This week the City of Seattle received the Governor’s Smart Housing Strategies Award for our policy to support affordable housing on property owned by religious organizations as one new tool for responding to the housing crisis. In 2021, Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) and Office of Housing (OH) worked with community stakeholders to craft alternative development standards for affordable housing on faith-owned land. With this new tool, Seattle’s faith communities can create more homes for low-income individuals and families when their sites are available for redevelopment.
“This award recognizes the City of Seattle’s dual commitment to addressing the affordable housing crisis with urgency, creativity, and innovation, emphasizing why a One Seattle approach that brings everyone to the table is key to developing effective solutions,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Our administration will continue this work with faith-based organizations, nonprofits, and all stakeholders to create an affordable, safe, thriving Seattle for all neighbors.”
Seattle is one of eight Washington cities to receive the Governor’s Smart Communities Awards, which annually recognizes local governments and their partners for exceptional work in implementing the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) to shape future growth, economic vitality, and quality of life in communities across the state.
In 2021, OPCD and OH worked with community stakeholders on a development bonus for affordable housing on property owned by religious organizations. Adopted in June 2021, Ordinance 126384, sponsored by Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6, NW Seattle) lets faith institutions use additional height and floor area to create a greater number of homes if all housing created on the site is affordable to households earning up to 80 percent of area median income (AMI) for at least 50 years. This fulfilled state legislation requiring cities to allow additional density for affordable housing on religious sites.
“After partnering with many faith-based organizations in the Central Area, this tool will help address the concerns of displacement and ongoing housing inequities that continue to affect the neighborhood,” said OPCD Acting Director Rico Quirindongo. “We are proud to receive this award along with OH and will continue to strengthen the bonds between the City and Central Area residents.”
Seattle’s ordinance responded to advocacy and direction from faith and housing stakeholders, including historically Black churches in the Central Area, where displacement has reduced the Black population from more than 70 percent of residents in the 1970s to less than one-fifth of the neighborhood today. Many religious institutions are experiencing shrinking congregations due to displacement, declining financial resources, aging facilities with deferred maintenance, and underutilized land. This new tool can help faith institutions address these challenges through redevelopment to provide critical affordable housing, offer supportive services, and maintain their presence and role in the neighborhood.
“The Nehemiah Initiative Seattle has been extremely pleased to collaborate with the OPCD on this historic land use ordinance,” said Donald King, FAIA, President and CEO of Nehemiah Initiative Seattle. “We greatly appreciate our committed partners in OPCD and the Seattle City Council on our mission to save Black churches in central Seattle through redevelopment of their underutilized property for affordable housing. Through the 2020 Nehemiah Studio at the UW College of Built Environments, we worked closely with OPCD to test the proposed bonus and provide students with real-world public policy engagement. This ordinance should not be the end to restorative justice for past land use injustices to the Black community, and our forward-looking City policies must expand the density bonuses for affordable homes to other institutional land in communities harmed by legalized segregation, exclusionary zoning, and redlining.”
Seattle’s faith community has a long history of building affordable homes with the help of the City’s housing levy and other public funds. But while religious organizations own property across all Seattle neighborhoods, in some areas affordable housing investments have not been financially feasible or possible under land use rules. Occasionally, faith organizations pursue a zoning change to make their project work — a costly, time-consuming, and unpredictable process that this new legislation can help avert. In Neighborhood Residential zones, where many religious sites are located, this tool helps faith-based organizations create affordable homeownership options that otherwise aren’t feasible or allowed.
“This ordinance is an example of policy that honors the efforts and stated needs of Black residents working to address displacement and housing exclusion, such as the Nehemiah Initiative,” said Joey Lopez of the Church Council of Greater Seattle. “Through the Faith Land Initiative, we support faith communities in a process of discernment to shift towards acts of restoration and community stewardship of land. One in five of those faith communities are considering developing affordable housing. This tool allows congregations to quickly add a sizeable number of units or to consider using the density bonus to accommodate larger units that support families and curb displacement.”
When faith-based organizations use this new tool to develop income-restricted affordable housing, they are likely to pursue public funding from the Office of Housing and/or other public sources. Each year, OH makes local investments to support construction, rehabilitation, and acquisition of affordable homes, drawing on various funding sources including the Seattle Housing Levy and developer contributions through Mandatory Housing Affordability and Incentive Zoning.
“Meaningful solutions to address the housing affordability crisis require committed partnerships,” said Maiko Winkler-Chin, Director of the Office of Housing. “Through our work with OPCD and Seattle’s faith institutions, we now have an additional tool to increase long-term affordable housing in our communities. We are grateful for the State’s recognition of Seattle’s regional leadership in crafting new housing strategies.”
We are already seeing results from this legislation. In just the first year following adoption, the City has received development applications from several religious organizations seeking to use this development bonus. For example, in the Central Area, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd and low-income housing developer LIHI (Low Income Housing Institute) was awarded $8.3 million by OH for the creation of Good Shepherd, a low-income housing building that will provide 102 affordable homes.
As we plan for the future of housing in our city through the One Seattle Comprehensive Plan, we will look to build on this tool and ensure our growth strategy and development rules support our goals to increase affordability and address displacement.
For more information:
Jason Kelly, OPCD: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Haugen, OH: email@example.com
Affordable Housing on Religious Organization Property website: https://www.seattle.gov/opcd/ongoing-initiatives/affordable-housing-on-religious-organization-property