It should be painfully obvious by now that a ‘free market solution’ to low-income housing (and at this rate—even quality, affordable housing) in Seattle is getting further and further from reach. Seattle’s Office of Housing is doing what it can, spending roughly $34 million in 2012, with much of that stemming from the 2009 housing levy. While this is a good start, it falls well short of the critical need, and a large portion of that funding was loans to non-profit developers.
But what if we, the enlightened denizens of Seattle, pushed for the City to take on a greater role in the development of affordable and low-income units? Could the City itself become a non-profit developer of sorts, taking on construction, development and funding of large scale affordable housing projects? Could we position ourselves as a leader in addressing critical housing shortages while at the same time pushing innovative, high-quality, low-energy buildings for low-income residents? If this region ever decided this was a viable option (and I’d posit that it is), then perhaps Neue Heimat Tirol (NHT) could be a solid role model.
Neue Heimat Tirol is a non-profit developer jointly owned by the Bundesland of Tirol and the Tyrolean capital, Innsbruck. Founded as a for-profit venture in 1939, by 1968, after post-war construction slowed, the organization’s nearly worthless shares were picked up by the State and City. Today, NHT is one of the largest housing suppliers in Western Austria—providing attractive, clean and affordable social housing. NHT develops, rehabilitates and manages a variety of projects—rentals, condos, and elderly residences—with many incorporating secondary functions, such as kindergartens, schools, and community centers.
Lest you think I’m pulling this organization out of thin air, I do have some rationale for my choice. Presently, Innsbruck’s median condo cost/square foot prices are comparable to Seattle’s (approximately $340/sf for both). Tirol’s population (714,500) is also comparable to Seattle’s. Tirol also happens to have a phenomenal wood-based, low/mid-rise, digital fabrication and high performance building sector which should really be reason enough to imitate. Furthermore, the geography and labor costs are also comparable to our region. Over the last decade, NHT has seen tremendous growth, presently managing nearly $160M of construction per year—both in new projects ($120M) and energetically-focused rehabs ($40M).
More below the jump.