Affordability- an uphill ride
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:12 PM
"When developer Kelly Samson tried to do his bit for affordable housing on Bainbridge Island, he ran head-on into a principle stated in jest by Johnny Carson:No good deed goes unpunished.When it was approved by the city council in 1998, Samson's Weaver Creek development - which provided the land for nine affordable, sweat equity homes - was fiercely criticized by councilman Norm Wooldridge as creating a ghetto, and just the worst design I have ever seen in my life.I wouldn't go through that experience again, Samson said, looking back on the meeting. I broke out in shingles, which is a stress-related problem.What Samson had done was carve up a 5.3-acre tract on Weaver Road, between Rotary Park and Hillandale, into 27 lots - nine of which were sold to the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority for the self-help project. Without the density bonus Samson received for providing affordable home-sites, he would have been limited to 18 homes on the parcel.The nine affordable homes are now getting the finishing touches from their owner-builders, who will move in this fall on a street dubbed Strawberry Place. And in the intervening two years, Wooldridge has mellowed on the project.I think it's a pretty decent development, Wooldridge said Monday. I can't say now to what extent I was being an old grouch and to what extent they may have made changes, but my mind has come around to being much more accepting of it.That mini-drama illustrates a major hurdle facing affordable housing on Bainbridge Island - public acceptance.Observers see several elements at work.On one extreme, public resistance may contain a component of simple class bias - the notion that affordable housing brings a less desirable population to the area.Some of that sentiment was at work in 1993, when the neighbors turned out to protest, among other things, the quality of people who might buy homes at a five-to-seven-home project proposed by the housing authority on Kallgren Road. That project was earmarked for public employees like teachers and police officers, but died for reasons unrelated to public opposition.But the same sentiment appeared to raise its head again last year, when several neighbors of a proposed affordable-housing project in the Fort Ward area said rental housing is the kiss of death for area property values. That plan is still in the application stage.A far different problem is illustrated by Wooldridge's experience - he couldn't envision what the completed project would look like. Now that he sees it, he has changed his mind.That's also a familiar situation. Downtown residents recall the adverse reactions at the concept stage to the Madison Cottages development on the corner of Madison Avenue and Knechtel Way, a project that now enjoys general praise. A more pervasive issue, though, is that affordable housing isn't cost-free. It involves trade-offs of other important values such as open space, views and lack of traffic congestion.There's going to be some pain involved, Samson said. In the case of Weaver Creek, the trade-off was open space. Samson made the individual lots as small as legally permissible - 5,000 square feet. The acreage left over went into pocket parks.The benefit was providing homes to people who have a difficult time getting into the Bainbridge market.A lot of the market-rate houses in there were bought by single moms, Samson said. I'm glad we made a place for them.In his new Blakely Hill development, Samson has run into another situation that he finds puzzling - the requirement for an affordable home in a 13-unit large-lot subdivision, in which the minimum lot size is five acres.A lack of flexibility in the city code means that a single small, affordable home will be constructed - paradoxically - on a five-acre lot.Putting one house on five acres isn't a good use of land, Samson said. It would make more sense to put several homes on that lot, or let me satisfy the affordable-home obligation by buying a lot someplace else.But those alternatives are difficult if not impossible, Samson said, because both involve, at a minimum, a great deal of red tape and delay. The difficulties facing lower-cost housing in general is illustrated by the recent problems developers have faced gaining approval for apartments. Housing advocates say apartments are an important component of affordable housing, because market-rate apartment rents on Bainbridge Island are within the means of people who earn the Kitsap County median income or below.The Bainbridge Island Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1994, discussed the demand for rental housing and the continual near-zero vacancy rate on the island - and included a goal that 400 new rental units be created by the year 2000.But since the plan was adopted, not a single rental unit has been created on the island. To the contrary, 27 units are being lost, as the Driftwood Apartments on South Beach Drive and Victorian Lane apartments off Fort Ward Hill Road are being converted to condominiums. While 51 new units have been approved at Kathy and Morrie Blossom's Lynwood Commons, they won't be built and occupied for at least a year.And it's not like nobody else has asked to build apartments. * Gale Cool's Winslow Landing project, which calls for up to 265 apartment units, is stalled in the planning department. Neighbors have objected to the project on numerous grounds, principally building height.* Doug Nelson withdrew an application for 140 apartments at the Village at Sakai Lakes, after concerns were expressed about increased traffic.* The Bainbridge Island Planning Commission recommended against of the 90-unit apartment component of the Village Square on Hildebrand Lane, after a vocal and organized neighborhood group complained about increased traffic.But some question the logic, fairness or even legality of objecting to apartments on grounds that cannot be avoided, such as density and traffic.You can't add apartments without adding traffic, said island architect and planning commission member Peter Brachvogel. When the Sakai Lakes apartment project was challenged on traffic grounds, city engineer Jeff Jensen maintained that while traffic would increase, it would still be within the comprehensive plan's level-of-service standards - congestion criteria measured by the maximum waiting time at an intersection.Jensen took the position that no environmental impact statement should be required - not because there would not be an impact, but because the city had already decided, through its comprehensive-planning process, that the impact would be acceptable.State law appears to support Jensen's position. A 1995 amendment to the State Environmental Policy Act says if a comprehensive plan specifies certain levels of service, and if the project does not cause those levels to be exceeded, the city cannot impose additional environmental requirements.Councilman Norm Wooldridge said his concern is that several developers will prepare traffic studies that show their individual projects won't exceed level-of-service criteria, but they don't address the cumulative impacts. So in May, Wooldridge suggested a comprehensive traffic study of the area from High School Road to the waterfront, and from Highway 305 west to Grow Avenue. The council agreed. But to date, no request for proposal has been developed, meaning the city can't begin seeking bids. And once bids are accepted, Wooldridge expects the study to take six to nine months.Delay, of course, is nothing unique to affordable-housing projects. But because delay drives up costs by forcing developers to pay expenses without beginning to receive revenue, it hits harder at the lower-cost projects.It's an endless feedback loop, said Winslow Landing's Cool. The neighbors ask you to make changes, then when you do, the planning department says you have to redo your environmental analysis. Then people bring up new objections, and it starts again.Samson, Cool and Brachvogel all agree that affordable housing would come out far better if decision-makers would acknowledge that creating such housing involves trade-offs, then would make the tough decisions required even in the face of public opposition.We like to pretend there aren't any trade-offs, Samson said. But that's not reality. We have to be willing to go ahead anyway. "