Success! One BLOCK at a Time

Last year, my visionary architect friend Rex Hohlbein and his architect daughter Jenn LaFreniere left their jobs and created the Block Project.  Thanks to their vision, Seattle homeowners are now saying, “YES in my backyard!” to solve homelessness.

The BLOCK Project is more than your typical low income housing effort to move people out of homelessness.  It is a unique community-building program connecting people to people and putting roofs over heads.

Jenn and Rex started with the idea of inviting the broader community to help solve and end homelessness by building a BLOCK Home “in the backyard of one single-family lot on every residentially zoned block within the City of Seattle.” The Block Project Web Site explains more about how this project originated and the impact it has already had, for the better.

People who want a backyard BLOCK Home are called host families. Host families go through a vetting process, and following a thorough review, they join a database for residents to match with those in need.

The BLOCK Project is managed by the non-profit Facing Homelessness and all hosted residents come through a case-management process operated by partnering organizations.  Case management is provided currently by Chief Seattle Club, Mary’s Place, Sophia Way, and the Community Psychiatric Clinic.

When the case-manager has a client who meets the BLOCK Home qualifications, they go through the database of host families to look for a match between host and resident. This is the beginning of an intentional process of finding a good fit between host and resident. In the future, this will be aided by a match-making app designed for BLOCK Project.

Rex Hohlbein, standing in front of the BLOCK dwelling in Beacon Hill. Photo by the author.

This past weekend I visited one of the first BLOCK Homes in action.  A compassionate couple living on Beacon Hill opened their back yard to having a detached, 125 square foot home where their garden used to be, and opened their hearts and neighborhood to a formerly homeless man.  This couple showed me that We The People can collectively end homelessness in our city and region.

These host homeowners met their partner tenant at the Chief Seattle Club.  They chose each other and he has since become a part of their family. When I asked how long they expected him to live in his new home in their backyard they answered, “As long as he wants.  Forever, we hope.  It’s the best thing we have ever done with our backyard.”

The BLOCK Home has been thoughtfully designed to be off-grid and self-sufficient.  Each home has its own kitchen, shower, toilet, sleeping area, and solar-panels sufficient to heat and light the house — even in the gray days of Seattle winters, the home is warm.

The BLOCK Project is both progressive and sustainable.  Not only is each home designed to be self-sufficient, discharging gray water though a self-composting toilet, the design is currently permitted so long as it is hooked up to the sewer through the host property.

The home is respectful.  It is warm, dry, complete, and comes equipped with an inviting covered front porch to share with friends.   Here’s the truly progressive idea:  it brings the neighborhood together, encouraging economic integration and heartfelt social inclusion.

In the instance of the Beacon Hill home, people have donated their time and materials, and the out of pocket costs are estimated to be about $30,000 for this first one.  Professionals from Turner Construction, Herrara, and many others have donated their time to help design and construct the prototype.

While I was visiting with Rex and the homeowners, a general contractor showed up with metal door sweeps.  Rex smiled his beatific smile and said this contractor– like many others — was working pro bono. He was improving the outside storage closet where the solar batteries are currently stored.  The next generation of units will move the batteries to the back of the home creating more storage space.


Photo from the BLOCK website,





I asked how many people were in line to be hosts, offering to make their backyards available.  Rex said over 75 homeowners have expressed interest. Home owners see how they can make a difference for individuals and for our community.  They see how they can make space and provide a hand up, repairing years of emotional and social isolation.

Costs?  Rex says the true cost of an installed unit is at about $90K, but actual costs, with all the donations of material and labor came in about $28K for the first one.  He expects the typical cost to be around $30K.

What’s needed to catalyze this movement?  Sustainable grant sources and matching funds.  The first five units have been paid for through community funds, but the next thousand could be paid for through City and County grants with private matching funds.  The homeowner provides the land while the government and/or private sector provides the matching funds to build the homes.

The hosts with whom I spoke yesterday said, “Yes, in my backyard.”   They also said the neighborhood has been wonderful, and this project has restored their faith in their fellow human beings.



Seattle Must Do More to Help Former Prisoners Get Housing

We all need a second chance at some point in our lives. Many of us have done something in our past we regret. That said, our mistakes should not define us, especially when we’ve paid the price for what we’ve done.

Council Member Herbold has been championing in her Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts Committee the “Fair Chance Housing” legislation, creating a policy that would give individuals who have been convicted of criminal offenses and completed their sentences another chance at getting stable housing. It would restrict landlords from considering convictions when deciding whether to offer tenancy to a person. In other words, a person who has served his or her term in prison will get a fair chance to get housing.

This is bold legislation. I support this approach because it is another step to help people acquire stable housing rather than dooming them back to the spin-cycle of the street to prison pipeline. We need this tool.
The level of incarceration in our country remains shockingly high. According to research offered by Professor Katherine Beckett at the University of Washington, nearly 25 percent of all the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in the United States. That percentage is higher than in China or Russia. “We’re number one” is not a badge of honor here.

From a race and social justice perspective, the statistics are even more alarming. The data varies from state to state, but the strong pattern is adult black males have felony convictions on their records five to seven times more frequently than adult white males. Arrests and convictions for drug-related crimes continue to be disproportionately frequent and severe for black males.

For individuals leaving prison with a felony on their record, their sentence never truly ends. Former inmates tell me they are penalized in so many ways: they struggle to find work, receive loans, gain an education, acquire social service benefits, or successfully reengage with the community they left behind when incarcerated. Race, class, gender and sexual orientation create additional barriers to success. The inclusion of the phrase “felons need not apply” in rental housing ads—or a door slamming before a conversation can begin—makes it nearly impossible to return as a fully participating community member.

This situation was made painfully clear to me by a 56 year old man named Carl who had come back to Seattle after years of prison time in Walla Walla. I met him through a re-entry program. He was full of hope. He held a high school diploma from a mid-west city but he whispered to me “I can’t read.” Clearly, he had been passed on and passed over much of his life. I spent time with him working on his reading and basic math skills. He was a smart guy. He looked for work; he looked for housing; he slept on his friends’ couches until they would put up with him no more. He wanted to find a two-bedroom unit so that he could bring his daughter to live with him. It didn’t happen.

Today in Washington, a landlord can use criminal records to screen tenants for up to seven years after the date the person is released from jail or prison. This is profoundly demoralizing for the person released from jail, because his or her jail sentence in effect continues on. It further contributes to our growing homelessness issues because people without options go back to the street.

 Being refused housing based on past convictions is especially unfair because empirical data fails to show that having a criminal record affects someone’s ability to be a good tenant. In fact, the reverse is true. Those returning from prison report they WANT housing. Statistics back this up. With a bit of coaching and a job, they can be responsible tenants.

Rather than further punishing those who have served their sentence, I want to try a new approach. I am committed to increasing our housing supply and working with landlords to get housing for those who have challenges. Programs are set up in prison offering good-tenant training to those who are returning. Part of our human services investments should expand these programs.

I am supporting the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, including the proposed amendments.

The Ordinance with amendments will allow more people to access housing. Under our proposed legislation, arrests that did not lead to conviction or convictions that have been expunged, vacated, or sealed may not be used to screen tenants.

 Under this legislation—even with the amendments—a landlord may conduct a credit check, evaluate prospects’ income, look at their tenant history, check references, restrict sex offenders, and remove a bad tenant. What they can’t do is ban a person solely because of the time served in prison.

Our current system is flawed. Passing Fair Chancing Housing, without a “look back” period will help get people stabilized, reunite them with their family, open doors for jobs, and help us heal from the epidemic of mass incarceration. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it will help those who have served their sentences—as well as their families—get a second chance.

The City Council plans to vote on this legislation this month. I will be voting yes.

***This editorial was originally published 8/7/2017 in the Stranger


Mayor Murray proposes improvements to Design Review program

Today, Mayor Ed Murray unveiled a proposal to make it easier and faster for new housing to be built all across Seattle by updating the City’s Design Review program. The legislation strengthens community input on major projects and streamlines the review process to reduce delays and costs associated with new building construction. The legislation fulfills a key recommendation from Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) to generate new housing quicker while reducing construction costs.

“Our economic boom has put a strain on Seattle’s housing stock and overwhelmed our design review process,” said Mayor Murray. “To take on this challenge, we are comprehensively updating the City’s review process for the first time in decades with changes that will help reduce delays and cost overruns that are driving up housing prices and give communities an opportunity to weigh in on projects in their neighborhood. This change will create more housing and more affordable housing in Seattle.”

The proposal will reduce the wait time typical projects undergo with the Design Review process by four to eight weeks. The time saved will create more capacity for the Design Review program to evaluate larger, more complicated projects allowing developments to enter the housing market more quickly. The measure will also require all developers to conduct mandatory early outreach to neighborhood stakeholders to ensure the community has a more impactful say in the design of projects. Currently, neighborhood engagement is voluntary for developers.

“Creating housing that is affordable for Seattle’s most vulnerable residents takes time and we work with finite resources to create environmentally-sustainable, high-quality housing,” said Bill Rumpf, President of Mercy Housing and a member of the HALA committee. “This measure makes the production of affordable housing more efficient, meaning we can build more housing for more people, faster. It also assures a community voice in the outcomes of buildings being developed in their neighborhoods—a win for everyone.”

Key recommendations made in this legislation will:
· Simplify and revise building criteria that triggers design review by basing thresholds solely on the size of a project, which will encourage developers to build more units on a site.
· Create a new “hybrid” process that allows one phase of design review to be handled administratively and the remainder by the Design Review program.
· Require applicants to establish a dialogue with the communities near their projects before they begin design review.
· Allow affordable housing projects to be reviewed through the administrative design review process, speeding up affordable housing production throughout the city

Since the Design Review program was launched in 1994, the Design Review boards have reviewed more than 1,500 projects using citywide and neighborhood-specific design guidelines. Despite a marked increase in reviews in recent years, the Design Review program has not been comprehensively updated since the creation of the program.

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Mayor Murray transmits legislation to City Council for improved Civic Square project agreement with Bosa Development


Today, Mayor Ed Murray transmitted to City Council legislation authorizing the sale of the Civic Square project to Bosa Development to build a residential tower with street-level retail space and a 25,000 square-foot public plaza. The agreement requires Bosa pay at least $5.7 million toward affordable housing through the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program and directs $16 million to equitable development through the City’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI), which helps ensure Seattle’s existing residents and businesses also enjoy the benefits of development around the city, rather than being displaced by it.

“As Seattle grows, we are working to ensure that happens in a way that is equitable, benefiting everyone who lives and works here,” said Mayor Murray. “This new Civic Square project agreement retains the public plaza envisioned nearly a decade ago, and more importantly provides significant funding that the previous agreement did not. While we continue to revitalize our downtown core, adding open space and housing, the funding will support additional affordable housing and investments in communities most at risk for displacement.”

The agreement with Bosa Development replaces a 2007 agreement with Triad Civic Center LLC, which had been hindered by the economic recession and lack of capital partners. Under the terms of the new agreement, Triad will assign all of its interest in the existing purchase, sale and development agreement to Bosa Development; Triad and the City will release one another from liability.

The Bosa deal provides much more in return than the agreement with Triad, where the City would have transferred the land in exchange for public benefits in the form of the plaza, its improvements and associated easements. That deal was valued at $25 million, but there would have been no money changing hands at closing and when it came to the plaza, the City would have owned, operated and maintained it at a projected loss. Under the new agreement, the City is transferring the land to Bosa, which is constructing essentially the same public access improvements, and paying the City $16 million in addition to the required MHA payment. An easement will provide for public use as previously intended, yet the City will no longer be responsible for ongoing operating and maintenance costs.

“Bosa Development is excited to have an opportunity to contribute a signature development on a keystone site in downtown Seattle,” said Ryan Bosa, President of Bosa Development. “We believe Bosa Development is the right group to design and construct a dynamic mixed-use project that will energize Seattle’s commercial core and change the way pedestrians experience this area. The public plaza will become a destination for workers and residents from all the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Whereas Triad’s project included office space, Bosa’s will consist of a single residential tower with street-level retail and a public plaza. The City retains the right to approve the final plaza design. The project redesign requires Bosa apply for a new Master Use Permit (MUP); assuming a timely MUP approval process, construction is scheduled to commence by Jan. 1, 2019.

Funding for the City’s Equitable Development Initiative will be established with the $16 million in proceeds from the sale to help ensure Seattle’s existing residents and businesses also enjoy the benefits of development. These funds will go to projects such as a Multicultural Community Center for longtime residents that builds on local cultural assets, or a job-training program focused on good-paying jobs in the community. The EDI is led by the Office of Planning and Community Development.

The additional $5.7 million MHA payment will go to the Office of Housing to leverage for building affordable housing.

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Mayor Murray unveils affordability and growth plan, Arts and Culture District for Uptown neighborhood

Today, Mayor Ed Murray unveiled a plan for the future of Uptown, implementing requirements that will generate 600 new affordable homes for low-income people, providing capacity for more market-rate housing and jobs, supporting new spaces for cultural organizations and enacting the community’s vision for the future of the neighborhood. Additionally, Mayor Murray announced Uptown will become Seattle’s third Arts and Cultural District, providing resources to preserve, strengthen and expand arts and cultural spaces. Uptown has long been a cultural destination in Seattle, with over 30 arts, cultural and educational organizations located in the Seattle Center campus and surrounding neighborhood.

“By coupling growth with affordability, we are ensuring that Uptown’s booming culture and economy can be a model for community building rather than a model for gentrification,” said Mayor Murray. “With this announcement, we are ensuring everyone has access to housing in this local hub of arts, culture, transit, green space and jobs. Our housing policies must be about inclusion—this proposal makes good on that goal.”

Over the next 20 years, the proposed zoning changes will result in an estimated 600 new income-restricted and rent-restricted homes for low-income residents through the City’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, a key recommendation of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. Under MHA, Uptown developers will be required to include affordable homes in between five percent and 10 percent of each building, or contribute between $8.00 and $29.75 per square foot to the Seattle Office of Housing to support affordable housing, depending on the specific location in the neighborhood.

“Uptown is one of our fastest growing urban centers, and borders on Seattle Center, one of the great civic spaces of our city,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw (District 7, Pioneer Square to Magnolia). “With its connections to Downtown, the Waterfront and the growing Belltown and South Lake Union neighborhoods, Uptown is already becoming a vibrant business and residential center. Not surprisingly, rents are rising rapidly in this neighborhood, and we clearly need affordable housing right in Uptown. Through this plan, hundreds of developer-funded affordable housing units will be built. I am committed to working with Uptown leaders to ensure we are using a suite of tools to create the housing we need.”

“I am excited for the implementation of MHA in the Uptown neighborhood. Through these zoning changes, we can ensure that more people have access to this vibrant neighborhood,” said Councilmember Rob Johnson (District 4, Northeast Seattle). “As an area with great access to job centers, open space, transportation, as well as arts, culture and civic institutions like the Seattle Center and KeyArena, its density and amenity mix support a high level of livability. It is important that we continue to implement MHA and create additional affordable housing in our communities so that our artists, nonprofit employees, and workers of all wages can continue to contribute to the character of Seattle.”

For more than three years, Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) worked with community members to envision a vibrant future for the Uptown neighborhood. The proposal includes neighborhood priorities, such as design standards, that support vibrant streetscapes, incentives for new arts and cultural spaces, improved connections to Seattle Center, and enhanced walkability as outlined in the Uptown Urban Design Framework (UDF).

“The Urban Design Framework in this ordinance will help create the neighborhood where we want to live and work as Uptown grows,” said Deborah Frausto, chair of the Uptown Alliance UDF Committee. “We still have work to do in creating more possibilities for open space, affordable and workforce housing, and walkable community that’s safe and welcoming. Our community, with its generosity of spirit and gifts of time and expertise, will continue to stay involved and share ideas of what they want their neighborhood to be like.”

Mayor Murray’s proposal allows new building heights for many areas of the neighborhood already zoned for multi-family residential and mixed-use commercial buildings, providing additional capacity for market-rate and income-restricted housing within walking distance of South Lake Union, Belltown and Downtown. The rezone proposal includes an increase in building height along the Mercer Street Corridor from the current 40 feet to 85 feet, the same as the current height limit on the Seattle Center campus. The iconic public views of the Space Needle and the Seattle skyline as seen from Kerry Park, Bhy Kracke Park and other key view corridors are protected under the proposal.

The triangle bounded by Broad, Aurora and Denny could feature taller, thinner, well-spaced, 16-story residential towers. Other areas of the Uptown Urban Center currently zoned for multi-family residential or mixed-use would receive one or two stories of additional height. No zoning changes are proposed outside of the Uptown Urban Center or in nearby single-family neighborhoods.

Additionally, the rezone will create incentives for new arts and cultural spaces, giving smaller organizations a chance to operate in or near Seattle Center, which attracts visitors from around the world. The rezone will also help preserve historic buildings by allowing them to sell unused development rights.

In the last two years, 20 King County Metro bus lines that serve the neighborhood have expanded service because of voter-approved Proposition 1, improving transit speed and reliability. The Seattle Department of Transportation has updated signal controls on Mercer, Roy, and Valley streets to be more sensitive to real-time traffic conditions. Similar signal upgrades are planned for Denny Way. New street connections across Aurora at John, Thomas and Harrison will ease pressure on Mercer and Denny after the SR-99 tunnel opens.

Uptown Arts and Cultural District

Since the 1962 World’s Fair, Uptown has been a hub of Seattle arts and culture with the largest concentration of diverse organizations that range from independent artists, to internationally renowned classical arts, to innovative theater and visual arts, to ethnic festivals from around the world, to major music concerts. The Arts and Cultural District designation recognizes the culturally rich neighborhood and seeks to enhance its character.

“We are thrilled to be recognized as an official Arts and Cultural District,” said Cyrus Despres, co-chair and president of the Uptown Arts & Culture Coalition. “Uptown is experiencing the same growing pains as the rest of Seattle, and we are committed to enhancing our cultural experiences and evolving our identity as a welcoming home for the arts in Seattle.”

The designation includes access to the Creative Placemaking Toolkit, a suite of tools designed to preserve, strengthen, and expand arts and cultural spaces. The district will have access to $50,000 to be used toward the toolkit’s programs and resources for right-of-way identifiers, wayfinding, busking and plein air painting, art historic markers, pop-up activations, and parklets. The toolkit was designed to support artists, art spaces, and neighborhoods in maintaining and investing in their cultural assets.

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