Legacy of Leadership
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
The more it changes, the more it stays the same.
Looking back on the twenty years I’ve been engaged in the business of providing affordable places to live, I’m struck by how much our region has grown and evolved, and how little the challenge has changed. We use the same phrases today that appeared in newspaper headlines in 2004, the year I was appointed as Executive Director. And in documents I’ve cleaned out of old file folders from 1994 (the year I started working at Seattle Housing Resources Group), the questions have been the same. How can we be sure that people are able to afford to live near the jobs and services they need? How can we give people affordable choices in all neighborhoods, not only where the land is cheapest and access to opportunity is limited?
In some ways, I think our community has made progress. The issue of housing affordability in King County is greater than ever, and although we struggle to keep up with the growing need, we’ve been persistent in creating new tools to enable affordability. Examples such as commercial building bonus payments and residential incentive zoning have helped King County cities build and preserve. We can look forward to bonding against the lodging tax revenue stream for more King County resources in the next few years. And in Seattle, voters have renewed the housing levy an amazing seven times, most recently in 2009 with more than 66% of voters approving it!
But the risk and reality of homelessness has grown during this same 20 years. I feel like a broken record when I say that acquisition and construction costs have risen and at the same time previously reliable and hard-won funding sources like the Washington State Housing Trust Fund and Section 8 vouchers have shrunk. A booming economy and growing income inequality are pricing low-wage working people out of Seattle and other King County cities, to find affordability far from access to transit, jobs, and services. There is still so much work to be done!
I’m grateful to have been an active member of the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County during my affordable housing career. There are so many levels of housing need and so many organizations able to meet those needs in King County. HDC brings us together to share our commitment, making it possible for us to collaborate for better policies and more money, while at the same time our organizations compete for that money. HDC is like a magnet that draws our disparate voices together. It hasn’t been an easy task, but the results – even when they don’t turn out the way we hoped – help make our communities better places to live for everyone.
And the work continues. HDC has built a formidable coalition of like-minded organizations in “Growing Together”. Its dedicated team continues to lead us in advocating for inclusionary housing, incentive zoning, linkage fees, transit-oriented development, and other tools to help address the need for people to have choices about where they can afford to live. And let’s not forget (how could we?) that it’s time to renew the Seattle Housing Levy in 2016.
As a resident of Seattle and King County, I plan to keep advocating for housing affordability. At the same time I’m happy to move beyond my career, making room for others to join the effort and lead the charge. What we do has social, economic, and environmental impact. I couldn’t have asked for a better job, a better organization, or a better community.
To all the members, staff, and supporters of HDC: carry on!
Sarah Rick Lewontin joined Seattle-based Bellwether Housing (formerly Housing Resources Group) in 1994 and has served as Executive Director since 2004. She oversees an organization of more than 100 employees who develop and manage affordable apartments for Bellwether’s Seattle portfolio, now consisting of 1,900 apartments in 30 buildings, serving about 3,000 residents every year. The organization also develops apartments and other community facilities for nonprofits and housing authorities throughout Washington State. Ms. Lewontin is recognized throughout the Puget Sound region as an advocate for and expert on affordable housing and community livability; she serves on the Advisory Board of ULI Northwest and on the Growth Management Policy Board of the Puget Sound Regional Council. She co-chairs the Regional Transit-Oriented Development Advisory Committee and the West Coast Poverty Center’s Housing Roundtable, and has served on a variety of other boards and municipal committees focused on housing affordability.