Council increases income level for “affordable” housing on church property

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Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, the city council rejected a proposal by Councilor Lisa Herbold that would have asked churches to build more affordable homes that could double the value of their property in exchange for density premiums (upzones). The bill, passed by the council, will provide financial incentives for religious organizations to build homes for people and households who earn up to 80 percent of the median income in the Seattle area – about $ 65,000 a year for a one-person household.

The legislation has its roots in anti-displacement efforts. Back in 2019, state lawmakers passed law requiring cities to grant religious institutions density premiums – essentially the right to build more housing – on property they own if they agree to use it for affordable housing to use. Three months ago, passed the city council, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed a bill that, from July 2022, the homes that churches build on highly distributed land must be affordable, on average, to people who are 60 percent or less of the average Seattle income – say $ 49,000 – Earn for one person or $ 70,000 for a family of four.

After the law was passed, several local churches called on Durkan and councilors to amend the law to raise the affordable threshold to 80 percent. At this level of affordability, homes are essentially marketable – around $ 1,620 for a studio apartment or $ 1,850 for a one-bedroom unit, regardless of where in town they’re located. In contrast, the law passed by the council and mayor in June required average rents of around $ 1,200 for a studio and $ 1,300 for a one-room apartment.

Herbold’s amendment would have allowed religious establishments in neighborhoods identified by the city to be at high risk of displacement, such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, North Beacon Hill and Lake City, to continue building affordable housing for the higher income threshold. while maintaining the 60 percent affordability requirement in other areas.

Almost seven in ten black households account for less than half of the median income in Seattle, and only 10 percent are between the 50 and 80 percent income levels. In other words, less than 10 percent of all black tenant households in the city will theoretically even qualify for new church living space with the higher income levels decided by the council.

Local church officials argued that greater affordability would make housing more difficult to build across the city, leading to the eviction of churches and their parishioners, as housing for lower-income people simply did not “pencil out” church property.

“The [new] Legislation as originally developed has created a win-win scenario in which these institutions – almost all of which are significant contributors to city service and equity – can continue to thrive where they are in our neighborhoods, and can contribute to the blatant lack of affordable housing, ”wrote Michael Ramos, chairman of the Greater Seattle Council of Churches, in an email to Herbold’s office, rejecting her amendment.

“The ideal is that we have affordable housing all over the city with a median income of 60 percent, and we have so many political mechanisms and funding mechanisms to make that happen,” said Councilor Dan Strauss, who supported both bills. “Churches need the flexibility to have people [earning] up to 80 percent AMI in their buildings, so they can choose to either return to the community who have been displaced or use that revenue to create the services other residents receive to meet their community’s needs . “

However, Herbold pointed out that, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, about 69 percent of black households earn less than half the median income in Seattle, and only 10 percent are between the 50- and 80-percent income levels. In other words, less than 10 percent of all black tenant households in the city will theoretically qualify for new church apartments under the new legislation – that’s fewer than 1,500 families in the entire city. (The numbers are approximate as the ACS is used as the 50 percent cutoff, which includes more households than the upper 60 percent threshold).

“We are essentially doubling the development capacity of these parcels, so that we as political decision-makers have the right and the obligation to receive a public benefit in return for increasing the profitability of the church land,” said Herbold. She also argued that the higher income levels for churches across the city would put a drag on partnering with nonprofits – like the Low-Income Housing Institute, which is currently building hundreds of housing units on church-owned land in the Central District, as for-profit developers.

Herbold, Alex Pedersen and Kshama Sawant were the only council members who voted against the bill. In his closing remarks, Strauss said he appreciated Herbold’s intention to support low-income housing, but “I don’t think the city needs to micromanage how these organizations best serve their communities.”


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