The $15 Debate

July 2nd, 2014 by Bellwether Staff

By Heather Song, Bellwether’s Executive Assistant

This is a big deal. Seattle City Council just approved a gradual increase of the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. Seattle is indeed the bellwether when it comes to the national debate over the minimum wage.

This debate is an interesting one for me personally because if you were to ask me before, if the minimum wage should be increased, I would not have to think about it. Yes! Of course! Seattle already has one of the highest minimum wages in the country but also a high cost of living and the people who work minimum wage jobs still struggle to afford basic necessities. Especially if they have a family to support.

This article from March discusses the results of a UW study that looked at how a $15 minimum wage increase would affect Seattle’s population. Overall, it’s pretty clear that the increase will help at least a quarter of Seattle’s working population. It’s also clear that the hospitality and restaurant industries will be most affected.

As with any debate, there are two sides. $15NOW is on the extreme side in favor of the increase. They wanted it across-the-board and they wanted it immediately. Nick Hanauer, a multimillionaire and staunch supporter of the $15 minimum wage, was on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s advisory committee and he gives some great insight in this Politico piece into why this minimum wage increase is important, for individuals and for the economy. Based on this article, I think the Mayor’s group did a good job working together to make a plan.

On the other side of the coin are those who think that raising the minimum wage will kill small businesses and make everything more expensive for the consumer. This Forbes article states that it will actually hurt low wage workers because businesses will have to reduce their staff in order to afford the new wage. There are even some minimum wage earners who are against raising the minimum wage. In this letter, Tom Douglas gives a very clear indication of how an across-the-board minimum wage increase could affect the restaurant industry. And he does a good job convincing me that a very studied and careful approach is needed.

A lot of the debate is focused on the restaurant industry and tipped employees. And they almost convinced me that this large of an increase is not a good idea. However, we can talk about the tipped workers and the cost increase to consumers as much as we want, but I think that’s missing the point. While it’s true that some tipped professionals do really well and are fortunate to work for restaurants like the ones Tom Douglas owns, others are not so lucky. They work a food service job where tips are hard to come by. Or they clean hotels, or work in hospitals, or nursing homes. It’s for those workers that this increase is important. We still live in an expensive city with an incredibly high cost of living. If a $15 minimum wage can alleviate some struggle. I’m all for it.

What about you? How do you feel about the $15 minimum wage ordinance? Will it have a positive or negative impact on your life?

America’s Service Commissions (ASC) and Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP) have recognized the joint efforts of 501 Commons and Bellwether Housing. During 2013, both organizations worked to create emergency preparedness plans for three of Bellwether Housing’s apartments: Security House, Kingway Apartments, and Tate Mason Apartments. Consultants with Volunteer Generation Fund (VGF) acted as liaison to ensure that the project was completed.

Teams of 501 Commons’ VGF Service Corps members (1) assessed current emergency procedures at each building (2) collaborated with Bellwether staff to create improved guidelines unique to each apartment building, and (3) trained staff and residents about how to implement the plan.

The third edition of the publication Transforming Communities through Service: A Collection of the Most Innovative and Impactful National Service Programs in the United States includes programs that have a lasting impact on the community. In addition, the program must be innovative (for example, cross-program connections, programs that can be nationally replicated). Bellwether’s emergency guidelines project met both qualifications.

“Our property management staff is excited to share this program among all of our properties. And we’re equally pleased that other nonprofit housing organizations across the nation will benefit”, said Sue Selman, Bellwether Housing’s Director of Property Management.

The program will be highlighted in 2014 Innovations in Civic Participation & America’s Service Commissions Innovative & Impactful Programs publication. The expected release date is early 2014. Here is a sample of Bellwether Housing’s Resident Quick Reference Handout.

SNAP: More Than a Supplemental Benefit

February 12th, 2014 by Bellwether Staff

By Zemzem Ainan, Bellwether’s Administrative Assistant.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program commonly referred to as SNAP, is a federal aid program that provides food purchasing assistance for people who are low-income or have no income. SNAP is the largest nutrition assistance program and its caseload has increased substantially as a result of the recent economic crisis, in addition to rising food prices. Both of these challenges make it that much harder when it becomes the main source in obtaining food for some.

This past November across the board cuts were scheduled for the SNAP program. For example a household of four receiving $668 per month would see a decrease of $36 per month to their purchasing power. According to this report,  the previous benefit levels were seen to be quite inadequate. Cutting these benefits now will push more families into deeper hardship. “This includes 22 million children in 2014, 10 million of whom live in ‘deep poverty,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Report on August 2nd, 2013. Many of the households that will be negatively impacted include households with children, elderly people, and folks living with disabilities.

On February 4th the farm bill was finally passed by the House and Senate, and signed by President Obama three days later. According to this New York Times article, the poor did not fare as well. “Anti-hunger advocates said the bill would harm 850,000 American households, about 1.7 million people spread across 15 states, which would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits”, due to cuts to the SNAP program.

With the current climate that very low-income families are facing, it looks to be an uphill battle to stretch their resources even further to cover their basic needs. It’s very likely that some households will have to make a choice between food and paying rent. If households facing this hardship had affordable housing available to them, they might be on a better footing to face such new challenges. When families and households have access to affordable housing near schools, health providers, and employment opportunities, their basic cost of living is brought down. When the cost of transportation and commute time can be cut, along with cost of living, households can then have a better chance of adapting to cuts to their purchasing power. Low-income households may not have any control over cuts on federal and state benefits, which can negatively impact their lives and well-being. Having access to affordable housing, gives low-income households the ability to have some control over their basic needs, and the ability to cover their basic household expenses when such cuts are administered to such programs as SNAP. Affordable housing may not be a cure-all or even available to everyone who needs it, but it can be a life preserver for the working poor in creating stable homes for their families; allowing them to be able to handle and manage situations such as the cuts to the SNAP program.

Common Ground and Bellwether are Now One Organization

October 1st, 2013 by Bellwether Staff

Merger Announced:

Bellwether Housing Brings on Board the Expertise of Common Ground.

Merger Sustains 33-Year History in Which the Two Nonprofits Developed Over 11,000 Affordable Homes in Washington State.

Bellwether Housing announced a historic merger with Common Ground, taking effect today, October 1st. The merger allows two of the premier local affordable housing champions to continue to address critical housing needs of low-income people in a sustainable fashion despite challenging economic times. In total, the groups estimate that they have developed more than 11,000 affordable homes over their shared history, in Seattle, King County and diverse communities throughout Washington State.

At Bellwether Housing’s annual fundraising breakfast at Benaroya Hall last week, Bellwether Housing Executive Director Sarah Rick Lewontin explained, “Bellwether Housing is joining forces with Common Ground to form one – stronger - nonprofit development consulting services organization. By expanding our capacity, we can provide better service to area nonprofits and better meet the growing affordable housing needs of the community.” Common Ground Executive Director Scott Schaffer added, “Our two organizations have a shared 33-year history, and we are thrilled by the opportunity to merge forces with Bellwether to provide even stronger service to our region.”

Six Common Ground staff members will join Bellwether Housing, for a combined staff of about 90. Their work will benefit individuals and families who might otherwise face homelessness or make hard choices when all of their paycheck goes to rent, from youth to seniors, mentally ill, domestic violence victims, Indian tribes and others trying to make ends meet with wages that barely cover housing expenses. The combined organization will continue to work with other nonprofits that provide social services but need expert help to provide affordable housing solutions to address their clients’ basic need for shelter.

The organizations’ combined strengths and unique perspectives will offer clients exceptional service in three main categories that result in high-quality, sustainable housing to people in need. Joint project development includes mixed-use projects that combine nonprofit or commercial uses with affordable housing, projects requiring experienced co-ownership during a period of organizational capacity-building, as well as larger mixed-income housing projects. Development services include real estate and land use analysis, financial analysis, project funding identification and applications, identifying and negotiating with project lenders and investors, managing project permitting, design and financing, and overseeing construction. Finally, asset management and optimization services include financial sustainability analysis, capital needs assessments, financial repositioning of assets, tax credit partnership exit strategies and negotiations, energy audits, and financing and implementing “green” retrofits.

Rent increases – what can we do about it?

August 27th, 2013 by Bellwether Staff

Increasing rents and (the lack of) rental affordability have been in the news a lot lately (as have attempts to explain what’s going on). And yet, with all the coverage I’m still perplexed!

The market will take care of itself.  This is a classic phrase that gets mentioned often by proponents of a free market economy.  This concept suggests that an unhindered supply and demand of apartments – with no government regulation or control – will lead to a balance: add apartments throughout the city (increasing the supply) and the rental price goes down (because there’s less demand). But, here’s the thing: it doesn’t seem to be working in Seattle.

If Seattle has more apartments than ever, then what explains the high rents? According to this report from KUOW’s Weekday, Seattle has added close to 2,000 apartments this year. But that doesn’t explain the high rents. This article makes it clear: Seattle’s employment growth is partly to blame. As more people move to Seattle for work (no doubt good  for our city), the demand for housing goes up. And those who can afford the steep rents are snatching up the apartments. This has transformed the rental market. Capitol Hill has experienced the biggest increase in average rents, now $1,395 per month. And the Downtown neighborhood is now the most expensive – more than $1,700 per month on average.

2,000 new apartments sounds like a lot, but it isn’t, really. Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan anticipates 47,000 new households and 84,000 new jobs by 2025. But of course we know that many of these new jobs will not pay enough to afford in-city rents! We also know that the city is currently not keeping up with the need for affordable housing. This report has a goal to add roughly 17,000 new affordable units by 2025. It just isn’t enough – especially given that more people are finding work in lower-paying jobs like the service industry.

So, what’s the solution?  Finding an affordable apartment has become half the battle for residents in Seattle. Current residents struggle with the soaring rent prices once lease renewals roll around. At times these increases can be so high that residents are priced out of their apartments. Affordable housing counters this trend, and allows a more stable rental history for residents. Organizations that offer affordable housing through tax credit and bond programs follow strict guidelines in setting rental prices and maximum rent limits. So one’s rent might go up – but nominally, in comparison to market-rate apartments. And even more importantly, there is a maximum rent cap, allowing residents to have peace of mind, and stable homes they can afford, now and in the long term.

I think the answer is pretty obvious, if not simple. The city must ensure that all new developments include affordable places to live. As an organization focused on rental affordability, we see the challenges that low-income people face every day just trying to afford rent. And qualification is no guarantee of housing: we have long waitlists on many of our buildings for those residents who should be able to move into an affordable home.

More affordability. It will keep our city vibrant, and diverse.

Mark your calendar! Thursday, September 26, 2013, Bellwether will host its third annual breakfast event!

Did you know? We’re celebrating 33 years! What was going on in Seattle 33 years ago and why is that significant? We are excited to have Feliks Banel (This NOT Just In) join us this year to speak to the history of the city and the importance of Bellwether’s roots. We hope you can join us for an engaging event.

You can learn more about sponsorship, being a table captain, and registering for the event, at Closer to Home.

aPodments™: a Panacea?

June 18th, 2013 by Bellwether Staff

Today’s guest blogger is Heather Song, Executive Assistant at Bellwether.

Microhousing. This is not a new topic.

We’ve even touched on it before in a past blog. The feelings about microhousing or aPodments, as trademarked by Calhoun Properties, run the gamut. From dislike and a fear of what they might bring into a neighborhood to a feeling that they are good for the city and the answer to the city’s affordable housing needs. There was an article in the May 8th edition of The Stranger titled The Fight Against Small Apartments, written by Dominic Holden. It was a well-researched, well written, article that got my brain churning on how I feel about these controversial buildings.

On the one hand…

Many of the arguments against microhousing come from neighborhood groups. Their opposition spans from fears that the buildings won’t hold up and are a fire danger, to fears about what types of people will move into their neighborhoods.

And the other…

On the other spectrum, developers and other supporters alike, feel that microhousing is the housing market’s way of correcting for a specific need – affordable housing. As Seattle gets more and more expensive to live in, there is a need to find creative ways to keep city living accessible to all income levels. And because these developments don’t require Housing Levy funds or other designated federal/state/city funding to be built they are an attractive solution. Consider this recent article
about the high levels of suburban poverty as more and more people are forced out of urban living – I can see how that could be a convincing argument.

My response

So with both of those perspectives in mind, here are my thoughts:

My first reaction is; what’s the big deal? I think microhousing has a place in the city and I think it’s meeting a growing need. And if a neighborhood is zoned to allow them and they are built well and safely, follow building codes, and use lasting materials, then I don’t see a problem. I understand that the neighborhoods might change, parking will get tighter, and there will be more people around. But nobody likes change at first, and isn’t that last one a good thing?

To the people who argue that the population of people these buildings will house will be transient and “sketchy” because of the affordability of the rent: it’s true that a month to month lease and a younger demographic will probably mean a more fluid population in the neighborhood. But keep in mind that the apartments are considered affordable for the neighborhood they are in. They are still not cheap. More importantly, why are the people who need an affordable rent “sketchy”? A bank teller, department store clerk, hospital staff, barista, teacher; do they all sound sketchy? They just want to live close to where they work.

To those who argue that micro apartments are the answer to our affordable housing needs, I have three points. First, they do not address the need for affordability for families, obviously. Second, they do not address the need for affordability for a growing population of low-income seniors – with their own unique set of needs. And finally, unless the developer took advantage of the city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption Program, not one of those units has any restrictions to keep them affordable.  So, as with any market, as the demand rises, so will the prices. Lack of restrictions also means that those truly in need of an affordable place are in competition for these units with those who are just interested in living in a smaller space. If you read this KUOW article, you’ll learn about a homeowner who rents out his Capitol Hill house and lives in a micro apartment when he’s in town. My suspicions are that many of these micro apartments will rent to those with means, but choosing to live small. Not those who would truly benefit from the affordability of the rent.

Panacea – yes or no?

So, are aPodments a panacea for Seattle’s growing affordable housing needs? No. They can be a part of the solution, certainly, but they are not the answer. They are a great option for students, single people, those who are just interested in downsizing, or having a smaller footprint.  And, as long as they stay affordable, they are a viable option for lower income individuals who truly need an affordable rent.

 

 

 

 

 

ENERGY AND WATER USAGE; A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS

February 26th, 2013 by Bellwether Staff

Today’s guest blogger is Lynda Carey, Construction and Asset Manager at Bellwether

Do you have any idea how much water you use every day?

One of the many wonderful things about living in the United States, and in the Northwest in particular, is that when you turn on the kitchen or bathroom faucet, water comes out. It can be hot or cold! It’s drinkable! There are billions of people in the world who don’t have access to this amazing resource, yet most of us take it for granted – we don’t even know how much we use, or how much we depend on it, until it’s not available. And the same goes for electricity.

We at Bellwether don’t take water or energy use for granted – we’re committed to monitoring the energy performance of our apartment buildings using EPA’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager. We’ll draw on energy usage spreadsheets from this program to evaluate the success of past energy upgrades, compare energy performance to similar building types, and determine the need for future energy efficiency improvements.

No doubt, analyzing energy and water use data in an excel spreadsheet is not pretty and, for most, those spreadsheets might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics.  It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. That goes for graphs too. Using graphs to tell our energy and water usage can be worth a thousand spreadsheets. Below is an example of how we are tracking our buildings’ water usage at Bellwether.

Last year, Bellwether joined the Seattle 2030 District. By becoming a member, Bellwether has made a pledge to work with other building owners and property managers to meet the District goals of a reduction in energy and water usage below the national average by 2015.

We know that our energy picture is already worth more than a thousand words and we’re confident that Bellwether will meet the 2030 goal.

How about you? Are you doing anything to reduce your energy and water consumption? Bellwether is doing this on a large scale but every little bit counts! We’d like to hear what you do in your household.

 

THE LUCK OF THE DRAW

January 28th, 2013 by Bellwether Staff

There was an article in Real Change earlier this month about the lottery for the wait list for Section 8 or “housing choice” vouchers. Next month, Seattle Housing Authority will open its waitlist and more than 10,000 families are expected to apply for only 2,000 open spots. If a lucky family gets picked in the lottery they get a place on the list. According to the article, once on the list, the wait can be years before an actual voucher is in hand. Many give up and move away before their names are up.

So let’s say you are one of the lucky ones. You have a voucher. Let’s even say you’ve had this voucher for many years. Did you know that all it takes are policy changes or budget cuts for the voucher to get taken away? It wasn’t until I read this article back in December that I fully realized this myself. I understand that the Section 8 program is not meant to be permanent. However, even people who are fully employed in service jobs such as retail or landscape maintenance – or people who have ongoing medical expenses – may not be able to pay their rent without Section 8 support.

We know that when a family, an individual, a child, has a stable place to live, other areas in their lives benefit. For example, children do better in school when they have somewhere to come home to every day. Yet this stability is completely lacking in the Section 8 rent subsidy program.

This article in the New York Times talks about the increasing need for affordable housing at the same time that funding and support for the few federal programs that provide housing assistance is decreasing. So unless something changes, the people most in need of stability will continue to live with uncertainty instead.

Organizations that provide affordable places to live are dealing with uncertainty, too. Here at Bellwether, we rely on public funding to build and buy apartments that are affordable – as the public funding shrinks, so does our ability to meet the growing need.

One of the most fundamental needs is shelter, a home, a stable place to live. Once people have that, they can begin to build the rest of their lives on a more solid foundation. Should it really be left up to luck?

What does $5 mean to you?

December 26th, 2012 by Bellwether Staff

I had dinner with a Seattle acquaintance last week who’d recently moved to Texas. She commented that she was shocked to learn that a waiter in Texas could get paid so little (as little as $2.13 per hour before tips). This got me thinking about Washington’s comparatively generous minimum wage of more than $9.00 per hour (it’s still not enough but is the highest in the country) and the social benefit that results from this amount.

At Bellwether we often talk about the benefits that our affordable apartments provide to our residents and throughout the community. One of these is economic: our residents can afford their rent and have more discretionary income to spend on groceries, clothing and other necessities. These purchases directly affect the local neighborhood and have a positive impact on businesses’ bottom line.

Now imagine what a difference a higher wage could make to an individual in addition to an affordable place to live. Economists often write about a “living wage”. But this term is really a misnomer as the wage is not adequate for a decent living. Rather, it covers only the very basic needs and leaves little (if anything) left over. With employment growing the most in the low-wage service industry more frustrated workers are making it clear that they need higher wages just to get by and as the article points out, all it takes are a few extra dollars an hour to equal a few thousand extra a year. And although this may seem like an expensive proposition, consider this report that explains the ripple effect of paying a worker more. The result is the same for those with higher wages and those residents who have affordable rent: more money is put back into the community.

So what would $5 more mean to you?  Take a look at the links in this post and share your thoughts.

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The $15 Debate

By Heather Song, Bellwether’s Executive Assistant This is a big deal. Seattle City Council just approved a gradual increase of the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. Seattle is indeed the bellwether when it comes to the national debate over the minimum wage. This debate is an interesting one for me personally because if you [...]

501 Commons and Bellwether’s Emergency Preparedness Plan Recognized

America’s Service Commissions (ASC) and Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP) have recognized the joint efforts of 501 Commons and Bellwether Housing. During 2013, both organizations worked to create emergency preparedness plans for three of Bellwether Housing’s apartments: Security House, Kingway Apartments, and Tate Mason Apartments. Consultants with Volunteer Generation Fund (VGF) acted as liaison to [...]

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