An attainable goal: affordable housing in Bel-Red

With the costs of real estate development increasing daily, building housing affordable to the full range of income levels seems like an impossible task. Sympathetic housing developers understand the need for affordability, asserting that they would happily build lower-cost units “if only it would pencil.”

By Mike Nielsen and Rachel Krefetz

With the costs of real estate development increasing daily, building housing affordable to the full range of income levels seems like an impossible task. Sympathetic housing developers understand the need for affordability, asserting that they would happily build lower-cost units “if only it would pencil.”

This statement assumes that it does not make economical sense for developers to build affordable units. Right? Wrong! Affordable housing already is being developed successfully throughout the Puget Sound region in cities that have begun implementing the needed public policy.

For instance, in downtown Redmond, more than 140 affordable units have been built or are in progress by developers such as Intracorp, Legacy Partners, and Equity Residential.

In Seattle’s Northgate area, Wallace Properties hopes to use the multi-family tax exemption to help finance affordable units in a project already under way.

A partnership that included CamWest and Shelter Resources, along with several government and nonprofit entities, developed Greenbrier Heights in Woodinville, which provides more than 150 units for a variety of income levels and also features parks, trails, wetlands, and a community center.

In Issaquah, both single and multi-family below market-rate housing has been and continues to be created alongside market-rate housing through the combined efforts of government, for profit and nonprofit entities working together.

In each of these examples, the cities in question implemented strong policies promoting affordable housing in these developments.

Meeting the housing needs of our entire community requires the deliberate collaboration of local government, for-profit developers, and nonprofit organizations. With the right incentives (often provided by local governments through zoning upgrades, density bonuses or tax exemptions), for-profit developers can profitably build projects that offer housing for a mix of income levels.

This type of collaboration is perfect for creating workforce housing that is affordable for teachers, firefighters, secretaries, and paralegals — most of whom are currently priced out of Bellevue’s housing market and therefore must commute from other cities.

The nonprofit community, which includes housing providers such as St. Andrew’s Housing Group, YWCA, Downtown Action to Save Housing and Hopelink, is uniquely qualified to provide even more affordable housing options for people who are often lifelong Bellevue residents such as seniors on fixed incomes or single moms who no longer can afford the rising costs of living in their neighborhoods.

Housing affordability can be achieved if we use the right tools from a toolkit that has proven success. As the city of Bellevue has learned from the past 12 years of building unaffordable housing downtown, voluntary incentives do not work. In contrast, Redmond’s mandatory requirement illustrates that requiring projects to include affordable housing results in new housing with a range of affordabilities. While residential developers are busy increasing affordable housing, the city should encourage commercial developers to play a larger role in creating the infrastructure, open spaces, and other amenities needed in the area.

We share the hope that over the next few decades, the Bel-Red Corridor will evolve into a great community with a healthy mix of housing, shops, jobs, and parks. Given Bel-Red’s current use, we understand the overwhelming needs that must be considered during the planning process. The task may be daunting, but it can be done.

We applaud the efforts of the Bellevue City Council to make affordable housing a priority in the Bel-Red Corridor development plans, and we encourage the council to take the final step needed to assure that their efforts produce the intended result. Together, we can ensure that Bel-Red reaches its potential as a diverse, livable, and workable community.

Mike Nielsen is executive director of St. Andrew’s Housing Group; and Rachel Krefetz is outreach director for the Housing Development Consortium.

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