When Phedra Elliott talks, people listen.
Affordable housing supporters hope the Bainbridge Island Planning Commission and City Council also will.
Elliott is executive director of Housing Resources Bainbridge, which provides and advocates for affordable housing. Her expertise certainly was noted during public comments last week as folks asked the commission to pay attention to her concerns.
The commission listened to comments about Bethany Lutheran Church’s affordable housing proposal.
Elliott said some restrictions the commission had recommended would place undue hardship on any construction of affordable housing.
One stipulation the commission had made was that rent be set at 30% of the tenant’s income. The goal was to make sure the rent stays affordable. But Elliott said that measure would make it impossible to come up with a budget for the property because incomes are always changing. She suggested rent be set to Housing and Urban Development standards.
Elliott also questioned numbers established by the commission on how much of the project needs to be rentals and how much needs to be for those with very low incomes. She said such a hybrid-type project would find it difficult to get funding. She said while rental housing is needed, such a setup would make homeownership less likely.
But she does think the project is desperately needed without those limitations. “There’s a need for this and a lot more like it,” she said.
The church has been interested in developing affordable housing for 20 years, and headway is being made after the state passed a law encouraging religious organizations to do such work and receive density bonuses for it. Families of four could gross $75,000 a year and qualify to live in the Bethany project. Other limitations set by the planning commission are green building requirements and post-development evaluations. Also, density was reduced from 24 to 21 houses.
Bob Russell was one of the commenters who supported Elliott’s comments. “You guys aren’t housing experts,” he said of the commission, but Elliott is. “She understands affordable housing.” You should do “whatever HRB recommends.” This should move forward with the restrictions removed, he added.
David Smith, the developer of another affordable BI housing project called Wintergreen, said it doesn’t make sense to have so many rentals because it would cost about the same for someone to own a home there. He also said many people are worried about losing the rural feel of that property, but the homes could be clustered with a community septic system to keep the environment intact.
Tom Croker said he is a supporter of the land trust that has protected many island acres with the slogan Stand for the Land. But he also believes BI needs to “Stand for the People.” He said BI will be more healthy as a community with economic diversity and affordable homes. That would allow families that work here to live here and have their kids go to school here. He also urged commissioners to lessen the burdens on the project that make it less affordable.
Maria Metzler, executive director of Helpline House, said the city has identified affordable housing as its greatest priority. “We have an incredible opportunity here. We are losing people who can no longer afford to live here,” she said. “We can no longer call them our neighbors.”
Jim Hopper of the Bainbridge Community Foundation said such a project would improve the quality of life of all island residents. He works with nonprofits and found that 78% of their employees would qualify to live in this low-income housing. He said teachers and many other talented people can’t afford to live here. “This kind of work is vital to the future of the island.”
Of course, Bethany pastor Paul Stummer-Diers supports the project. “We really want to honor our valued neighbors,” he said. But opponents of the project need to be mindful of our other neighbors, the ones who can’t afford to live here, such as police, teachers, health care and nonprofit employees. “They are valued neighbors as well. There’s little consideration for those who work here,” he said, adding it would reduce traffic and pollution if they live where they work.
To those who say the project is only about money, David Swartling said that’s nowhere near the truth. “Passion for God, Compassion for others, is our motivation,” he said. “It’s not about greed, it’s about need.” He said if it really was about money the church would just sell the property to the highest bidder. “But it’s about neighbor helping neighbor.” He said the commission is worried about unintended consequences, but the worst one would be making the project so difficult to do that it doesn’t get done.
Those against it
About the same number of people spoke against the proposal.
Mary Kristen Clark said a lot of care went into putting together the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and the community needs to stick to it. She said the church’s project should not be approved until it shows its specific plans. She said such developments should occur where they are supposed to – in the Winslow core. She suggested paved areas like the ferry parking lot or Safeway shopping center. “Let’s not preserve such ugliness and overdevelop land outside our core.”
Jim Halbrook said high density is all about greed, and this project would just carve up open space with urban sprawl. He said city commissions are grounded in development, first with corporate and now church power. He said the environment is important to BI, and such projects just lead to “land degradation and destruction.”
Susan Bisnett said she has known for years the church wanted to build affordable housing there, but she was thinking maybe three homes. She said there needs to be better communication about what’s going to happen.
Ron Peltier called the state law flawed. He said the project defies many of the city’s Guiding Principles, including conservation areas, water resources, neighbors concerns, less intensive residential development, open space, agriculture and forest…If they want to change the Comp Plan they can do that with the upcoming update, but until then there needs to be greater weight placed on stewardship, he said.
Jason Wilkinson said the project allows for too much density. He said there is an appearance of impropriety because it doesn’t protect the environment. He said the commission is just encouraging development in rural zones.
Joe McMillan encouraged the process to slow down, as even Elliott had issues with the commission’s recommendations. He said he loves the beautiful, natural, open spaces around the church, and that habitat would be destroyed by the development, which would be a “terrible pity.” He said it violates the spirit if not the letter of intent of the Comp Plan.
Jonathan Davis said the land of each applicant should determine the density. Another caller asked the commission to balance the needs of all, rather than polarizing the situation with an extreme ruling that could hurt other efforts in the future.
Commissioner Yesh Subramanian summed up the objections to the project into six categories: environment (wildlife, trees); water and sewer; mobility, traffic and parking; upzoning (too many homes, too far from Winslow); policy (comp plan, Vision 2050); and other (greed, property values, quality of life).
While more discussion needs to happen with upzoning and policy, he said the other issues can be solved with process and code.
“We need to balance all points of view,” he said, adding the discussion has been a positive democratic process.
Subramanian later asked since the community is so split on the topic if the commission could provide a range of alternatives for the council.
Sarah Blossom, commission chair, said that’s possible, but she’s not sure how welcome that would be.
Commissioner Lisa Macchio said state law is unclear on density bonus, so the council should have decided that. Since it didn’t she has an alternative density bonus position to make sure there is some “wiggle room.” She also said since it’s their job to be consistent with the Comp Plan they should explain why their recommendations were made to adhere to that plan.
Blossom agreed: “There is a lot of subjectivity in the Comp Plan; it’s not black and white.” She also came up with some in-depth possible changes, but the commission decided to hold off on discussing those because the meeting already had lasted over three hours, and it was a lot to take in.
Bill Chester was the only commissioner who referred back to Elliott. “There’s a lot of merit in what Phedra was talking about,” he said. She and HRB are “the experts in the community on affordable housing.” He said they want to be flexible so as not to “throw a roadblock” so the project isn’t successful. He said when looking at zoning codes and their unintended consequences he admitted sometimes they were caused by the planning commission. “What we thought was important may not necessarily fit with affordable housing needs.”
Commissioner Ashley Mathews best explained their dilemma. Someone said Stand for the Land or Stand for the People. “We’re trying to do both,” she said.