Habitat SKKC Assembled Regional Leaders for a Clear-Eyed Exploration of the Local and Global Housing Crisis

As CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, Jonathan Reckford has led the organization to recognition as one of America’s top 20 favorite charities. During his 18 years in the post, the non-profit organization has grown from serving 125,000 individuals a year to helping more than 7 million people last year alone. Reckford visited Seattle on August 16, and Habitat Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties took the opportunity to gather the area’s corporate, philanthropic, and government leaders in three events to address the region’s affordable housing crisis, especially as it affects our Black communities. 

Sponsored by the Washington Mortgage Banking Association (WMBA), the day included a breakfast with the region’s corporate and philanthropic leaders, where they learned more about the magnitude of the crisis and how they might work together to help solve the problems. At lunch, Habitat’s major donors and supporters learned more about new coalition partners working with Habitat SKKC to secure safe, affordable housing for everyone.

Habitat SKKC CEO Brett D’Antonio announced the City’s approval of a historic project in partnership with African Community Housing & Development (ACHD). Together, Habitat and ACHD, with funding from The Seattle Housing Levy, will develop and steward 65 new, permanently affordable homes across three sites on Martin Luther King Way S. in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, on surplus land provided by Sound Transit.

The culmination of the day was a Closing the Racial Homeownership Gap Forum moderated by KUOW reporter Joshua McNichols.  Panelists included Jonathan Reckford, Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, and the Black Home Initiative’s (BHI) Nicole Bascomb-Green.

At the Forum, Mayor Bruce Harrell acknowledged, “Like it or not, Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the country… I have to recognize that there are people moving here to fulfill our employers’ needs… But we are, first and foremost, a maritime city. Not everybody’s going to write code for Microsoft and make a six-figure salary.”

Lt. Governor Heck characterized the state’s housing crisis, “The magnitude of the problem is beyond what most of us grasp. (Solving it) is going to take local, state government, and increasingly federal government. It’s also going to take the private sector.”

BHI’s Nicole Bascomb-Green is a native of Seattle’s Central District. “Growing up, I didn’t know we lived in a redlined district …when I was ready to buy a home at 24, I couldn’t get a loan to buy anything in the area where I had been born and raised and where I wanted to raise my family. So, I had to move to the suburbs. It’s been a challenge to see the community go from the community I know to a community I don’t even recognize anymore.”

Dramatic increases in housing costs have pushed middle-class families out of the city.  Says Mayor Harrell, “…that middle class demographic – nurses, food service workers, teachers – are borderline homeless now… If we can’t figure this out in Seattle, our country is in a world of hurt.”

Lt Governor Heck praised the diverse coalition, including Habitat SKKC, which led the State’s recent legislative session to earn the title “The Year of Housing.”  “More legislation than ever was passed to increase the supply of especially affordable housing than any session in history… It happened because an unbelievably diverse coalition of people came together and said whatever disagreements we may have ‘out here,’ here’s what we agree on.”

In his report titled The Racial Wealth Gap is the Housing Gap, Heck points to the generations of policies and practices that prevented Black people, especially from being able to purchase their homes. That led to the fact that a little more than half of Black families own their homes as white families.  “On a national level, the average net worth of a Black family is about 10% that of a white family,” Heck added.

The forum turned to Jonathan Reckford for news of how other countries are solving their housing problems.  “I don’t think there are any perfect models; there are principles that have worked really well. Japan has always made it easy to build, and whether you own it or rent it, you’re using it (housing) as a product rather than an investment.” Reckford suggested, “Thinking about housing as a service rather than as an investment is a legitimate conversation.”

He went on to cite ‘bad behavior’ stemming from people using housing as an investment, “Quick flips, spinning and zero interest rates were probably negative in terms of affordability. Now we’re in a messy correction.”  Reckford identified the global issue as a supply problem. He noted that over a billion people globally are living in informal settlements, and they’ll need housing in the next 10 years. Global and human conflicts are spurring rapid urbanization as people flee to cities “…that don’t have the infrastructure for their current population, let alone the incoming refugee population.”

There are creative solutions out there. “Columbia didn’t build the housing, but they formalized the settlements and created transit connections to them. Families, knowing they could stay, started investing in housing, and the market started solving housing, but the government started by solving the underlying infrastructure.”

“There are no easy answers,” said Reckford, “but cities have land, and they need to find the fastest ways to allocate housing on that land and then put density in the right places.”

The best way to use the land is to address zoning. “Racial covenant laws were replaced with single-family only zoning restrictions.” Reckford declared the best outcome for all is mixed-income use. “It’s best for the environment, for the economy…So we need to lower the barriers in high-income communities that have restrictive zoning.”

In search of solutions, Bascomb-Green said, “There is no right way other than collaboration. It is important that we all think about this collaboratively… There is no one organization that’s going to get it done.”

As a woman of color, Bascomb-Green got to the heart of the issue, “We’re talking about the descendants of enslaved people. They have been pushed out the most; they have been most affected by these racist policies. Practices and systems were put into place to assure that people who look like me could not be true citizens as the Constitution calls for. When we solve the problems for Black communities, we solve the problems for everybody… We need to be clear about the history and use that language.” She urged leaders to make lenders ‘toe the line’ in their policies with Black mortgage applicants. “Holding lenders’ feet to the fire is one of the other things that are important to me.”

Mayor Harrell also stressed the necessity for collaboration. “.. While I’m passionate about the 84 square miles of Seattle, I also want to work collaboratively with state and county leaders….I must fight for diversity in Seattle because it’s one of the biggest problems, but I have to collaborate with other communities.” 

Harrell confirmed that the city’s planning strategies consider housing first. He outlined ways the city is already working with other groups to address the underlying causes of the housing crisis. “Now, first and foremost, we consider climate change. And, what’s different is that I don’t have to lead the way. With groups like the Black Home Initiative, I just have to give them resources and get out of the way… I realize we don’t have to be saviors.  We just have to be compassionate leaders and let others lead the way.  I’m seeing partnerships in communities, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.” He lamented the lack of support from the region’s large corporations. “We’re a wealthy city.  Why do I have people living in tents who can’t afford to live in a house?”

Lt. Governor Heck proclaimed, “Housing lies at the intersection of a lot of issues. Inadequate supply reduces retirement income and security. Lack of supply harms the environment because people must move farther away from work, commuting long distances. It certainly increases racial disparity. It lowers standards of living because as rents go up, people make tradeoffs between things they need in their lives and rent payments.”

Heck emphasized the critical importance of implementing the legislation passed last year. And he pointed out that the coalition working for affordable housing in Olympia must stay focused in the upcoming session on their areas of agreement.  “If we allow disagreements to take center stage, all those things we want to get done won’t get done.” 

Washington State and the Puget Sound region are recognized leaders in seeking and implementing innovative solutions to the affordable housing crisis. Habitat for Humanity continues to play a pivotal role in developing those solutions that are critical to the health of the entire State.   

As Denny Heck puts it, “If you don’t have a pillow to lay your head on at night, a blanket to keep you warm, and a roof over your head to keep the rain off, then any other issues you deal with in your life will not be successful because you cannot deal successfully with life if you’re living under a bridge, couch surfing or living in a tent.”

Watch the full panel presentation here.