A Seattle Link light rail station that opened in 2016 at the University of Washington.
A Seattle Link light rail station that opened in 2016 at the University of Washington. Each new station requires a nearby staging site that becomes surplus land after building is complete. The city is designating these sites for affordable housing. Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

Affordable apartments near reliable public transportation aren’t always easy to find. As Seattle expands its Link light rail, the city has codified a solution.

For two years, nearly an entire block of land in the middle of the bustling Seattle neighborhood of Capitol Hill sat vacant. Located directly above the underground Link light rail station, the land had been used as a staging area during construction, but became superfluous once the station was completed in 2016.

Rather than leave it vacant or sell it to a developer to build market-rate housing, the owner of the land, Sound Transit, Puget Sound’s transportation authority, worked with Seattle’s Office of Housing and other local agencies to fill the lot with affordable housing.

After sending out a request for proposals to developers, Sound Transit awarded the project to both the development firm Gerding Edlen and public development entity Capitol Hill Housing. Later the City of Seattle awarded $8 million in funding for the project, which officially broke ground last summer. The land will soon be home to four buildings with 428 apartments.

Forty-two percent of those units will be part of the city’s affordable housing program, and thus come with rent and income limits. The majority of the affordable apartments, 110, will be designated for households that earn at or below 30, 50 and 60 percent of the area median income, with 68 units affordable to households earning between 65 and 85 percent of the area median income.

This project was a forerunner to a program that Sound Transit made official in 2018. Sound Transit will now offer a minimum of 80 percent of surplus property, often by its Link light rail stations, to be used for affordable housing projects. The land can be offered to affordable housing developers at below market rates or, in some cases, Sound Transit has been able to transfer it to the developer for no cost. At least 80 percent of the housing units must be affordable to those earning 80 percent of, or below, the area median income for the county in which the property is located.

A state legislature statute requiring Sound Transit to prioritize affordable housing development on surplus property near the stations went into effect in 2016, and since then a number of projects like Capitol Hill Housing have been in the works. But it wasn’t until 2018 that Sound Transit’s Board of Directors voted in the agency’s official policy after an 18-month review process.

A rendering of a building for the Capitol Hill Station development. The development will have four buildings and 428 apartments of which 178 will be set at prices below market rate. (Schemata Workshop)

At a time when the city is struggling with a major housing crisis—in December, King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force reported that the area needs 156,000 more affordable housing units—could this type of creative, transit-oriented approach to housing be a key piece in solving this crisis?

It has been well documented that affordable housing and efficient mass transportation go well together. The combination means low-income residents get convenient access to transportation—a necessity when it comes to accessing everything from food to jobs, and thus upward mobility—without draining whatever income they have left after rent.

“Transportation and paying for the costs of a privately owned car is one of the greatest expenses that a low-income person has outside of housing,” said Miriam Roskin, deputy director of Seattle’s Office of Housing. “To the extent that you can reduce the cost that low income people bear for transportation at the same time that you’re creating these affordable housing opportunities, you’re so much the better.”  

Leah Haberman, outreach manager for the Housing Development Consortium, an affordable housing advocacy group in King County, agreed that this type of transit-oriented development is extremely important. “As our transit infrastructure expands, it is vital to make sure that people of all incomes are able to benefit from the increased access and mobility that the light rail provides,” she said.

The opportunities for this type of housing have received a major boost thanks to Sound Transit’s expansion of its light rail system. The transit authority is set to add more than 60 miles of light rail and accompanying stations, ultimately producing a system of transportation five times larger than what is available today. The construction of the new stations requires land for staging and storage of construction materials leaving well-placed sites for affordable homes.

“It definitely amped up the opportunities for pairing transit locations, specifically Link light rail stations, with affordable housing investment,” said Roskin. “It clearly makes it more feasible by reducing the cost of development.”

This policy has been put to use recently in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood. Sound Transit and the Office of Housing, along with other local organizations, are working to open affordable housing next to the future light rail station by 2021. It is expected to be a 54,000 square foot property made up of 245 apartments, all of which will be affordable.

Sound Transit officials have said they’re looking into taking their experiences with the housing efforts in Seattle into other jurisdictions. “I think there were a number of lessons that we learned through that process about how to develop a strong partnership and what works in structuring an RFP,” said Thatcher Imboden, Sound Transit’s transit-oriented development manager. “We’re trying to bring those lessons learned when we go and meet with other jurisdictions or other affordable housing funders.”

As Sound Transit’s light rail expansion goes beyond simply the Seattle area, there will be a multitude of stations in neighboring cities, likely producing many more pieces of leftover land that could be used for affordable housing.

“The more we can locate affordable housing around transit, the better it is for the low-income individuals,” Chris Persons, CEO of Capitol Hill Housing says, and “the better it is for the resilience of our environment.”

CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to clarify the timing of Seattle’s $8 million contribution to the Capitol Hill Station development. It was designated after Sound Transit had awarded the project to Gerding Edlen and Capitol Hill Housing.

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