Opinions vary widely about BI’s affordable housing site

Like a house divided, comments were to the extreme.

It’s a great piece of land—too good for affordable housing. It’s perfect for affordable housing because it’s close to downtown where people work.

Those were the opinions shared at an Open House at the Bainbridge Public Library April 15 on the Winslow Affordable Housing Project.

City manager Blair King and consultant Tory Laughlin Taylor talked about the details of the project and the next steps that the city must take in order to begin construction.

Opinions range widely.

“Bainbridge is turning into a retirement island because of how astronomically overpriced a simple apartment or rental house has become […] There is something extremely wrong with that,” Karen Ware of BI said.

Resident Derek Beals stood against the development and suggested the site become a pocket park instead — “one that mirrors the one across the street.”

“Kingston has done a much nicer job around their terminal. Poorly built affordable housing is not the first impression we should strive for as people come off the ferry,” Beals said.

Juliana Wesner saw some nuance in the proposal. “Affordable housing should be built in the Winslow working district and within walking distance to the ferry, but to build it at the prime confluence of Winslow Way and the ferry entrance is a terrible idea,” she said. “That site should have amenities for the entire island and folks coming and going through the state ferry system.”

King and Taylor explained that after a series of assessments on other city-owned properties, the old police station emerged as the best candidate for an affordable housing project. By the city’s estimation, the Winslow site can fit about 100 units, from studios up to three-bedroom apartments, while remaining within local height restrictions. There would also be room for some retail and commercial space on the ground floor and an underground parking area.

However, because the city is hoping to take advantage of the state Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, the project will have to be 100% affordable housing, King said. At the 0.88-acre lot, a mixed-income development would not be able to subsidize any meaningful affordable housing. Additionally, such a proposal would not be as attractive to developers.

“City Council has already given us permission to seek contracts,” King said. He explained the city is looking for three things in a developer: experience with the LIHTC, financial resources — “as in, can they pay for this?” — and availability.

Debate exploded in June 2023 when the city announced plans to tear down the former police station on the corner of Winslow Way and Highway 305 to make room for an affordable housing development. The 1945 structure was in disrepair, but members of the Bainbridge Historic Commission resigned en masse recently because the city moved forward with demolition April 10 without considering its historic significance.

For some, the Winslow plan is a major step toward a more diverse and robust Bainbridge. The project’s centralized location, in a walkable area close to public transit, is attractive to younger families, people who work downtown and seniors looking to downsize.

It’s also a matter of necessity, they say. Bainbridge scored in the bottom 3% in the nation for affordable housing in 2022 by the National Community Survey. Likewise, a survey by the BI Community Foundation found that only 3% of the 11,000 housing units on BI are affordable. As a result, fewer young families live here, and the school district every year hurts for money due to lack of students.

Additionally, the community is slowly losing its ability to support residents who fall outside of middle class and middle age. For instance, the service industry is the fastest growing economic sector on BI, but nearly 80% of the workforce commutes from elsewhere, a city survey says. On the other side of the spectrum, seniors on a fixed income have nowhere to downsize.

But affordable housing on BI is already in very high demand, some attendees pointed out. There is no way to ensure that the vulnerable communities of Bainbridge would be served by this development — some ask, what’s to stop Seattle commuters from moving in?

“Seattleites are not a protected class,” Taylor said. “The law states that you need to rent to anyone who is responsive to a housing listing. However, the property will be advertised locally.”

A few attendees expressed trepidation at the potential traffic that 100 units of housing may cause downtown, an area already snarled by congestion during commute hours. Several were worried about whether the property was being used to its full potential. Others said it is the perfect spot to provide equity for those less fortunate.

King admitted that while the city could rezone the Winslow property and sell it to a private developer, the proposal is the best chance that Bainbridge has at being awarded a LIHTC by the state — an incredibly competitive and over-subscribed grant. The other sites that the city surveyed did not qualify, he said.

Mayor Joe Deets said further discussion would continue. “Show of hands — did you find this meeting helpful?” he asked, and nearly the entire room responded in the affirmative.