Design and Density Create a New Mixed-Income Neighborhood

The Seattle Housing Authority’s redevelopment of its Rainier Vista property in Seattle, Washington transformed the community. The large-scale project replaced 481 deteriorating public housing units from the 1940’s with a new mixed-income, mixed-use community of 1,092 residential units with office, retail, services and recreational space.

The creation of the Sound Transit line over this time span and a nearby light rail stop stimulated an opportunity for the redevelopment of Rainier Vista into a denser, light-rail friendly community that would be fully integrated into the existing surrounding neighborhood. Funding totaling more than $240 million produced the transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly environment.

Located in the heart of the Rainier Valley, Rainier Vista was one of three SHA communities originally built to house defense workers during World War II. By the early 1950s, the wood frame buildings were designated as public housing. Today, Rainier Vista is a culturally diverse community, with many immigrants from Southeast Asia, East Africa and elsewhere.

The project emerged over the course over of a decade, starting with the award of a $35 million HOPE IV grant in 1999 and wrapping up with the final phase of market-rate housing in the 2010’s. The finances of the new construction of public housing units with market-rate and affordable homes were a delicate balancing act, with the Great Recession slicing through the middle of the project timeline.

After an extensive process of community engagement and input led by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), in 2001 the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a Memorandum of Agreement with SHA that governed the Rainier Vista redevelopment and committed to 100 percent replacement of the 481 existing public housing units at Rainier Vista. Public outreach for the redevelopment of Rainier Vista, particularly with current residents, was conducted throughout the process. Redevelopment at Rainier Vista more than doubled the density to create a mixed-income community with low-income rentals, market-rate rentals, and market-rate, owner-occupied homes.

The LINK Light Rail service opened in Summer 2009 and serves Rainier Vista at the Columbia City station just to the south. This transportation option gives residents more convenient access to the Rainier Valley, downtown Seattle, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

SHA was the master developer for the project, hiring architects and engineers to design public housing and also the public realm, in close coordination with relevant city departments. To redevelop Rainier Vista as a mixed-income community, SHA selected private development partners to purchase and develop market-rate and affordable single-family homes and duplexes.

The public housing, located in townhomes and apartment buildings, is mixed throughout the site and is virtually indistinguishable from the market-rate rental and for-sale housing. The design guidelines outlined in SHA’s Design Book sought to make the new neighborhood seamless with the surrounding community. The book illustrates design choices ranging from placement of houses along the street to details such as rooflines, porches, fences or color. The Design Book helped guide builders to create a safe, mixed-income, mixed-use, transit-oriented community integrated into the surrounding neighborhood.

View the full research report How Did They Do It? Discovering New Opportunities for Affordable Housing.

Post by Deborah Myerson, Executive Director at South Central Indiana Housing Opportunities (SCIHO) in Bloomington, Indiana.

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