Is orphan property for affordable housing a good idea?

An article in Seattle Times indicates that advocates with divergent politics are pushing the City of Seattle to use over 210 city-owned orphan properties for affordable housing. These assets are underused, under valued, and perhaps could be made available for something helpful. Most people consider these properties as surplus sites that are underutilized. Shouldn’t they be the most ideal sites for affordable housing?


It seems like the City supports this notion but doesn’t want to take on the risk of going through with it. They are not interested in ambitious and risky ideas like using City funds to develop these sites or reinstating the Growth Fund.  But, supporters are still pushing. Some of them came up with the idea to finance affordable housing by using the City’s borrowing or bonding capacity on these orphan sites. There is still huge resistance that the city would still need to find funds to pay off the debt.


From my perspective, using orphan properties for affordable housing is definitely a good idea. The benefits go beyond providing affordable housing with relatively low land cost; as these sites are improved with affordable housing projects, it makes neighborhoods cleaner and more attractive. I can understand that the City doesn’t want to take on so much risk with financing. But, if there is a way to build a partnership between non-profit and for-profit developers, giving them subsidies such as free land, tax exemptions or tax credits, things may work out well for both parties.  I know there is always a gap between rents and city debt obligation. Using orphan lands can solve this conflict to some degree. At least it’s a saving on landscaping for those underutilized neighborhood.


Perhaps the best solution is to sell the orphan land to for-profit developers who would promise to build affordable housing with subsidies. This kind of mixed-use, mixed-income community will be the trend for future development. Yesler may be the first example for this kind of new model – and it looks great now! Even though there are concerns that new development will raise average rents, if the government can set more specific rent burdens, the result will benefit the former residences.




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