Photo depicting festival attendees gathered around a wooden art display at the 2022 Seattle Design Festival.

Modeling a New Housing Method, With Thoughtful Design

by Ashley Archibald

(This article was originally published on Real Change News and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

On a clear day looking out from the park at the southern end of South Lake Union with its low, arching water feature and the gleaming former naval warehouse that is now the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), you’ll see the impressions of the Cascades, made hazy by their deceptive distance.

On one such day, a sunny August weekend that had attracted the usual crowd of kayak practitioners, dog walkers, and wooden boat fans, Denise Henrikson stood next to a model of a terraced hillside set with small, wood boxes representing homes and handmade cardboard trees. It was pointed across the lake and toward the mountains: If proportionally tiny denizens lived there, theoretically, they could enjoy the view. 

Henrikson and the model were there for the Seattle Design Festival, a celebration of innovative ideas and a future that could be. She and the organization she cofounded, EcoTHRIVE, have had a place at the Design Festival for the past two years. In fact, several of the design professionals who have since joined or otherwise worked with EcoTHRIVE discovered the organization there. 

During that time, Henrikson and cofounder Susan Russell, a former Real Change vendor, conceived of, planned, and began the slow work of creating the community represented by the model: a sustainable, intentional village in the truest sense, born out of a sense of joint responsibility and legal ownership.

This could be the year, however, that the village morphs from cardboard and paste animated by dreams into wood and nails, constructed by hands and framed by that gorgeous mountain view.

Photo depicting EcoTHRIVE's cardboard model of the sustainable village it hopes to build.
At the EcoTHRIVE exhibit, visitors maneuvered wood blocks and handmade trees upon a cardboard hill to imagine the sustainable village the organization hopes to build in Burien. Photo is attributed to Trevor Dykstra (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license).

By the end of the year, EcoTHRIVE hopes to purchase a plot of land in Burien. If it closes that deal, it will be the site of a village of 26 homes — ranging between 350 and 650 square feet — and shared communal spaces. Residents will have to make a percentage of the area median income (AMI) — hopefully close to 40–50% AMI, Henrikson said — and will buy a share in the limited equity co-operative, creating an affordable home ownership model that guarantees that the unit will continue to be affordable to the next potential purchasers in perpetuity. 

Unlike “traditional” affordable housing, residents must income-qualify to enter, but not to stay. The ownership model means that if their life circumstances change, they aren’t forced to give up their home or relationships with neighbors. 

“If you own it, there is no disincentive. If you get a better job, you get a better job and you have more money,” she said.

The idea began as an art project. Russell envisioned art as a way to break down barriers between housed and unhoused people and “to replace fear with love.”

Henrikson and Russell approached people — housed and unhoused — with a simple but profound question: What do you need to thrive? 

Hundreds of conversations later, they landed on the village concept and decided to make it a reality.

“How hard could that be?” Henrikson said, recalling their early naivete.  

Financing and building affordable housing differs from market-rate construction in critical ways that add complexity to a process that must already adapt to factors beyond any organization’s control, such as market conditions, supply chains, unit costs, and more.

Land is one of the biggest costs associated with any development, especially in land-scarce areas like the Sound region. Affordable housing developers can sometimes get land transferred or sold below market rate by local governments or other organizations, but it’s possible that they’ll have to buy the property outright, which is what EcoTHRIVE is doing.

Raising money for such a venture is challenging, especially when it comes to affordable homeownership models, which don’t necessarily qualify for the same sources of funding as more typical affordable rental housing.

Even that isn’t simple. The Low Income Housing Institute once told Real Change that it can take as many as nine separate streams of funding to complete a typical project. Willowcrest, an affordable home ownership project in Renton that opened in 2021, required 11 sources of funding to create 12 townhomes, according to Homestead Community Land Trust.

Affordable housing also comes with different and sometimes more onerous construction standards than typical market-rate housing. 

The realities of piecing together a project changed EcoTHRIVE’s target audience. The team wanted to create a community for people in the lowest income bracket — those making less than 30% AMI — but it ultimately didn’t seem doable. 

“The best we can do, and, what we’re shooting for now, is to cap it at 50%. Even that — with all of the increases in cost for labor and materials and land and debt — we’re going to do everything we can to cap it at 50% of area median income, but that’s $55,000 a year!” Henrickson said.

The organization aims to raise $1.5 million to $2 million in order to close on the land sale in Burien before the end of 2022 and pay for early site improvements. It’s already sunk more than $150,000 into design and other “soft” costs, so there is a sense of urgency to get it done.

But Henrikson remains positive not only for this project but also for the possibility of replicating the model elsewhere.

“I think people are going to love living here. The thing that we heard the most is that people want community and that makes a big difference in people’s lives,” Henrikson said.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle Design Festival filled Lake Union Park, Aug. 20, 2022, for the block party that opened a week of events celebrating the theme of “Connection” through design. Photo is attributed to Trevor Dykstra (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license).

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