by Will Sweger
In the wake of passing the Employee Hours Tax or Head Tax, Seattle, in partnership with King County and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is sponsoring the creation of an interactive public land map to identify sites within the city suitable for low-income housing and other public amenities like child-care.
Representatives from Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit development and housing advocacy organization, presented a prototype version of the public land map to a committee of the Seattle City Council last week. M. A. Leonard, Market Leader for Enterprise Community Partners in the Pacific Northwest, told the committee the use of public land for low-income housing development constitutes “an opportunity for you to fight the tidal wave of stuff that’s happening to make the city less affordable.”
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda invited Enterprise to give the presentation and spoke out on behalf of using public land for low-income housing development. “When we build affordable housing on publicly owned land, we ensure that our public dollars actually go further, so while we accomplished getting around $50 million in hand with the Employee Head Tax, the point is to make those dollars go further,” she said. “We can do that by building on public land.”
Mosqueda tied in her seat on the council to the struggle for housing and equity in public health outcomes. She explained, “For me, the entire purpose for being here is making sure that your zip code does not determine your health outcomes or your life expectancy. As we have a conversation about building affordable housing, we’re talking about increasing access to resource-rich neighborhoods next to schools and childcare facilities and parks and transit lines. This is how we will create greater housing equity and true opportunities for communities. I don’t want that to get lost. This type of tool can help us accomplish that goal.”
The aim of the project is to provide a measurement of how much public land within the Seattle city limits—including land owned by the City of Seattle, King County, Washington State, Public Utility Districts, the Port of Seattle, and Sound Transit—is available or underutilized and could be used for affordable housing.
The map database includes search features allowing users to filter by the size of the land parcel, its proximity to public transit, preschools, zoning laws, and a plethora of other factors including city council districts. Land owned by non-profits is also included in the database.
The land information is drawn from records gathered by the King County Assessors’ Office. In putting together the map tool, Enterprise found over 10,000 parcels of land in King County that are publically owned and might be suitable for the construction of low-income housing.
Enterprise expects to release a beta version of the search engine this summer along with a survey for non-profits and public organizations. A broader, public release will follow in the fall after further refinement from that feedback. Eventually, users will be able to use the search engine via Enterprise Community Partners’ website.
Following the compromise head tax proposal Mayor Jenny Durkan signed into law, the city is expected to raise $48 million in revenue. The City Council is advocating for using two-thirds of the new revenue on affordable housing projects.
On understanding the difficulties behind identifying public land for low-income housing and other public uses, James Madden, a Senior Program Director with Enterprise Community Partners explained, “For a city to understand what the state has or the county and so on can be difficult. It can also be difficult across silos. We have transportation needs and transportation ownership of land, we have park needs and park ownership of land, and education needs and education ownership of land, and so on. Identifying the opportunities where we could do those things together can be a real challenge.”
He explained, “We are investing dollars in particular sites where the public agency or non-profit owner has said, ‘You know, this parking lot could be redeveloped. This site is under-utilized and we’d like it to be redeveloped and we’re not quite sure how to get there.’ With support from the Gates Foundation, from the City of Seattle, and from King County we’re able to devote some resources and some staff time to actually go and do the investigations on the site.”
Site investigations include environmental assessments, geo-technical inspections, and hiring an architect to create a conceptual plan for potential development. If the owner agency is still interested, the search can then begin for a non-profit developer to take up the project.
“I would love for this tool to create conversations and to create partnerships against some of the artificial lines we’ve drawn,” Madden concluded. The Gates Foundation has funded the project for three years, meaning the database will continue to receive updates once it goes live for the public.
Will Sweger is a contributor at the South Seattle Emerald. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle, The Urbanist, and Cascadia Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to the Seattle City Council