This past Thursday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a plan to build 2,200 affordable housing units near light rail stations in the next six years. The way the plan works: Sound Transit lends its AAA credit rating so that the King County Housing Authority (KCHA) can take out low-cost loans to boost its affordable housing portfolios. The money is borrowed against future lodging tax revenues, which Olympia recently authorized with a new law.

King County Housing Authority purchased The Villages at South Station for $28.3 million
King County Housing Authority purchased The Villages at South Station for $29.3 million. (William Wright Photography)

If last year’s moves are any guide, KCHA seems focused on a preservation strategy. Last October, it announced the purchase of the 95-unit Corinthian Apartments and the 190-unit The Villages at South Station building near Tukwila International Boulevard Station (a Link light rail station).

Buying existing buildings should lead to quicker turnaround and—if done judiciously—lower per unit cost than building new construction. The $29.3 million paid for The Villages’ 190 units works out to $154,211 per unit, but KCHA guarantees only half the units at 80% area median income. Apparently the other half will be market rate. The $10.12 million paid for Corinthian works out to $106,526 per unit, plus rehabilitation costs. New construction often costs much more per unit. However, preserving existing buildings doesn’t expand the overall housing supply (barring a scenario where the alternative is existing housing being replaced with a non residential use). Preservation is helpful in that it guarantees some housing remains affordable, but it isn’t necessarily a strategy for housing growth.

Of course we are only talking about 2,200 units which is a drop in the bucket in the the total metropolitan Seattle housing market, so no matter the strategy the impact may not be particularly far-reaching. It’d be great to see a more comprehensive approach to social housing that guarantees a large boost—say in the neighborhood of 100,000 new units—geared to the working class. That would take some doing.

This latest effort by King County is a start. I’d wager most subsidized housing applicants would appreciate light rail access to guarantee affordable transport in addition to housing. We should applaud the effort.

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Doug Trumm is the Publication Director at The Urbanist. He joined the exodus to Seattle in 2014, leaving behind his home state of Minnesota. Living on disputed land between Wallingford and Fremont, he is doing his best to improve both neighborhoods. He is a grad student at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and a marketing intern at King County Metro. His views are his own and do not represent his employer.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is unfortunate. As you note, “preserving” housing doesn’t put a single additional roof over anyone’s head. What it does do is evict people living in currently affordable housing and replaces them with other people that have jumped through the right hoops.

    Although you do say that it could save housing supply if the alternative was a non-residential use, you missed the far more probable case of adding additional units. That’s actually a lot of the point of light rail – to add transit oriented development. To tear down those small suburban-style apartments with lots of surface parking and replace them with tall dense apartments that hold far more people. By the county “preserving” these units we end up with far fewer units (and therefore fewer roofs over people’s heads). What’s worse is that this will be reducing the number of units near light rail stations – exactly the place we need more units.

    Unit “preservation” is just a back door way to get a tiny bit of rent control. It’s a political win because it feels like you’re doing more for less money. But it misses a huge benefit of subsidized housing: adding actual housing.

    • Yes, so much better to evict everyone from all those affordable units, so they can be torn down and replaced by unaffordable units in greater number. Zombie urbanism at its finest.

      • The tenants in those “unaffordable” units would just displace other tenants if you don’t build units for them.

        • But those expensive units can be built on other sites that don’t require tearing down affordable housing!!! If you had any familiarity at all with TIBS, you’d see those sites west and north of the station.

          • That will happen as well. What you’re talking about here is actively stopping new construction at sites where it was going to happen (otherwise, why bother “preserving” them?). That’s a net loss of units.

            TIBS has been mired in SeaTac master planning process since 2006. Here’s the 2015 update, which is still just recommendations for action such as “develop an interjurisdictional working group focused on TOD implementation”. I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything but parking there for the near future.

          • How do you know there were high-density development projects scheduled for The Villages and The Corinthian? What new construction is the county “actively stopping”?

            Why do you hate on middle-income people that need affordable places to live? Must be since you are always so eager to tear down their housing.

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