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Seattle to Provide Additional Flexibility to Faith Communities Seeking to Build Affordable Housing

State mandate championed by religious organizations requires cities to allow more income-restricted homes 

Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announced today that the City of Seattle is partnering with the faith community to support the development of more affordable homes throughout the city. For decades, religious organizations have been leaders in building income-restricted housing in Seattle. To support these efforts and in response to a new state law passed in 2019, the City will allow churches, mosques, synagogues, and other faith institutions to build additional affordable homes on their property.  

“Addressing our housing affordability crisis is paramount to creating a just and equitable City. Seattle’s faith institutions have long demonstrated their eagerness to step up and help address the city’s affordable housing and homelessness needs, and Seattle is creating an opportunity to make a generational impact on housing,” said Mayor Durkan. “Using new authority granted by the state, Seattle will continue to lead the way as one of the first cities in Washington to advance this important affordable housing tool. As we work to implement this bill locally, I’m grateful for the state legislators who worked over a number of years to pass this important bill. ” 

For years, faith organizations have called for the creation of more affordable housing and advocated for City policies that support affordable housing development on their property as a strategy to address displacement, strengthen community ties, and maintain community ownership in their neighborhoods. Many religious organizations in Seattle are seeking to build affordable homes on their underutilized property—such as existing parking lots—and some are considering mixed-use developments that also include new spaces for worship or community service, childcare, or small retail spaces. 

“After months of listening to church and community leaders through this complex time of pandemic, economic crisis, and reckoning around racism, it has become clear that many churches are looking at their land and buildings in a new light,” said Joey Ager, Lead Organizer for the Church Council of Greater Seattle’s King County Faith Land Discernment Cohorts. “How can we activate these assets for the common good?” 

In 2019, the Washington State Legislature adopted Substitute House Bill 1377, which requires cities to grant religious organizations the ability to construct additional homes when developing affordable housing on their property. Seattle’s faith community was instrumental in the passage of the legislation. Several area faith institutions, including the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, which received conditional funding through the City’s 2020 Permanent Supportive Housing Pilot Investments, are considering new plans for developing long-term, income-restricted affordable homes on their land and hope to take advantage of the new state law. The Office of Housing and Office of Planning and Community Development began working with faith communities and affordable housing development partners throughout 2020, and Mayor Durkan will transmit legislation early next year to implement these changes.  

The Nehemiah Initiative, which supports Seattle’s historically Black churches as they consider affordable housing and other community-driven development, has seen many congregations struggle to balance the desire to serve their communities with a need for financial stability. Donald King, Interim Executive Director of the Nehemiah Initiative, said, “The Nehemiah Initiative leadership and partners are excited to learn of the City of Seattle’s effort to be expeditious in response to the legislation recently passed from state bill 1377. We at the Nehemiah Initiative are expecting that the emerging land use policies will help make our affordable housing development as financially successful as possible.” 

To implement this law at the local level, the City is developing a new tool that would allow religious organizations to increase the number of affordable homes they can build on their property. In mixed-use zones, these buildings could be slightly larger and taller and contain more income-restricted homes. On certain large sites in single-family zones, more flexibility could allow religious organizations to build various small-scale housing types, like affordable townhomes and income-restricted apartments, that meet the needs of families.  

All housing developed with this new tool would be reserved for at least 50 years for low-income households with incomes under 80 percent of area median income (AMI) or about $88,000 per year for a family of four. 

The Office of Planning and Community Development and the Office of Housing have been working with faith institutions and affordable housing developers for several months to learn how this new tool can support community goals and meet the requirements of the state mandate. The City is now asking other interested individuals and organizations to learn more about this process and provide feedback on policies under consideration. This one-page overview and narrated slideshow provide more background and detail.