'Real people being represented': Seattle's social housing board is just getting started
Seattle has a new public development authority, and it has a big mission: improving access to affordable housing.
The authority’s board will develop, acquire, and maintain public, affordable units alongside existing housing resources in the city.
KUOW housing reporter Joshua McNichols joined Soundside host Libby Denkmann to discuss the very first board meeting, and dig into the board's priorities.
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The Seattle Social Housing Public Development Authority was approved by voters back in February, as a part of Initiative I-135.
"It recognizes that it's not just people on very low incomes who are unable to afford housing in the Seattle area, because housing prices here are so high," McNichols said. "Now this public developer can issue bonds and use federal and local funding...to build and preserve housing."
The board is made up of 13 appointees, picked by a number of different groups throughout Seattle like the City Council, Mayor Bruce Harrell, the nonprofit group El Centro de la Raza, and the city's Renters' Commission.
"There was a lot of joy in the room, especially among renters," McNichols said about the authority's first board meeting.
When it comes to addressing the affordable housing crisis here in Seattle, board members' responses were varied; each brought a unique perspective based on their personal and professional backgrounds.
For board member and Sound Transit transportation planner Alex Lew, the Public Development Authority represents a new opportunity to think about how housing affects the city.
"How we're creating communities, how people get around, how do they access all the resources to really make a great place to live?" Lew pondered.
Lew also does a lot of bike and pedestrian advocacy, so he'll be thinking about access to transportation when the board chooses project sites.
Taking care of business
It'll be a while before the board is able to make inroads planning a new affordable housing project. But the Public Development Authority still made some significant decisions at Tuesday's meeting: voting on their leadership.
Kaileah Baldwin, a Seattle renter, was voted by her fellow board members to lead the group as its chair. The vice chair and secretary positions are also held by renters.
When it comes to balancing the demand to hit the ground running and start working on new projects, Baldwin is enthusiastic, but also wants to take a more methodical approach.
"The first question mark for me is, 'How do we work together to get this project up and running in a sustainable way, where it will be able to succeed and thrive?'" Baldwin said.
Bruce Harrell's appointee, Chuck Depew, is the board's treasurer.
Where does the board go next?
With leadership roles determined, the board now has to begin the winding process to address housing in the city.
Much of the work they'll accomplish will be the first of it's kind. There aren't many examples of social housing in the United States. The only other community that's taken a similar approach as the Public Development Authority is Montgomery County, Maryland.
The group is already trying to tackle large, existential questions about how it wants to function.
"You could hear this sort of, 'Are we a scrappy organization where we kind of do all of this stuff ourselves?'" McNichols said. "'Or do we hire a bunch of people to do it for us?'"
It's up to Baldwin and the rest of the board leadership to keep everyone moving in the same direction. But at the end of the day, Baldwin believes the new group can hold together, despite any potential differences.
"It's not just like a shirt and tie, fancy, stuffed shirt board," Baldwin said. "It's like real people being represented on it."
Listen to the full segment by clicking the play button at the top of this story.