(L-R) Matthew Mitnick, Mario Falit-Baiamonte, and Pierce Bock on a mission to build affordable housing.
(L-R) Matthew Mitnick, Mario Falit-Baiamonte, and Pierce Bock iso affordable housing. Bill Broadhead

A group of students from UW developed a plan that could add 600 units of rent-to-own affordable housing in Roosevelt, U-District, and even on the UW golf course. They need support from local officials to move the project along, but the students said their councilmember, Alex Pedersen, seemed to dismiss the plan outright, shocking no one.

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When they started school, grad students Matthew Mitnick and Pierce Bock and undergrad Mario Falit-Baiamonte wrestled with the prospect of finding an affordable place to live in one of the country’s most cutthroat housing markets. A typical UW dorm costs more than $3,000 per quarter, and good luck finding anything cheaper: A quick Zillow search on Friday morning showed that there were only six listings for rentals under $1,000 per month in the U-District.

“It's very hard for students who are vulnerable and low-income to find housing near campus, especially because our councilmember, Alex Pedersen, has done nothing to help,” Mitnick said.

The students created a proposal to obtain four parcels of land from Sound Transit and to buy two others from the university, including the golf course. On that land, they plan to create a place called Using Transit & Housing to Innovate Affordability (UTHIA), a student-centered community land trust featuring only affordable units on a rent-to-own model.

Obviously, a couple students who are feeling the weight of the housing crisis don’t have the means to fund this thing out of pocket. According to their draft proposal, they plan to pay interested developers with money from leases. To buy land from UW, they want to get money from the Seattle Housing Levy Rental Production and Preservation Program. The council funds that program, so having support from local leaders will be important for the long approval process.

So far, UTHIA has won over housing advocates. Laura Loe, the executive director of Share the Cities, called the project “super rad stuff.” Be:Seattle called the plan “absolutely beautiful,” which makes sense, as Mitnick is a board member.

But before UTHIA submits a proposal to Sound Transit or to the university, they need to build local political support. The city council and the state Legislature do not directly make the call to greenlight the project, but their advocacy could help UTHIA win favor with the transit agency and university. So far, local leaders have offered mixed reactions.

Rep. Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) said he enjoyed meeting with the students, described their plan as totally feasible, and rattled off dozens of examples of developers using Sound Transit land for affordable housing.

In fact, the students’ plan could help Sound Transit meet a mandate from the state that requires the agency to provide any surplus property and air rights above light rail stations for affordable housing and other community services.

The UW has less of a reason to look at the proposal because it could meet its 450-unit affordable housing quota from the Seattle City Council by turning over the Mount Baker Laundry site to the city. Those units wouldn't help in UTHIA’s mission to build more housing closer to the school, but the spokesperson from UW said the university is currently reviewing proposals to prop up 150 affordable housing units nearby for renters that make 60% AMI. He said the school hopes to settle on a developer this summer.

Chopp said he supports the rent-to-own model, but he added that the students would need to partner with an existing nonprofit to avoid running afoul of state laws that limit the use of public funds for private entities.

While students appreciated feedback from Chopp, Falit-Baiamonte said their councilmember, Pedersen, has been “uncommunicative,” “extremely unhelpful,” and “not sympathetic to student concerns.”

Falit-Baiamonte said the most Pederson has done is pass a leaf blower ordinance, which he actually has not done yet. He did introduce a statement of legislative intent about phasing out leaf blowers last fall.

After the students met with Pedersen, a legislative aide from his office sent them a follow-up email with a reading list. The students said the list suggested that density actually hurts affordability, an idea they disagree with.

Pedersen declined an invitation to speak about the issue over the phone, but his spokesperson said he is “always open to connecting with constituents and discussing their ideas to improve not only District 4 but all of Seattle.”

The UTHIA team moved on from Pedersen and will now attempt to dazzle Councilmember Tammy Morales with their proposal next week. Mitnick said they chose her because she’s co-chair of the Land Use committee, and they have also identified some city-owned parking lots that just scream public housing.

“Affordable housing is a critical need,” Mitnick said. “If these elected officials are willing to work with us, we can get this done in a very short timeframe.”