Building Consensus for Bellevue’s Affordable Housing Strategy
September 11, 2017
Category: Guest Author , Housing
Affordable housing is a critical need for the Puget Sound region and Bellevue in particular. Housing prices are now above prerecession levels with median, single-family homes in Bellevue selling above $1 million. Rental rates have been climbing steadily with 1-bedroom apartments averaging above $2,000 per month in parts of the city. Over one-third of Bellevue renters pay more than 30% of their income for housing, and one in six renters is paying more than 50%.
According to a 2015 survey of Bellevue businesses, a lack of affordable housing was cited as a major challenge. High housing costs have significant implications for individuals, families, and the community. An increasing share of young families experience housing instability, which has a demonstrated relationship to decreased academic performance in children (according to a Center for Housing Policy study). Many seniors have difficulty staying in communities that have been home for decades due to rising housing costs. Workers who must commute long distances from homes they can afford add to regional traffic congestion.
Planning with a Focus on People and Implementation
The data and jargon associated with affordable housing issues can be mind-numbing. Bellevue’s strategy involved a concerted effort to relate the issues to people rather than statistics. Its outreach program compared earnings of people in common occupations (e.g. teachers, baristas, store clerks) with the rent they could afford compared to typical rents in Bellevue. This approach gave stakeholders a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in the community.
The Bellevue City Council made it a top priority to develop an action-oriented strategy. The project included a focus on low- and moderate-income workers, young people entering the workforce, seniors on fixed incomes, and families with school-age children. The council’s direction was based on existing policies in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, Economic Development Strategy, and guiding principles for the project. The importance of having a city strategy was reinforced by the Housing Needs Assessment and the Human Services Needs Report.
For the policy development portion, the city secured consultants who researched effective practices employed by affordable housing programs in other jurisdictions nationwide and evaluated the impact various actions might have in Bellevue. This research confirmed that there are limited tools to address affordable housing, especially in Washington State. A few new actions were added to the list being considered with a focus on those with the best potential to yield additional affordable housing.
Intensive Community Engagement
With limited time and resources, this issue-specific focus (affordable housing) required a different approach. One variation the city used was a technical advisory group (TAG) in lieu of a citizen committee. The TAG consisted of experts who understood the technical, multifaceted complexities of the issue. It was also necessary to have a robust outreach program to educate constituents about the community’s need for affordable housing and to solicit feedback.
The TAG was comprised of 14 experts in private and nonprofit development, finance, law, architecture, real estate, rental property, and human services, with two at-large community members. The exchange of information and perspectives among the different members resulted in candid, respectful dialogue that was invaluable to vetting the pros and cons of the actions. Even though individual TAG members did not support every action recommended by staff, there was strong consensus on the importance of the overall strategy (which the TAG stated in its transmittal letter to council).
Public outreach began with a Community Education Forum featuring local speakers from the Bellevue School District, The Sophia Way, Redfin, Imagine Housing, King County Housing Authority, and Security Properties. Panel members described the issue from their perspectives and experiences, and the event established a solid foundation of the need for and the challenges associated with providing affordable housing.
Other highlights of the outreach program included more than 800 responses to an online survey that tested some early concepts for potential strategies in the fall of 2016. Workshops were held with various stakeholders as actions were developed, evaluated, and refined.
In spring 2017, an online open house solicited feedback for approximately two weeks on a draft set of actions. The interactive, web-based format provided information on the draft embedded with survey questions. The website generated over 1,000 unique visitors, nearly 300 survey responses, and more than 800 comments. About 75 people participated in a corresponding public workshop structured as a series of conversations regarding different strategies. Volunteers from the city’s mediation center facilitated each conversation to solicit diverse perspectives, determine major concerns, and get a sense of priorities for the actions.
Opportunities for public engagement and informational resources were promoted on the project website, in city publications, and on social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor). Surveys, online open houses, and event notices were available in Spanish, Russian, and Chinese.
Components of Bellevue’s Success
Bellevue’s outreach program and the TAG were critical to developing a workable, effective Affordable Housing Strategy that the city council approved in June 2017. Work on implementing the plan is scheduled to begin soon.
Janet Lewine, Associate Planner in Bellevue's Planning and Community Development Department assisted in preparing this post.
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