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Affordability for All: Exploring the Potential of Social Housing

Updated: Jan 18

By Kira Connery, Tiscareno 

Seattle is still finding its post-pandemic footing, and this is especially true of Downtown. While high commercial vacancy rates are a factor—Seattle’s is currently around 30%—there have also been measurable shifts in social patterns resulting in people spending less time Downtown. A recent study from the Urban Displacement Project found that activity levels Downtown were only at 48% of their pre-pandemic levels. A similar study published this year in the journal Nature found that not only are people spending less time in Downtown Seattle, but people from different income levels are also interacting less (down 15% from pre-pandemic levels). Increases in crime, homelessness, and income inequality provide further evidence that the community is struggling. People give the city vitality, and when people suffer the city suffers. 

Revitalizing Downtown should not just be about meeting pre-pandemic benchmarks. Downtown is not just a central business district but a neighborhood with more than 100,000 residents. What do they need to thrive?  

There are now several local initiatives aimed at making Downtown a safe and affordable residential neighborhood, including developing social housing properties. These proposals will help support sustainable community growth and well-being for generations to come. 

Solera, a large mixed-use project in Renton, demonstrates how mixed-income housing can be designed as a cohesive whole. The project features affordable and workforce housing with 590 mixed-income apartments and 96 fee simple townhomes. 

What Is social housing? 

Social housing is common abroad but underutilized in the United States, and differs from typical affordable housing in important ways: 

  • It’s a mixed-income community with rents permanently capped at 30% of tenant income.

  • Traditional affordable housing subsidies cannot keep pace with demand, and affordability requirements are often temporary.  

  • Social housing uses mixed-income rentals and municipal bonding to cover building operations costs and helps fund more housing. 

  • It features shared, onsite resources such as daycare and communal kitchens. 

  • It prohibits evictions based on income and provides a safety net for more vulnerable populations.  

Social housing frames shelter as a social good, not just an economic one. US housing policy has long featured financial assistance to safeguard home ownership but has not given similar attention to home rental. Consequently, homeowners enjoy a level of social stability not afforded to renters, who are more susceptible to the fluctuations of the free market.  

Solera’s community amenities provide neighborhood services and gathering spaces, including a commercial daycare, indoor basketball court, work-from-home space, and more than 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

Rental Housing by the Numbers 

  • In Downtown Seattle, more than 70% of residents are renters, and nearly half spend more than 30% of their income on rent.  

  • Median rent in Seattle increased 35% from 2011 – 2018 after accounting

  • Residents facing rent increases are either forced to move or spend more of their income on housing costs creating long-term instability.  

  • Roughly 25% of renters in Seattle have incomes below 30% area median income (AMI), but only 12% of rental units are affordable.  

  • These percentages don’t account for the homeless population in need of housing, or changes to community needs since the start of the pandemic.  

  • Seattle has nearly 33,000 housing units that are rent-or income-restricted for affordability, and more than 80% of these units are located Downtown or in

  • The concentration of affordable housing in certain neighborhoods more than others perpetuates segregation and reinforces harmful stereotypes. 

  • Affordable housing benefits residents at all income levels, homeowners and

Social housing will not supplant private development but is a much-needed addition to our current practices that leave people housing-insecure or unhoused. A community cannot thrive if it’s focused only on basic needs and survival. If our Downtown communities are to flourish, they need the stability that social housing can provide.  

What does social housing look like? 

The high cost of development in the US has an undeniable effect on the look of affordable housing. Making projects pencil-out within traditional financing models requires a high degree of efficiency at every level of design. But the financial flexibility that comes with social housing presents new possibilities for the look of these developments. European social housing properties are often centerpieces of neighborhood revitalization, and the architecture is striking, aspirational, innovative, and sensitive to context. Their appearance is as varied as the communities and neighborhoods they serve.  

Cultural change requires working together towards common goals. Social housing provides a self-sustaining framework for cities, residents, and builders to create social capital and dismantle the most pervasive barriers to a thriving Downtown. Creating more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable communities requires rethinking traditional approaches to urban housing and development—and ultimately, taking better care of each other.

Kira Connery, 

As a project architect, Kira brings nearly a decade of experience designing multifamily residential and mixed-use developments in Washington State with a focus on affordable housing and sustainable design. Comfortable wearing many hats, she’s equally adept at the creative problem solving, technical documentation, and interdisciplinary collaboration that are hallmarks of the built environment.

Notable recent projects include Skagit Housing, a 70-unit supportive housing development in Mount Vernon where she coordinated a cost-efficient design and construction model that adapted standardized plans to meet municipal requirements and site constraints. For Willowcrest Townhomes in Renton, a compact and challenging site encompassing 12 units, Kira developed site and unit plans to balance private and common outdoor spaces and coordinated with consultants, the City, and neighbors to create an elegant system of easements to encourage connection with the neighboring housing units. In Seattle’s International District, Kira worked on the 400-unit Modera Jackson complex, a nine-story mixed-use apartment community where she managed consultant coordination with the civil engineer, landscape architect, and envelope and energy consultants.

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington schools of Architecture, Kira is passionate about sustainable design and making it attainable for the average person. “I’m fascinated by the marriage of creativity and technical accomplishment, and I get a lot of energy from that process.”

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