Council increases income level for ‘affordable’ housing on Church-owned properties

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, city council rejected a proposal by council member Lisa Herbold that would have forced churches to build more affordable housing in exchange for density bonuses (upzones) that could double the value of the property they own. Legislation passed by the council will provide financial incentives for religious institutions to build apartments for individuals and households earning up to 80% of the Seattle area median income, for a one-person household, about $ 65,000 per year. .

The legislation has its roots in anti-displacement efforts. In 2019, the state legislature passed legislation requiring cities to grant religious institutions density bonuses – essentially, the right to build more housing – on property they own, if they agree to use it. for affordable housing. Three months ago, city council passed, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, legislation stating that as of July 2022, housing that churches build on elevated land must be, on average, affordable for people earning 60% or more. less than Seattle’s median income of about $ 49,000 for one person or $ 70,000 for a family of four.

After the law was passed, several local churches called on Durkan and council members to change the law to raise the affordability threshold to 80%. At this level of affordability, apartments are essentially market rates – around $ 1,620 for a studio or $ 1,850 for one-bedroom, regardless of where they are in the city. In contrast, legislation approved by council and the mayor in June required average rents of about $ 1,200 for a studio and $ 1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Herbold’s Amendment would have continued to allow religious institutions in neighborhoods the city identified as high risk of displacement, such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, North Beacon Hill and Lake City, to build affordable housing in highest income threshold, while retaining the 60 percent affordability requirement in other areas.

Nearly seven in ten black households earn less than half of Seattle’s median income, and only 10% fall between 50 and 80%. In other words, less than 10 percent of all black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new faith-based housing at the higher income levels the council has adopted.

Representatives of local churches argued that demanding higher affordability anywhere in the city would make it difficult for them to build housing, which would result in the displacement of churches and their worshipers as affordable housing for low-income people just don’t “chalk up” on church property.

“The [new] legislation, as originally drafted, has created a win-win scenario where these institutions, almost all of which contribute significantly to services and justice in the city, can continue to thrive where they are. are in our neighborhoods and contribute to the dire lack of affordable housing. Michael Ramos, head of the Greater Seattle Church Council, wrote in an email to Herbold’s office opposing his amendment.

“The ideal is that we have affordable housing at a median income of 60% throughout the city, and we have so many political mechanisms and funding mechanisms to do it,” said board member Dan Strauss, who sponsored both bills. “Churches need flexibility to be able to have people [earning] up to 80% MAI in their buildings, so they can choose to either reintegrate the displaced into the community or use this income to create the services that other residents receive to meet the needs of their community.

But Herbold pointed out that according to the American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau, about 69% of black households earn less than half of Seattle’s median income, and only 10% fall between the income levels of 50% and 80%. . In other words, less than 10 percent of all black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new faith-based housing under the new legislation – less than 1,500 families citywide. (Figures are approximate because ACS uses 50 percent as the cutoff, which includes more households than the upper 60 percent cutoff).

“We are essentially doubling the development capacity of these plots, so as decision-makers we have the right and obligation to obtain a public benefit in return for increased profitability” of land owned by the church, Herbold said. She also argued that the higher income levels would actually deter churches across town from partnering with nonprofits, like the Low-Income Housing Institute, which is currently building hundreds of housing units. housing on church-owned land in the central district, rather than for-profit developers.

Herbold, Alex Pedersen and Kshama Sawant were the only council members to vote against the bill. In his closing remarks, Strauss said he appreciated Herbold’s intention to support low-income housing, but that “I don’t think the city needs to micromanage how these organizations best serve their congregations. “.

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Julio V. Miller

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