Looking out over Interstate 405 and the new Totem Lake Mall development, participants in a round table on affordable housing with U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene had a chance to talk about how they felt left behind in a rapidly changing region, and how government programs helped them rebuild their lives.
The discussion was held on April 3 in Kirkland at the Athene apartments, a low-income housing community that just opened in February. It featured new residents of the building, as well as representatives from Imagine Housing and Catholic Community Services. Athene is intended to serve seniors who, despite living and working in the community for years, can no longer afford Eastside rents.
“I should still be participating in the economy, but I can’t,” said one resident, Jim. “I can do better now that I live here, but if it wasn’t for this, I couldn’t walk into the mall and spend a dime.”
This year, DelBene has been working on her Access to Affordable Housing Act, and with Sen. Maria Cantwell, got a version of it passed in the March omnibus bill. The legislation increased the low income housing tax credit — the first expansion of that program in a decade.
DelBene said she wanted to hear directly from Washingtonians about how to work together and build on that initial success. She said that “making sure everyone has a safe and affordable place to call home is a moral imperative,” and that the affordable housing crisis “can only be solved with the close coordination of local, state and federal government.”
The housing projects built on the Eastside would not have been possible without the low income housing tax credit, according to Villette Nolon, executive director at Imagine Housing, and Chris Jowell, director of agency operations at Catholic Housing Services (CHS) of Western Washington, though they said that more help is needed.
“It’s an incredibly important conversation in our community…and the question is, how do we start solving this problem?” DelBene said. “We’re already behind.”
Imagine Housing plans to build 430 units by 2022, Nolon said, and is working on projects in many cities, including transit-oriented development around future light rail stations and the planned men’s shelter in Bellevue.
One of the round table participants, Dennis, said a similar shelter in Kent saved his life. He was homeless and struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol, and said he decided to get help when he was released from prison for the fifth time about five years ago.
He then transitioned to the CHS-owned and operated Patrick Place apartments in Seattle, where he and 70 others made “giant steps toward rebuilding their lives,” he said.
DelBene said that Dennis’ story highlighted the intersection between housing instability and the opioid epidemic, which she called a “chicken and egg” problem. Jowell said that CHS has a “housing first” philosophy and aims to “meet people where they’re at” by providing social services at their buildings and leveraging local resources.
Nolon said that Imagine Housing has about 70 local partners, including Friends of Youth and Eastside Baby Corner.
To build Athene, Imagine Housing was able to leverage private and public funds, though it faced challenges with the local real estate market and recent changes to the tax code.
“Jurisdictions have to have a plan for affordable housing, because the market won’t take care of it,” Jowell said.
DelBene said it was important to integrate affordable housing into communities that don’t have it, and that are close to job centers. Nolon said that can be accomplished with more density, but asked if the Eastside was ready for that. Another option is to mix market-rate and affordable units into the same buildings, which would “generate equity,” Jowell said.
“It speaks to the dignity of the people we want to serve, and provides access to opportunity,” he said. “It’s not fair for the lowest wage earners to commute the furthest.”
DelBene thanked the round table participants for sharing their stories, and said she would continue to work on the housing and opioid crises, as well as supporting a living wage and nutrition programs.
DelBene represents Washington’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses the majority of Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties, as well as nearly one-third of King County that includes parts of Bothell, Kenmore, Kirkland, Redmond and Bellevue.