Affordable Housing Trailblazers

Time passes.  This is the recently completed Squire Park Plaza at the corner of 17th and Jackson in the Central District.  Developed by the Central Area Development Association and designed by Streeter Archtitects, the $15.5 million project features 59 apartments, 11,000 square feet of retail/office space (including 3,000 sf in live-work units), and 62 underground parking stalls.   Thirty-nine of the units are affordable to those earning 80 percent of the area median income (AMI).

So too just down the hill at Jackson Place, where behind the magnificent Washington State Lottery billboard at the corner of Dearborn and Rainier, Pontedera Condominiums is rising.  Developed by Homesite and designed by SMR Architects, the $35 million six-story project will house 94 condo units, 8 live-work units, and 128 underground parking stalls.  Financing assistance will be available to buyers earning up to 80 percent of AMI.

What is this magic number, 80% of AMI?  As of 2008, it was  $43,050, $49,200, and $55,350 per year, for a 1, 2, and 3 person household, respectively.  This is “workforce housing,” intended to be affordable to the backbone of our communities — folks such as teachers and firefighters (not to mention urban designers).

Both of these projects are good illustrations of what it takes to provide new housing in Seattle that is affordable even to those who earn only a little less than the average Seattleite. There is certainly nothing extravagent about these buildings, and the wood frame over concrete construction type is about as economical as it gets for midrise.  Still the developers have had to be exceptionally creative in bringing together numerous financial partners to get final unit prices down to the 80% AMI level.  And this only underscores the challenge of providing housing for the roughly two fifths of Seattle’s households that earn less than 80% of AMI.

While the sites are relatively close to downtown, both leave much to be desired.  Pontedera is part of an interesting little pocket, but backs up onto one of the most pedestrian-hostile intersections in the City.  The area along Jackson around Squire Park Plaza has great potential to grow into a vibrant urban village, but currently is still relatively desolate.

A less desirable location means cheaper land.  But since construction costs are relatively fixed — and are typically an order of magnitude higher than land costs — cheap land doesn’t typically translate to a significant reduction in total housing cost.  And thus midrise residential projects in low-rent neighborhoods often fail to pencil unless they are subsidized.  Projects like Squire Park Plaza and Pontedera are, by necessity, the trailblazers.