It’s no secret that rents in Seattle are skyrocketing: The average apartment costs about $1,400 a month. Now throw an attractive neighborhood like Queen Anne into the mix and things quickly become even less affordable.
Bellwether Housing is proposing a new, affordable option. The company is a local nonprofit that focuses on affordable-housing development. Its mission is to develop apartments to serve Seattle’s low- and moderate-income working class, said Becky Bicknell, senior-housing developer for Bellwether.
It’s proposing a 65-unit building at 1511 Dexter Ave. N., and had its first Early Design Guidance meeting in Queen Anne on Feb. 19. Rent for the mostly one-bedroom units would be between $700 and $950 per month.
Bellwether has 30 buildings and 1,900 apartments, which are all income-restricted. It houses about 3,000 residents. Bellwether develops, owns and manages the properties.
Tenants come from an income range that’s 30 to 60 percent of the area’s median income, Bicknell said. Residents are allowed to stay even if their income increases over time.
Average rent for a unit in a Bellwether building is around $800 a month, Bicknell said. Some people do pay less, with part of their rent subsidized by Section 8 rental assistance.
Bellwether bought the Queen Anne property on Dexter in 2011, when the market was a “little softer,” Bicknell said. The company has certain criteria to meet before it begins a new project, like proximity to downtown or other employment centers and access to public transportation. Residential development on the Dexter corridor and similar areas has “proven to be a good decision,” she said.
Queen Anne needs affordable housing because increased rents and decreased vacancy have created “a lack of supply” for people who are earning the income amount Bellwether serves, Bicknell said. She sees support staff for downtown employers struggling to find an affordable place to live. Queen Anne is close in proximity to downtown and has had very little new affordable development in recent years, making it a perfect location for Bellwether to focus on, she said.
“There’s an ever-shrinking supply right now [of apartments] under $1,000 a month,” she said.
Not for everyone
So how unaffordable are Queen Anne apartments, really? Apartment Therapy recommends people spend 30 percent of their income on housing each month — a fairly standard calculation. That means if someone makes $72,000 a year, they should spend $1,800 on housing, according to its calculations.
$72,000 is not out of range for a two-income household, but those people may look for more long-term housing, like a condominium or house. The average Seattle household income in 2011 was $52,048.
Of 30 one-bedroom apartments listed for rent in Queen Anne recently, the average rent was approximately $1,650 per month. Some came in at much more, at $2,500 a month, and some were considerably less, at $850 a month.
Magnolia only had three apartments listed, averaging $1,255 per month.
Using Apartment Therapy’s conversion method, that means a tenant would need to make about $65,000 a year to live in an average Queen Anne apartment.
Bellwether has a rigorous application process, which means it’s “not just a free-for-all” for people off the street; Tenants must prove that they can afford the unit. Bicknell said she thought the required income range for these apartments would be between $30,000 and $50,000.
“The drawback is that we can’t offer more and that we do have a somewhat-limited range of people that can move in,” she said.
That said, Bicknell has no doubt the company will be able to fill the Dexter development apartments in no time. From the outside, it won’t look any different than its more-expensive neighbors, Bicknell said.
Offering housing solutions like this satisfy the “triple bottom line,” Bicknell said. Many people are battling with health problems, housing and job stability. By taking the crunch of over-priced rents out of the equation, people can focus on other things.
These developments also help the environment and city congestion by being close to transit and reducing the number of cars on the road, she said; this way, people aren’t commuting to work from their more affordable apartment outside city limits.
“The residents we’re serving are the backbone of our economy,” Bicknell said. “They’re people just coming out of college, people that are working class or people that just happen to be a little lower-income. With rents being what they are, they’re priced out of any other neighborhoods.”
These types of affordable housing units are needed all over the city and into King County, Bicknell said. Bellwether is focusing on housing near future light-rail stations and in areas that are within walking distance of employment or service centers.
Bellwether hasn’t done much development in Queen Anne or South Lake Union. It is currently renovating the Parker Apartments in Queen Anne, which it already owns.
The Dexter development will hopefully come online in the next few years, Bicknell said. The company is seeking a contract rezone for the development, which will need to be approved by the city. But, so far, its getting support from the Uptown Alliance and the Queen Anne Community Council, Bicknell said.
Even once it gets approval for the development side, like with the Design Review Board, the company is still challenged by its own finances. Bellwether relies on subsidies from the city and state, and state resources have constricted in the last few years, she said.
Brian Runberg, principal of Runberg Architecture Group, has worked on urban mixed-use housing developments in Queen Anne and Seattle for the last 20 years. He recently did the Expo apartments across from KeyArena and is working on the Astro apartments, on the arena’s west side. Runberg is also working on the Bellwether Dexter development.
He’s personally invested in Queen Anne, he said; He’s been a resident for two decades and has worked with the Queen Anne Community Council and Land Use Review Committee.
“Just based on the desirability of location and quality of environment, Queen Anne has always been on the higher end,” Runberg said. “It still has that prestige and captures that market.”
Queen Anne is not an exception, though, Runberg said; Rents are going up across the city.
“Low-income housing” is a misnomer, he said. People who would live in a development like the Bellwether one are dental hygienists and office employees. This is not housing for homeless people, which is also needed, he said. This is about housing for people who would need to make more than $80,000 a year to spend his suggested 40 percent of their income to afford a typical Queen Anne apartment, Runberg said.
“When you think about it, how many people do you know who can afford to live in a market-rate apartment?” he asked.
Queen Anne should have more affordable housing options — diversely priced living situations make for a healthy and diverse economy and community, Runberg said. Having only high-end housing options makes for a polarized society, which is never preferred, he said. Affordable solutions would get people out of the suburbs and actually living in the neighborhoods where they work.
It would also lessen the traffic density he sees as people commute on and off the hill each day.
“What I’ve seen is people have the wrong impression or opinion of what ‘market rate’ means and what ‘affordable’ or ‘workforce’ or ‘low-income’ means,” Runberg said. “The market rate is really luxury, and the workforce is the majority of people in any workforce blue-collar or white-collar.”
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