Vashon HouseHold’s latest housing development will help reduce a waiting list of islanders seeking affordable housing, including senior veterans and those experiencing mental illness and homelessness, according to the nonprofit’s Executive Director Chris Szala.
At the first of several planned meetings last Thursday, in the Vashon Methodist Church, Szala shared highlights of the agency’s progress in bringing the Island Center Homes development to fruition — specifically the award of $3.1 million by King County last December, intended for the construction of five buildings on a 1.3 acre parcel of land at the corner of SW 188th Street and Vashon Highway. Each building would be home to up to eight residents who would share a common area, kitchen and small dining room. Single occupancy rooms, at approximately 330 to 380 square feet, would have their own private bathroom, sink, small refrigerator and microwave.
The Island Center Homes development would join a growing trend of building higher density living spaces in urban and surrounding areas to combat higher living costs, and Szala said such housing on Vashon would go a long way to serving the populations targeted by the project.
A sense of community
At the meeting, Szala acknowledged that the individual units will be more densely arranged than anything built on the island before, but he said he hopes a culture of collaboration and community would emerge among residents sharing the living situation. In renderings prepared by Form + Function, the architectural firm designing the project, many of the apartments have their own balconies with sliding glass doors and receive a lot of natural light. The five buildings will be clad with galvanized metal, Szala said, in the interest of keeping maintenance costs down over the years, as wood and other materials are prone to degradation in the region’s climate.
Slanted, shed-style roofs will be outfitted for solar panels, though those won’t be installed as part of the initial construction scope, according to Szala.
Still, an emphasis on reducing the site’s environmental impact has set it apart even from Vashon HouseHold’s other developments, several of which were designed with “green” elements. Island Center Homes will be built around a 15,000- to 18,000-gallon rain bank that will collect water about nine months out of the year for flushing toilets and doing laundry.
“What we’re really trying to do is minimize our footprint here on Vashon in terms of the water usage for this project. And so that’s going to significantly decrease what we use,” he said.
Szala stated that the people who will be living in Island Center Homes will earn about 30 percent of the area median income or below — an individual earning a max of $25,000 a year, he said, will pay about a third of their income toward rent, and subsidies will make up the market rate difference.
For a time, Vashon HouseHold was proposing that the development would house 32 people, but the county requested that number be increased to 40. Vashon HouseHold complied, and at the meeting, Szala said he wants as many people to get through the door as possible. Two units in each of the main buildings composing the Island Center Homes project will be wheelchair accessible — beyond what county building code and the project’s county and state investors require. He attributed that decision to an increased need for such accommodations in the agency’s other properties.
Szala shared with the approximately 40 people gathered at the meeting that as part of the development, the agency had asked for funding to support a half-time social worker position — at 20 hours a week — to work with residents living in the development. But the county went one step farther and awarded more than the agency asked for to provide for a three-quarter time role, citing an additional emphasis on serving Vashon’s homeless people who would live there.
With this funding provided, Szala said the agency will be able to appoint a professional to act as “a broker to help people get where they need to be.”
But he said he is aware that concern has emerged over who would be living in the development. At the meeting, some islanders asked whether the residents will hold jobs or could be evicted, and for assurance that problem behavior would be managed. One member of the audience asked to know the ethnicity of the development’s target residents.
“It reflects very similar to the island,” said Szala, noting that Vashon is majority white, but that the agency’s other projects serve diverse populations.
“I know what the island is,” said the commenter.
Managing costs and resources
Washington state’s Housing Trust Fund, overseen by the Department of Commerce, did not award Vashon HouseHold the remaining $2.9 million it needs to fully fund the project in the last funding cycle. But Szala noted it was not unusual for the state to withhold funds until local funding, such as from the county, is awarded first, and that the agency will be reapplying for their investment consideration this fall. The project has already been awarded an additional $900,000 in seed money by Impact Capital, a Seattle-based investment firm specializing in assisting nonprofits to increase affordable housing opportunities in Washington state.
Szala said he expects the actual construction of the complex to cost about $4.6 million. The total cost of the development, he said, will amount to roughly $6.2 million — that price tag includes permitting costs, architectural fees, assessing the structures currently at the site for the presence of asbestos and the cost of demolishing them.
Each of the five buildings will run about $135,000 to build, said Szala. He added that throughout the state of Washington, funding for comparable units can go as high as $236,000 each.
“It’s a lot,” said Szala, “but interestingly enough, per unit basis, it’s highly competitive, which is kind of crazy.”
Szala added that the location for the development near town is ideal, as there is no wetland designation on the parcel requiring mitigation, which can be expensive.
Additional funding, said Szala, would be set aside for resolving any issue that arises surrounding the use of water units. To that end, Jim McRae of Water District 19 was on hand to explain their involvement with the project.
The district has separate policies guiding the issuance of water shares for both residential and commercial properties — it originally followed its commercial policy for Island Center Homes, requiring that a water engineer evaluate the site. That engineer assessed the project’s potential water usage and found the development would only require 3.5 water units — using less than 2,000 gallons a day, according to McRae. The parcel is allocated five water units or the use of roughly 4,000 gallons a day.
The Island Center Homes development is unlike anything the district has seen before — neither their current residential or commercial property policies match the project. Confident in the water engineer’s assessment, the district moved ahead and gave Vashon HouseHold the green light, providing them a Certificate of Water Availability (CWA). But an islander complained, saying the district should have followed its residential policies to do it.
District commissioners rescinded the CWA issued last winter after the complaint about the procedure. But McRae said the district’s confidence in the project remains high, and he anticipates the setback will not affect the project. Commissioners expect to issue another CWA to Vashon HouseHold this year.
“They’re going to be using a lot less water; plus with the rain bank, it’ll come down,” he said. “It’s really lower than their limits.”
Support from the county
Jackie Moynahan oversees the capital programs led by the county’s Department of Community and Human Services; that includes the Housing Finance Program, which provides capital funding for affordable housing developments in King County. On the phone, she said Vashon HouseHold was awarded the funds for Island Center Homes because the model the agency put forward would maximize available resources and meet the needs of underserved populations on the island.
“What’s interesting and exciting for us is that we don’t usually get to see the opportunity for new housing on Vashon, and even more specifically, housing that is serving low income and vulnerable populations that this project is aiming to do,” she said.
Vashon HouseHold first announced the possibility of the new project a year ago, after the county created a demonstration project meant to increase the amount and types of affordable housing in unincorporated areas.
Moynahan said the county and Vashon HouseHold are not yet under contract — that will happen pending the completion of further steps by the agency, including an environmental review and the securing of additional financing. She noted that an investment by the state would be critical. Once the agency clears those hurdles, Moynahan said, the county will award the agency the money.
Critics of the project have raised several objections about the development, including its water use, its location at a busy intersection and the size of the housing units, among other concerns. However, the project also has several supporters.
Nancy Vanderpool of the Vashon Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness was at last week’s meeting and said the February snowstorm that brought the island to a standstill was a serious matter for the island’s homeless population.
“We had people show up here at the church who were too frightened to stay in their camp because the limbs were falling out of the trees. And under the trees was where their home was,” she said.
On the phone, Vanderpool said she thought the design renderings shown at the meeting were beautiful, and that she admires the attention given to the environmental impact of the complex. She said there is not enough affordable housing on Vashon to make a difference for all the people who need it right now — the Island Center Homes project, she said, will make her job easier.
“This is long overdue.”
This version of the article clarifies Water District 19’s process of issuing a Certificate of Water Availability to Vashon HouseHold for the Island Center Homes development.