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Seattle light rail supports affordable housing

The Seattle-Puget Sound region has become one of the most attractive in the nation: a combination of expansive natural beauty, a healthy lifestyle culture, a vibrant, interesting, accessible downtown, a center for high-tech opportunity and entrepreneurship, and a mecca for Millennials. Oh, and there’s all the coffee. But with that popularity spread over so wide a geographical area, the twin challenges of transportation and affordable housing become almost inevitable.

Yet Seattle has long been known for its innovative approaches, one such approach is in the works that endeavors to address both challenges at the same time. Sound Transit is the area transportation authority, and Sound Transit 3 is a ballot initiative that voters will consider in November 2016. ST3, as it is now, is intended to build upon the existing mass transit system of light rail, commuter rail and bus services to take people further and faster to destinations throughout King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

By 2040, planners say, the region will have nearly a million more residents – an increase of 30% – and support more than a million new jobs, greatly increasing travel demand. With the Central Puget Sound region responsible for 70% of Washington State’s economic activity, improving the region’s transportation system is considered critical.

The key feature of ST3 is the largest expansion of the light rail system the region has considered. Taking a comprehensive approach to regional planning, the state legislature has mandated that Sound Transit systematically buy up more land than it needs around each new transit station. Eighty percent of land purchased in the development of the new light rail extensions must be offered up first for affordable housing. This, in turn, would immediately help to center commuter populations around the new stations. The developer of the housing sites must then make 80% of the units available to those under 80% of area median income. In King County, this would translate to no more than $46,100 for an individual or $65,800 for a family of four.

Sound Transit has been instructed to discount the land below fair market value and incorporate this into its financial projections. If it is approved by voters, a $20 million loan fund would be established for this purpose.

Last September, King County Executive and Sound Transit Board Chairman Dow Constantine announced an initiative to create 700 units of affordable workforce housing in mixed-use, mixed-income communities around stations. These Transit-Oriented Developments, or TODs, would include housing, shopping, schools and job centers.

“Light rail has the power to transform communities,” Constantine stated. “With this vision, we can be deliberate about creating vibrant, walkable, economically diverse neighborhoods around new and existing stations. Using funding tools authorized by the legislature, we can create at least 700 units of permanently affordable workforce housing to help meet the regional need, while catalyzing market-rate residential and commercial development near rail stations.”

The TODs would be funded by as much as $45 million in King County housing bonds, a revolving loan fund called the Regional Equitable Development Initiation (REDI), as well as the $20 million loan fund created specifically for affordable housing.

As the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County puts it: “Aligning land disposition/acquisition policies and affordable housing goals provides local flexibility, creates government efficiencies, facilitates dense development to achieve environmental goals, increases transit ridership, and achieves the fullest public benefit from transit investment.”

Kelly Rider, the consortium’s policy director, told Seattle’s alternate weekly The Stranger, “Instead of Sound Transit just going in and saying this is about the miles of rail and how cheaply can we do it, it’s ‘How do we make sure there’s a better community here when we leave it?’”

The outcome of the voting is far from a sure thing. Critics say that light rail will still serve only a relatively small minority of the regions commuters and there is no assurance suburban commuters will embrace it as city dwellers have. Many areas will not be served for years, and the overall price tag and likelihood of cost overruns remain controversial subjects. Altogether, ST3 calls for a $50 billion outlay with a 25-year build-out.

The “80-80-80” concept, merging affordable housing with public transportation, is thought to be unique in American urban and regional transit planning. But if it goes through in the November vote, officials in both fields hope it will serve as a regional blueprint and a national model.