Seattle's innovative answer to the housing crunch

Stock options may seem to fall on people here with the same frequency as raindrops, but for many along the shores of Puget Sound, simply owning a home can be a major achievement.

Across the United States, the longest economic boom has created a housing crisis, with millions of Americans unable to afford the rising cost of a home. But perhaps nowhere has this irony been more acute than here, where the wealth of the New Economy has made housing more expensive with each passing payday.

Yet here in the shadow of Microsoft mansions, an eclectic collection of citizens and government agencies has found innovative ways to help low- and middle-income families own a home. Buttressed by the community's historic generosity to those in need, Seattle has refined a national model for affordable housing.

"The good news about Seattle is that there are a lot of people focused on this issue and doing a lot of the right things to solve the problem," said Michael Rubinger, director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a New York organization that helps nonprofits get funding for housing. "Seattle is out ahead of the curve."

The problem of scarce affordable housing touches major metropolitan areas from Providence, R.I., to Portland, Ore. Two weeks ago, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that a record 5.4 million low-income families need housing assistance due to the shrinking number of affordable units.

As rents continue to rise faster than wages, middle-income renters are moving into what were once low-income residences. Lower-income residents then scramble for less-desirable units, once the province of the elderly and mentally ill.

"The housing for low-income people has been decreasing, while the number of renters who need low-income housing has been growing," says Barry Zigas, director of Fannie Mae's Housing Impact Division.

This is markedly so in western Washington, where the median income for a family of four is about $65,000. But the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County has succeeded where other cities' affordable-housing programs have failed or stagnated.

The reasons for its success are deep-seated, say observers, drawing in part on the area's Scandinavian and Chinese traditions of generosity to newcomers.

*On three occasions, Seattle residents have voted to tax themselves more heavily to fund low-income housing.

*After years of resistance, middle-class neighborhoods are now showing a willingness to accept low-income housing.

*Seattle has an extraordinary number of nonprofit developers, which it has allowed to lead the way in creating affordable housing.

As a result, the Seattle consortium has increased the number of subsidized housing units it oversees from fewer than 2,000 to more than 11,000 since 1988.

"Each little nonprofit starts in relation to a specific local need, and then grows," says Carla Okigwe, the group's executive director. "I think of it as effectively occupying niches."

The Lutheran Alliance To Create Housing (LATCH) occupies one such niche, appealing to the religious community.

"There is an acknowledgment on the part of the bureaucrats that they need the network of nonprofit providers to sustain the political will, to keep revving the funding," says Kathy Roseth, executive director of LATCH. "It's just easier for LATCH to make the case - in a different church every Sunday morning - that homelessness and the lack of affordable housing are a community concern."

"We engage people as members of the church, but also as citizens," she adds. "And the churches - that's our niche."

By involving community groups, and working to see that the housing its members develop is aesthetically inviting, the consortium has mostly overcome another obstacle that routinely blocks affordable-housing construction nationwide: opposition from nervous neighbors.

Ms. Roseth laughs when she recalls how residents in Greenwood responded to plans for the Denice Hunt Townhomes.

"The neighborhood came unglued when that project was proposed," she says. "They appealed all the permits, fought it all the way - and then it won a number of architectural awards, and now no one even remembers the fight."

The Denice Hunt Townhomes are anything but the huge, out-of-scale boxes that so often call attention to public-housing projects. Indeed, the 30 townhomes, painted tasteful slate blue, taupe, and muted yellow, were crafted to meld with Seattle's vintage-housing stock.

"When we first built them," says Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, "we had 50 phone calls right away from people who thought they were market-rate homes and wanted to buy them." Instead, 10 of the homes are reserved for families living on 30 percent of median income. Another two or three are for families that once were homeless.

Every resident must contribute between five and 10 hours each month to the community by serving on screening committees or pitching in with chores.

"A lot of cities focus their priorities on more affordable housing - people at 80 percent of median income," says Ms. Lee. "What's good about Seattle's housing policy is that ... it truly serves people in need."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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