Is South End affordable housing disappearing? Depends on how you define it

The housing market is hot, no question about that, and despite the dire predictions about the real estate bubble bursting, Southeast Seattle continues to thrive. Housing projects are sprouting up like dandelions on a summer lawn: Rainier Vista, Rainier Court, and Catherine's Place are just a few.

But is the South End, once considered one of the few places in the city where working and middle class folks could get affordable housing, now priced out of reach for its residents?

Ray Anderson, a broker with Springfield Associates Inc., a South End real estate firm, asserts that people truly want to live in diverse areas and stay close to the city.

"For first-time buyers, it can be difficult to find attractive yet affordable housing options in the city," Anderson asserted.

That said, he is excited by the available housing options in the south end and sees great possibilities there. There are zero-down mortgage programs, and programs for first- time buyers where the closing costs are paid, said Anderson.

According to Darryl Smith, a Realtor at Windermere Real Estate in Mount Baker, it all depends on what's called affordable.

"Prices are going up, but there are still affordable and interesting choices out there," Smith said. "Sometimes people chase affordability outside the city, but we have fairly good housing choices in the Rainier Valley at all levels. Even folks who have credit issues. These can be worked out with the right sources."

Cherie Hasson, his colleague at Windermere, agrees.

" The market here is a softening one. Interest rates have inched up," Hasson said. "Also, right now, it's the time of the year with the holidays and a lot of folks are hesitant to sell. They don't want their property to be stale by sitting on the market for a few weeks by the second week in January. This is solely my opinion, but if the house is perfect then you will still see two to three offers on it, but not if the house has issues. People are now not willing to get into bidding wars in these situations."

Hasson feels the key to getting a home is for people to be flexible and find properties where there isn't as much competition for ownership, but she says this with a caveat.

"People need to be careful with what is affordable. Homes that no one is competing for may be because the property is structurally unsound, but that isn't true in all cases," Hasson asserted. "For example, I worked with someone who was qualified for a VA home loan at $145,000 to spend. He was looking at one bedroom condos in a co-op situation - not really a good choice for him and his family. Well, by being flexible they found a place for $145K, a tiny two bedroom house with lots of potential in South Park."

Tweaking expectations

Tony To is the executive director of HomeSight, a non-profit 501(c) 3Community development corporation that wants to help make buying a first home a reality. HomeSight provides purchase assistance loans of up to $45,000 for moderate, and low-income first-time homebuyers.

To believes it is a tough market right now with so much anticipation of growth with Sound Transit's light rail along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

"Light rail is feeding the speculation of the real estate market. On the one hand, it is a means to get downtown in less time, but there is a downside as well," To said. "Certainly the Rainier Valley is relatively more affordable than in other parts of the city. But because of the affordability, higher incomes are moving in here. People can still find homes, but they need to temper their expectations with affordability."

That's all well and good, but what does it mean to temper one's expectations?

"Buyers may have to get a smaller home in a more diverse environment, or perhaps rent by the Light Rail. This might mean they don't own a car, which means no car payment. People need to look at their lifestyles and pick and choose what will be important to them. They also need to look at their expectations . For example, must they have a yard and a house? This is just not realistic with some homes now starting at $300K in the valley."

While some people believe affordability means moving out to the suburbs and beyond, To believes that is not realistic for many people.

"The traffic going into the city is terrible. If you have kids you can't afford to spend three hours in traffic each day. Unfortunately we don't have many quality rentals here, so this puts pressure on the area for ownership," To observed. "Housing has to be a priority for this area. Light Rail will help with transportation, but if there is little affordable housing then the money poured into transportation and education won't matter."

Of course the notion of affordability is relative, said To. In Hawaii the median housing price is $700K for a single family residence, and in Seattle it is nearing $400K. Housing needs to be a priority for the area and especially for southeast Seattle.

"We need a comprehensive approach to affordable housing. In the past, we had a housing levy which helped to subsidize housing, but because of all of the growth here we can't afford to rely on one source," To said. "We need to look at growth management and how it affects affordability. We need to look at land use more closely and consider alternative approaches to providing affordable housing options. The projects that are being built are certainly more cost-effective, but new solutions, and new ways of creating resources, are needed."

A diversity of help

According to Mayor Greg Nickels, the hallmarks of a prosperous city are thriving neighborhoods and healthy businesses fueled by the vision and dedication of the people who live and work there.

"Through our grants, loans, and project management assistance to neighborhood business districts and community-based development organizations, we help ensure that all residents have jobs, homes and access to the goods and services they need," Nickels said.

Again, affordability is a relative term. If you are homeless, or if your income is 50 percent or more below the area median, your needs and priorities are entirely different than the 20- or 30 -something wonk or young couple just starting out.

John Hickman, director of Housing, works for the Archdiocese and Housing Authority, is the driver behind the brand new development, Catherine's Place. This affordable housing development has focused on helping families in need. It has 10 units dedicated to families transitioning from homelessness; five units dedicated to serving HIV affected families; and another 10 for families with very low incomes.

"Our organization serves the people no one else will. We work with multi-unit housing rentals for people who are very low income or extremely low income, usually 50 percent or more below the median. Our clients are people who have issues beyond just housing needs such as drug and alcohol addictions and mental health issues," Hickman said. "Usually there are more reasons why they are low income. So, we provide services to the homeless and provide rent subsidies plus these supportive services right within the building where they live. Our mission is more than just housing. Our goal is to build community and try to hit all of our clients' needs, to build a sense of home and belonging."

Virginia Falcon, communications director for the Seattle Housing Authority, believes housing projects such as New Holly, Rainier Vista, and Rainier Court enable historically poverty based neighborhoods to be self- sustaining since these involve a mix of low income housing as well as homes sold on the traditional market.

"These communities offer the best of all possible worlds - well designed communities, mixed income neighborhoods and a seamless integration of low income housing," Falcon said. "The visitor is hard-pressed to determine which is low income and which is not. Instead of community members being stigmatized by their address, all residents can enjoy equal status."

South End writer Mary Sanford may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]