saying he believes the city is going to have to contribute monetarily in order for a nonprofit like LIHI to take over Squire Park, and he believes those dollars can be better spent elsewhere.
Posted by sarah70 on July 22, 2014 at 8:18 PM · Report this
I now fully expect a picture of Council member Sawant to appear with everything Ansel ever posts again, no matter the topic
Posted by M. Wells on July 22, 2014 at 8:32 PM · Report this
"Urban Center" Apartments in Lynwood…

This to me is the future of Washington State.

Density achieved by private means, reasonably priced apartments with courtyard space, amenities available by transit...and car.

The problem for Old Seattle is just's a museum holding on to an expensive past.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on July 22, 2014 at 8:56 PM · Report this
What this city needs it's 100,000 new tech workers and other high paying workers. Drive the commies into Puget Sound.
Posted by It's happening as we speak on July 22, 2014 at 9:16 PM · Report this
If anyone thinks density will make for cheaper housing, you're sadly mistaken. To build density in the city, something needs to be torn down. And usually that's a property with low rents (low rents = lower cost to buy).

Maybe in 20 years the density would push down prices, but not in the short term.
Posted by drshort on July 22, 2014 at 9:25 PM · Report this
Best way to tackle affordable housing is
1. massive investment in mass transport of all sorts so people can live outside city center (Cap Hill, QA) without a car.
2. rezone major parts of city to higher density

Are we going to do that? No.

So we'll argue about rent control for years because we think that there is a limited amount of housing and that no more can be created...just a fixed finite amount (like matter itself) and we need to ration it through rent control.

We won't get it (even if Seattle voters favored it which they probably would not) but we'll spend a lot of time and political energy and rents will go up further.

Thank god I am not a renter. I sympathize but vested interests (socialists and single-family home owners working together) will prevent us from doing anything.

Posted by caution&daring on July 22, 2014 at 10:06 PM · Report this
"Assuming that the household income distribution remains the same," according to data compiled by city officials, "Seattle would need to add approximately 28,000 new affordable units over the next 20 years to meet future demand."

...So why not encourage developers to build, I dunno, 56,000-112,000 new units over the next 20 years, and let filtering (the process of existing units becoming relatively cheaper over time) do the rest?

Seriously, what's more expensive over the next 20 years: Paying $250,000+/unit to build 28,000 more affordable housing units ($7+ billion)? Or the marginal cost of providing city/county/state services to Seattle's next additional 100,000 households?

Seattle can't build a wall to keep people from arriving here. It's got to build new units to create space for these people. If it doesn't do that, it'll create a miserable climate of high prices that kicks out the poor and only lets in the rich. For fucks sake, it's not rocket science; just look at San Francisco.
Posted by Try it out for free on July 22, 2014 at 11:44 PM · Report this
Good idea; way too thoughtful for Seattle.
For one thing it would require some rezoning from Single Family areas to higher density. That is no-no. Even red-hot momma socialists like Sawant & Spear won't touch that one.
Posted by caution&daring on July 23, 2014 at 5:29 AM · Report this
I want to compliment you, again.
Exactly how you'd implement your suggestion isn't clear to me but you are offering a really constructive approach. Thx.
Posted by caution&daring on July 23, 2014 at 9:06 AM · Report this
@18, 19
It doesn't have to require the rezoning of single family areas (though some baby steps like accessory dwelling units and allowing rowhouse/zero-lot line development in L1-L3 zones would help).

There are options...

You could start with the simultaneous implementation of a really heavy tax on downtown parking lots *and* a really big upzoning on them. (Maybe even use the initial proceeds to boost transit funding.)

Or you could upzone areas that don't have a preponderance of older housing... Instead, upzone all current NC-45 to NC-65, and current NC-65 to NC-85, etc. (South Lake Union was a missed opportunity to basically double downtown's size. Or, you know, build a proper downtown park and housing 20 years ago.)

Does anyone seriously think Aurora Ave N or Lake City Way are worth preserving? They've got good bus service, upzone the shit out of them. Maybe even plant some trees along them and down the middle of them and they might actually, gasp!, look halfway decent.

Or upzone the entire Northgate Mall complex and other concentrated areas that are predominantly commercial, to the point they'd be crazy not to build housing, etc.


Though I admit one downside to increased building and density in Seattle... Our zoning is so prescriptive that this is going to be one hideously ugly city in the low/mid-rise belt between downtown's halfway-decent skyscrapers and the remaining single family housing. Height-based zoning that incentivizes bread loaf mid-rise buildings combined with forced modulation and material variety conspire to create a thousand varieties of a singular awfulness. Let's give floor area ratio zoning a try, people!

Posted by Try it out for free on July 23, 2014 at 10:16 PM · Report this
@20- Can you run for office so I can vote for you?
Posted by uh huh on July 24, 2014 at 8:21 AM · Report this
There’s a lot of inaccuracy in the coverage of this issue – it would be nice if the Stranger staff would bother to do some work. As is clearly noted in the article, only HALF of the units were covered by an affordability covenant. Ergo, the other half were NOT – which means the intent of this project was precisely to include market-rate units in this building. Which makes sense if anyone has any sense of history beyond last week – this part of the City has long been starved for economic development and investment capital. For quite a long time, neighborhood residents in the area had been wanting to see economic development and more mixed-incomes in the area. Sounds like this project was precisely that – a mix of subsidized tenants and market-rate tenants, with the market rate tenants hopefully brining some disposable income with them to support local businesses.

Let me repeat that – HALF of the units in this building were intended to be un-restricted and rented at market-rate. Presumably, the City and private financing for the building was predicated precisely on that scenario – that rental income from the market units would support the loans and subsidize the ability of the project to support the half of the units that were restricted. And let’s be clear, these affordable units were being rented not to poor people. They were intended for working, moderate income people – close to $45,000 a year for a single person. (80% AMI as noted in the article.) An affordable rent for someone in that situation is about $1100 a month- you can find a studio in the private market in Seattle for that. Maybe not in Capitol Hill amongst the urban Amazonian gentry, but certainly within the city limits. A quick scan of CL ads confirms that.

And now that its time to repay these loans, under the original terms of the deal when this project was built, meddlers like Sawant and Lee and others want to change the rules mid-stream, and to do so with a City bailout funded at taxpayer expense, out of money intended to be spent to build new housing for actual poor people and not on people earning $45,000 who can actually find housing in the private marketplace if they look hard enough.
Posted by HuskyDogz on July 25, 2014 at 11:07 AM · Report this
ilikefood 23
$1,100/month, utilities not included, for a 1 bedroom on Jackson and 18th counts as "affordable, low income housing" in the eyes of this town?

I wonder if it is cold on Murray's planet?
Posted by ilikefood on July 25, 2014 at 12:40 PM · Report this
ilikefood 24
i mean, lets consider this: even if we were to start paying $15/hr tomorrow as our min wage, that equates to roughly $800 every two weeks, net, for a 40 hr work week. Now, lets do some basic fucking math...
$800 + $800= $1600/month. (Horray $15 an hour!!!)
$1,100 for rent + $150 (+/-) for minimal utilities, + whatever this person pays for transportation, lets call it $100= $1350
$1600-$1350= $250.
$250, to eat on, pay whatever other bills with, maybe buy a used tshirt from value village and a bottle of cheap vodka to celebrate making $15/hr and sticking it to the man.
We need a SERIOUS reality check here in Seattle.
Posted by ilikefood on July 25, 2014 at 12:48 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 25
I propose the only member on the committee be @Try it out for free.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on July 26, 2014 at 10:11 PM · Report this

I think your figures are a little suspect. $15 x 160 hours = $2400

Now you suggest that some of that would go to tax, but a person making under $30k a year is not going to have 1/3 taken out of her paycheck.
Posted by Take home pay on July 26, 2014 at 11:42 PM · Report this
"But the affordability covenant doesn't cover people who, like Mercer, make less than $44,750 a year. The current owner, CADA, has been going above and beyond the minimum requirements, so that rent in an additional handful of units isn't crazy expensive for those at the 60 percent AMI level. (That's $37,080 a year for a single person, which is about how much Mercer makes."

SAY AGAIN? Doesn't compute!
Posted by billwald on July 28, 2014 at 12:03 PM · Report this
When the city buys "affordable" housing, exactly who pays for it? Doesn't most of the money come from the real estate tax? Who pays most of the real estate tax? Working and retired working class home owners plus renters who have it added into their rent? In other words, all blue/white collar workers who don't have "affordable" rent.

If blue/white collar minimum wage workers can't afford to live in the city or commute into the city, will not the international corporations who hire them be forced to raise their wage? In other words, doesn't "affordable" rent subsidize the international corporations whom we all love to hate?
Posted by billwald on July 28, 2014 at 12:14 PM · Report this

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