Quay is pricey, but look at the alternative

The affordable housing equation has many variables.

The price of land.

Design costs and permit fees.

Construction and taxes.

And let’s not forget the political toll – the effort it takes to steer a project through the arena of public process, past neighbors who might support “affordability” in the abstract but who would really prefer to see that vacant lot down the street stay vacant.

So the Quay Bainbridge apartments represent an unusual opportunity for local housing advocates. All the really heavy lifting has already been done – it’s already built – and all that’s required of the city is to write a check. It won’t be a small check; as reported in this edition, the city is being asked to contribute $3.95 million toward the projected $12.6 million it will take to preserve the 71-unit complex (51 units would remain affordable) next to Waterfront Park. It’s the best deal the city – indeed, the Bainbridge Island community – will ever get for low-cost housing.

Not that it advances the community’s housing stock; as Housing Resources Board Executive Director Carl Florea and others note, buying the Quay is a simply rear-guard action to keep the community from falling further behind in affordability. But the best option is always, as we’ve seen in the past, maintaining what we’ve already got. Back in 2000, when the 13-unit 550 Madison apartments were threatened with redevelopment, the local housing authority stepped in to buy the building and maintain it for subsidized rentals. Likewise over the years for the 50-unit Rhododendron Apartments on High School Road, Finch Place downtown and the Serenity House care center at Lynwood – all kept at below-market rates because housing agencies and advocacy groups stepped in to take them over. Most recently, the Housing Resources Board teamed with a private outfit to preserve the 48-unit Island Terrace apartments on Ferncliff Avenue – a great success.

Now it’s the city’s time to step up. And if $4 million for the Quay seems too expensive, ask: what else is out there?

The city was recently handed a million-dollar parcel on Ferncliff Avenue, land that could accommodate perhaps 27 affordable units under maximum density. But will it? There’s no proof that the city can muster the political will to see the property used to its best and fullest purpose. Likewise for city-owned land off New Brooklyn. Housing advocates would like to see up to 100 units there, but such a project would inevitably face opposition over cost to taxpayers, environmental impacts, traffic, or – this usually comes up when subsidized units are involved – neighbor objections about “the kind of people” who might live there.

Even if the political challenges were surmounted, there’s simple cost. Considering the price of new construction, one local developer commented, “The city certainly couldn’t build 51 units for $4 million. I’m not sure they could buy the land for 51 units for $4 million.”

Which leaves the Quay. Clearly, the city can’t just wave a wand and make $4 million appear, but it’s hard to see any better opportunities coming along.

And the toughest part of the equation – getting something built – is already solved.

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