Pushing the Boundaries of Affordable Housing
With their associated regulations and additional costs, affordable housing mandates are one set of hurdles developers face when seeking approval for new housing projects. The perceptions of affordable housing and gaining public support is another. Over several projects1, and through direct community involvement, Otak has been addressing these obstacles with success, helping guide new housing projects to completion—often with innovative solutions. While each situation has been unique, the common denominator has been a collaborative and integrated community approach.
Changing City Codes, Expanding Development Options
Cristina Haworth, a Senior Planner in Otak’s Redmond, WA office, has been working with cities to solve the housing shortage many communities are facing, which is paving the way for a broader application of affordable housing solutions. For example, the City of Bothell, WA, a small, but quickly growing city outside of Seattle, was awarded a grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce to implement HB1923. The grant funds the development of housing action plans, municipal code changes, subarea planning, and environmental reviews—actions intended to encourage the production of more housing and a greater variety of housing types.
Cristina has been helping the City of Bothell in amending its housing codes in response to this grant and leveraging the opportunity to create more diversity in the types of housing allowed in new developments. She explains: “While the work is not directly related to affordable housing, the results are having a positive impact in this area. The new codes are providing greater housing choice, which is increasing both capacity and affordable housing opportunities more broadly.” Specifically, the City has raised its short plat thresholds, making it quicker and easier to divide larger lots into single-family city lots within new subdivisions, and has authorized a duplex on existing corner lots in the city. These duplex units are still market-rate, but their size and configurations make them effectively more affordable. The added caveat is that these units are not regulated as affordable housing, which keeps the developer’s costs down. Cristina is working with the City to consider options for allowing one or more multiplex units in new subdivision projects that could potentially be regulated as affordable housing to ensure these needs are met.
Overcoming Rising Costs
Affordable housing projects often cost more than market-rate housing, which can deter developers who need to maximize profit margins for a project to be viable. As Matt Neish, Otak Senior Project Manager, elaborates, “Affordable housing is a tightly regulated sector and is typically significantly more expensive to build. The higher cost presents a problem because a developer could build maybe twice as many market-rate units.” While there are funding sources available, the process can be complex to navigate and may require multiple sources to achieve adequate project funding. This is an area where Matt and Otak have been able to step in and help, “Affordable housing is an evolving sector, and we are seeing more of a nuanced approach to development that takes into consideration a variety of factors and opportunities to help offset costs.” Otak is taking strides to work with developers to determine project scope and viability at the outset. “This is especially helpful for developers who may not have done an affordable housing project before,” Matt explains. He adds that “trying to go back and rework a project after the fact can be an extremely costly and difficult process, so doing our due diligence ahead of time is critical.”
The public work Cristina and others like her are doing concerning code amendments is also helping to ease the higher costs of affordable housing. She states that “when we’re approaching code amendments, we’re trying to look at ways to include affordability requirements or even just make the process a little bit easier. So instead of having to go through a longer land use process to get approval, we are trying to find ways to make sure that a developer can use an administrative process instead. This has the potential to save a lot of time and cost, and it makes things quite a bit more efficient in terms of the permitting process to get to project delivery.”
Adding Density Through Disbursement
What is happening in Bothell is part of a larger movement to create more affordable housing through density and disbursement of higher capacity lots and multiplex units throughout a proposed subdivision. Tim Leavitt, PE, Otak Regional Director for Oregon and Southwest Washington, notes that the thinking on affordable housing has evolved, “The traditional approach is placement of all affordable housing units into one area of a project site. We work with our clients to effectively integrate the project to accommodate a mixing of housing choices throughout the project site.” Through a co-mingling of market-rate and affordable housing products, the result will be a more cohesive and balanced neighborhood.
Another example of an integrated approach to new housing projects is Hyatt Place in downtown Portland, OR. This mixed-use high-rise includes a hotel, and housing, with some units designated as affordable housing. Rather than contribute to a general fund, the Otak team worked with the developer to include affordable housing units within the new building—the benefits of which were two-fold. First, the move to include affordable housing in the project allowed the developer to take advantage of new height allowances within the newly revised city code. Further, tenants of the affordable housing units will have access to the same amenities within the building and the surrounding community as the rest of the tenants. To gain approval of the new building, Otak worked with the neighborhood and the city to ensure all concerns were addressed and the building’s design embraced the history and culture of the neighborhood.
Creating Community and Place
The approach to affordable housing, in general, is being done differently today than in the past. “Affordable housing is no longer about designing and building ‘big barracks’ style housing as cheaply as possible just to fill state or city mandates. A lot more attention is being focused on how a place will function, and how it fits into the larger community,” Matt asserts. He further explains Otak’s approach stating that “what we do is integrate these projects the best we can into the existing communities and not make them be a piece that stands out on its own. The extent we can incorporate open space, trails, plazas, parks, transit connections, even commercial activities into and around housing developments, will go a long way towards integrating affordable housing into a community.”
This place-making and community mindset is a driving force in how Otak approaches each project. It is also integral to the firm’s employee involvement with various organizations, including the Portland Planning Commission. “We’re helping guide missions and policies and the evolution of community development and planning to incorporate affordable housing into our communities,” Tim states. “We’re not just putting up buildings. We are also creating public spaces for all community members to come together.”
Advocacy and Collaboration
Taking a broader community approach to the design and construction of affordable housing units in new subdivisions and existing neighborhoods has been key to Otak’s success in this arena. The recently completed Fields Apartments in Tigard, OR, and the South Cooper Mt. Community Project in Beaverton, OR, are two examples where the Otak team has proactively and collaboratively worked with the cities, residents, and developers to create designs that addressed neighborhood concerns, satisfied mandates, and ultimately won approval. “By engaging with the residents and taking their concerns into consideration, we were able to overcome objections,” Matt states. Additionally, with The Fields project, “by framing the project around housing for working-class families, we were able to present the proposed housing project in a positive light,” Matt explains. In this manner, Otak was also advocating on behalf of the developer who was seeking project approval.
Looking at the Big Picture
Otak has the capacity to remove some of the complexities and barriers around affordable housing, including public perception, and to better integrate affordable housing into communities. “We are addressing an important aspect of the stigma of affordable housing,” Matt states. “Projects of this nature often face considerable public opposition, yet separating them from the rest of the community only serves to compound the problem.” As a multidisciplinary firm, Otak has the internal knowledge and resources to help cities and developers navigate complex zoning regulations, design, review and permitting processes, and funding options. This is coupled with Otak’s community mindset, which demands a big picture perspective and is the driving force behind the firm’s integrative approach to community planning and affordable housing. “Having an understanding of the big picture, and being able to plan through the construction and engineering, natural resources, and transportation, and how to integrate it all allows us to bring so much more to the table for a developer,” Matt stresses. “We’re not just solving one piece of the puzzle, we are offering solutions on multiple fronts and building resilient communities people want to live in.”
- The Fields Apartments: Affordable Housing; weds with Nature, Urban Transit, and a 40-Year Old Neighborhood
- Construction Underway at Elwood Affordable Housing Community Project in Vancouver, WA
- Otak’s South Cooper Mt. Community Project Design for Wishcamper Wins Approval