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In a changing Seattle, neighborhood advocacy shapes a welcoming future

In neighborhoods as diverse as First Hill, Roosevelt, and Wallingford, residents are banding together to voice their concerns about development - but it’s not what you might think. These community members aren’t arguing about the scale and height of new buildings or the loss of neighborhood character. These neighbors are coming together to advocate for Seattle’s future - and it’s a denser one with ample affordable housing.

Roosevelt and First Hill saw a tremendous opportunity when the Sound Transit board made surplus land it owned in those neighborhoods available for affordable housing development.

The Roosevelt Neighborhood Association (RNA) wanted to ensure that the community’s values influenced how Sound Transit selected the developers of the surplus land near the forthcoming Roosevelt Light Rail Station. Under the guidance of its Land Use Chair, Jay Lazerwitz, the RNA secured a grant to do a thorough community outreach process that included public meetings and focus groups. Out of that engagement came a set of Community Principles.

“We really wanted 100% affordable housing. We wanted family units. We wanted public spaces, daycare, different uses. Those all got put in the Community Principles, which I think are amazing,” Lazerwitz said.

Roosevelt’s Community Principles are deeply reflected in Bellwether Housing and Mercy Housing Northwest’s winning proposal for the site, which will build 245 apartments affordable to people making below 60% of the Area Median Income. 103 of the units are two or three bedroom apartments. The ground floor will offer retail space, a Sound Child Care Solutions affordable, bilingual daycare, and a public plaza.

Scott Cooper, President of the RNA, asserts that the input of his community was taken seriously by Sound Transit and thoroughly incorporated into the selection process for the developer of the site.

“It never felt like there was lip service. It felt like there was honest inclusion,” Cooper said.

Neighbors on First Hill, Seattle’s densest neighborhood, joined together in a similar visioning process for the Sound Transit parcel in their neighborhood.

Alex Hudson, Executive Director of the First Hill Improvement Association, sums up the values that emerged from their community meetings.

“Our organization, and myself personally, are extremely dedicated to access and to sharing this place with everyone,” Hudson said. “I truly, truly believe in the bottom of my heart that it is our moral obligation to ensure that investments that are made in creating a beautiful and functional neighborhood ought to be shared by the greatest number of people possible.”

Today, First Hill residents see their Community Priorities manifested in Bellwether Housing and Plymouth Housing Group’s joint development plan for the Madison/Boylston project.

The two organizations will build the first affordable housing high rise in Seattle in 50 years. Its 13 stories will create 111 affordable homes for formerly homeless seniors operated by Plymouth and 197 affordable homes for families and individuals operated by Bellwether. The building will also feature ground floor retail, a community meeting room, and supportive services for residents.

Neighborhood advocacy helped ensure economic diversity among the new neighbors expected to grow First Hill’s population by 68% over the next five years.

In Wallingford, deep differences of opinion about the merits of the City of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) have welled up over the past few years. One side worries that HALA’s rezones in Wallingford’s urban village will destroy historic character, tree canopy, and naturally occurring affordable housing. Other residents support re-zoning parts of Wallingford to allow for greater density and a wider variety of housing options – rights developers will get in exchange for either building affordable units into their buildings or paying a fee that will support affordable housing developments citywide.

In early 2017, the group Welcoming Wallingford formed with a mission of fostering a productive dialogue about the future of the neighborhood, making space for more people tell their stories and share their perspectives, and working together to build a stronger and more welcoming community.

Jessica Westgren, a Welcoming Wallingford member who rents in the neighborhood, describes how her group’s education and advocacy missions blend together.

“We always try to send a representative to any public testimony or speaking moment when we can let people know that Wallingford is not comprised of the single sided conversation you generally hear from newspapers. We feel that the more we let people know that we exist, and that we are for affordable housing and we are for density changes, then maybe people who are in the grey area will come and talk to us,” Westgren said.

Conversations about affordable housing and density are not merely conversations about what gets built in a neighborhood. They are conversations about who can live in a neighborhood and who feels welcomed in a neighborhood, explains Ben Anderson, a Welcoming Wallingford member who owns a home in the neighborhood.

“A welcoming community means that you’re accepting of people from different walks of life,” Anderson said. “If you only have million dollar homes on your street, your community is welcoming to people who can afford a million-dollar home. Having all kinds of housing for people at different points of life and different income levels is a requirement [for an inclusive community]. It’s about recognizing that neighborhoods are made up of people, not buildings.”

Hudson sums up the shift in mindset that is motivating people to come to terms with growth and advocate that their neighborhoods include homes for people from all walks of life and income levels.

“Not only is there a great understanding of the need, there is an understanding that there is plenty here to share, and there are people who really believe that they have a responsibility and an obligation to not pull that ladder up behind them in terms of access to opportunities,” Hudson said.

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