Members of the Burien City Council still aren’t happy about it, but, in a vote taken Nov. 5, they agreed to a settlement that saves 162 affordable rentals at Burien’s Lora Lake Apartments.
The deal paves the way for the King County Housing Authority to buy Lora Lake — a victory for housing advocates, who argued that the Port of Seattle’s plan to demolish the entire 234-unit complex for a big-box store or other commercial use was at odds with the county’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.
“This preserves 162 units of affordable housing as an asset to the community, so we’re very pleased,” says Rev. Sandy Brown, executive director of the Greater Church Council of Greater Seattle, which lobbied Burien and the Port. “The right pressure was put in the right place for this decision.”
The pressure came in part from King County Executive Ron Sims and a July 20 lawsuit filed by the King County Housing Authority to take Lora Lake away from the Port using the power of eminent domain. The housing authority had operated the once-private complex as low- and moderate-income rentals through June under an agreement with the Port, which bought Lora Lake in 1998 to create a buffer zone for a new runway opening soon at Sea-Tac Airport.
Negotiations to settle the lawsuit have produced a complex and not yet final agreement pushed in part by State Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines). It involves four jurisdictions besides Burien, which had long ago rezoned the Lora Lake area adjacent to Highway 518 and the new runway for airport-focused light industry.
Under the terms of the agreement, the housing authority will pay the Port a fair-market price for Lora Lake’s remaining 162 units, which were closed in June and turned over to the Port in July (72 of the units in the runway’s buffer zone have already been torn down).
Housing authority spokesperson Rhonda Rosenberg says the price is still to be determined, and some rehabilitation will have to be done on the now-empty apartments, but she expects the housing authority will start renting again in April to tenants at or below 60 percent of the area’s median income, or $42,100 for a family of three.
In exchange, Burien gets:
• New development. King County will buy two vacant parcels of land next door to Lora Lake — one owned by the Port and one by Seattle City Light — and develop them the way Burien wants, for light industry. In the memorandum of understanding among the parties, which must still finalize the deal, the county says it might build a data or records facility or an evidence storage center for the County Sheriff.
• $1 million. The county and housing authority will each give Burien $500,000 for senior and affordable housing that the city wants to build at a transit-oriented development it plans.
• Legislative help. A letter of intent signed by Upthegrove and House Speaker Frank Chopp promises they will go to bat for Burien to create a pilot program that would provide subsidized housing for Highline School District teachers at the city’s transit-related development. The two also agreed to seek $1.5 million to move West Seattle Mental Health out of the new runway area and $500,000 to pay for development planning in the rezoned area of Lora Lake.
“It’s not just about money to build our streets or capital projects,” Burien City Manager Mike Martin says of the agreement. “We’re really looking to find a tide that lifts all boats in our community.”
In their Nov. 5 meeting, Burien councilmembers voted 4-2 to accept the deal, but “they bitched mightily about it,” says Sally Kinney, a co-chair of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness. “They complained it wasn’t a fit place for people to live” — an issue the council has raised before about the new runway’s potential health effects on Lora Lake residents.
“This was not posturing,” Martin says. “The City of Burien remains convinced it’s a very bad place to put people, particularly the most poor and vulnerable,” he adds. “At some point, folks may realize how bad it is to live that close to a runway and they may want to sue someone.”
To see that Burien doesn’t get sued, Martin says he won’t sign the deal until the housing authority agrees to indemnify the city against any future lawsuits — one of many details still to be worked out.
Given all the obstacles, however, the housing authority’s Rhonda Rosenberg says coming to an understanding was a major success.
“A group of jurisdictions within some cases disparate agendas got together and solved a problem that serves the public interest and each of their own particular priorities,” she says. “The advocacy community created pressure, some local electeds created pressure, and everyone had to stay at the table and keeping talking until a solution could be found.”