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Despite hurdles, King County moves ahead with $12M in modular housing for homeless

Nearly two years and three mayoral administrations have come and gone since Seattle and King County officials began discussing a proposal to construct prefabricated modular housing for the city’s homeless residents.

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County authorities now say they’re poised to move forward with around $12 million in development projects for modular homes.

Under the plan, the county would purchase enough single and dormitory-style modular units to house about 170 people at two locations: A county-owned parking lot in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, and a second site in Shoreline near Aurora Avenue North and North 198th Street. The location of a third facility, to house 25 more people, has not yet been determined.

The county still faces obstacles. Officials there can’t begin assembling the units at either the Seattle or Shoreline sites without the required land-use permits, and it’s unclear how long it would take to obtain them. Officials expect the purchased units to be delivered sometime before April 2019.

A spokeswoman for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the mayor is supportive, but the decision lies with the city permitting office.

Still, King County Executive Dow Constantine said he’s excited about the project, and he is hoping it can be expanded to other cities.

“There are a lot of things about modular that work in our favor,” he said. “If we can prove that this is successful, if we can prove that it is cost-effective, I think it can be replicated throughout the region.”

In a region stuck in a declared state of emergency over homelessness, where efforts to fill huge gaps in affordable housing are stymied by lack of financial resources and booming labor costs, backers of modular housing say it could potentially put a dent in those problems.

But efforts to sell local governments on investing in modular homes have been slowed by mounds of red tape. Projects can wither while backers navigate zoning difficulties and permitting processes that aren’t designed for speed.

Advocates for factory-manufactured modular housing say they’ve embraced it because units can be built faster and at a lower cost than more traditional affordable housing. They’re also mobile. Depending on the design, they can be disassembled and reassembled at a different location, which advocates say makes them ideal for use as temporary housing at vacant and developing properties.

The county estimates it will pay around $150,000 for each single unit included in this latest purchase, far less than the cost of developing traditional, affordable-housing units, which range between $300,000 and $350,000.

Fans of the strategy say the bureaucratic process is at odds with the urgent need for innovative solutions to the region’s housing and homelessness challenges.

“We’re looking at every smart opportunity there is, but we have got to make some decisions and move faster,” said City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, one of the first backers of the proposal.

“Modular housing may not be a silver bullet, but if we couple it with other solutions it could make for some silver buckshot.”

Interbay site

The discussion about using modular housing at the Interbay site began in earnest in 2017, when a group, including Bagshaw and King County Assessor John Wilson, began floating a proposal to construct a permanent multiunit modular facility at the site.

Despite interest from several other city officials, the initial proposal was complicated by zoning obstacles, legal concerns and turnover in the Seattle mayor’s office.

Several members of former Mayor Ed Murray’s administration declined interview requests. But one email chain obtained by The Seattle Times indicates the former mayor’s office’s feelings on so-called micro-housing strategies were lukewarm.

“At this point, the conversation just swirls,” wrote Seattle housing director Steve Walker in an March 2017 email sent to Deputy Mayor Michael Fong, strategic adviser George Scarola and several city department heads. Without a clear answer from Murray’s office, the conversation was stuck in “spin cycle,” he added.

In an emailed response to Walker, Fong said Murray’s office was interested but unlikely to commit substantial public money to the effort without a clearer idea of the proposal.

“This issue isn’t going away so might as well elevate and make a clear decision rather than churn the question every couple of weeks or months,” he said.

An artist’s rendering of a single-unit modular housing facility planned by King County. (Courtesy of King County)
An artist’s rendering of a single-unit modular housing facility planned by King County. (Courtesy of King County)

The King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) began developing its own plan for modular housing at the Interbay site after the initial proposal was shelved, but it was slowed by some of the same bureaucratic constraints.

The property is zoned for commercial use only. Placing residential units at the site, even temporarily, requires either a change in zoning or special waiver from the city.

Bagshaw says that officials under Murray were also worried that changing the zoning could trigger a lawsuit by residents. In 2008, a group of Magnolia residents sued the city to stop a plan to build housing for the homeless at Fort Lawton near Discovery Park.

The county’s planning continued amid turmoil at Seattle City Hall, as sexual-abuse allegations forced Murray’s resignation, leading to a succession of interim mayors.

By May 2018, the city had elected a new mayor in Jenny Durkan, and the Metropolitan King County Council had identified funding for the project, but it was still stuck in what one county official called a “feedback loop.”

“We can’t move forward because council won’t release the money for the modulars until we have a site, and we don’t have approval from the City that the Mayor will waive zoning and SEPA under the State of Emergency,” DCHS director Adrienne Quinn wrote in a May 7 email.

Seattle permitting authorities later laid out a potential path forward in a letter to Quinn and Constantine’s chief of staff Rachel Smith. According to the letter, the city permitting department can issue a series of temporary-use permits to the county while an environmental review is completed.

In an emailed response, Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas did not directly address questions about why the development process dragged, but she said the mayor is generally supportive of using the Interbay site for modular housing. A team of permitting officials is ready to help county officials through the permitting process as soon as the county formally submits its application, she said. As of Tuesday, the appointment to submit the permit application had not been scheduled.

Constantine acknowledged that bureaucratic hurdles could delay the county’s expansion plans, but local municipalities, including Seattle, have to be sold on the idea that modular homes are effective, he said.

To that end, the county is working with other cities and nonprofits around the region to “unlock” surplus properties and expand the footprint of where affordable housing, including modular units, can be placed.

“We have to show that the strategy can work,” he said. “If we’re able to do that, we’re ready to beg, rent or borrow a site even for three to five years to help fill the need.”