YWCA Family Village at Issaquah opens

August 16, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Lizzie Webb stands aside the railing to top-floor residences at her apartment building looking over the YWCA Family Village at Issaquah and a view of Squak and Cougar mountains. By Greg Farrar

The airy apartment on the top floor at YWCA Family Village at Issaquah, a long-planned affordable housing complex, is a refuge for Lizzie Webb.

The longtime Issaquah resident relocated to the complex before anyone else, in late May, and created a sanctuary from domestic abuse in the cozy space.

“This was a safety net that I really needed. This particular build enabled me to stay here in my community that I volunteer in, that I have friends and family in, and have roots in,” she said last month as she perched on a quilt-draped sofa. “Without this safety net, I wouldn’t be here. I’m really, really grateful.”

Other occupants started to settle in en masse in late June, and managers expect most residents to occupy the $53 million complex by late August, just in time for school to start. The milestone marked the culmination of more than a decade of planning for the city and the YWCA.

Family Village is meant to offer 146 rental units for firefighters, medical assistants, police officers, retail clerks and teachers — people employed in Issaquah but unable to afford other housing in the community. Occupants must meet certain income requirements in order to qualify for a Family Village unit on a site across from the Issaquah Highlands Park & Ride.

“It’s very heartwarming to see it come to life,” said Linda Hall, YWCA of Seattle-King-Snohomish senior director of housing development and operations. “It’s one thing to have the bricks and sticks, but it’s something else to have the people there.”

Webb, 50, learned about Family Village in the months before the complex opened to tenants.

“I became aware that I might qualify when I was volunteering for the Compassion House,” Webb said. “I was tooling around on the Compassion House website, and found application forms for the families. You know, I qualify, so I applied, and lo and behold, I get to be the very first resident.”

The potential tenants must meet minimum and maximum incomes to qualify. Most residents earn 50 percent or less of the median income in King County, or less than $40,700 per year for a family of four, as determined by federal calculations. The complex also includes apartments set aside for tenants earning 60 percent of the median income, and others for residents at the low end of the income spectrum. Family Village rents range from almost $400 to $1,145 for a unit.

“We want to make sure that people don’t overextend themselves, but we also don’t want to price them out,” Hall said.

Managers also complete a rigorous process to check credit, past rental history and criminal background — sex offenders and people convicted of violent crimes do not qualify — of potential tenants.

“We tell people, ‘What we’re looking for is to make sure that you’ll be a good renter and also you’ll respect the residence, the physical component, as well as other residents,’” Hall said.

Confronting a need for housing

Tim Overland, chief operating officer at Seattle-based affordable housing developer Security Properties, said nonprofit and for-profit builders in the Puget Sound area construct affordable and workforce housing at a robust pace.

“Unfortunately, I think generally speaking, the need tends to outweigh the supply of affordable housing,” he said.

The available affordable and workforce housing units offer a choice for a middle class squeezed amid the economic downturn and a high cost of living in King County.

“What we see in our affordable projects are really those folks — the teachers, service workers, and cops and firefighters — who earn maybe $50,000, $75,000, $80,000 and want to live close in, want to live in a new apartment with all of the current amenities, but at the same time can’t afford $2,000-plus per month in rent,” Overland said. “Or, if they could, they’d be sacrificing in other discretionary spending areas.”

Pam Mauk, executive director at the Together Center, a human-services clearinghouse in Redmond, said perceptions of affluence often cloud the need for affordable housing and other services.

“From the human services side, we get frustrated because so many people don’t realize there’s an issue at hand, or feel like we live in such a well-off community that there’s no issue,” she said.

In addition to facilitating Family Village in the highlands, Issaquah leaders continue a yearslong effort to open a human services campus similar to the Together Center in the city.

Former Councilman John Rittenhouse, a leader in the Eastside human-services community, said the overall effort is meant to reflect the community at large.

“One of the things, I think, that happens if your community doesn’t reflect the larger community in terms of economics is that your community starts becoming isolated and it no longer reflects the community values,” he said. “You can essentially turn yourself into a gated community without the gate.”

Building a community for all

Mayor Ava Frisinger, a longtime project supporter, credited YWCA programs for offering education and empowerment to women.

“Some people said the YWCA gave them the skills and the ability to tackle challenges that life had thrown at them — and to tackle those things very well,” she said.

Issaquah builds a “richer community, and one in which people will be able to participate because they’ll be living here and volunteering in the community,” Frisinger said. “I can’t even imagine how many things people will be doing in the community, but great things.”

The opening also reflects a commitment to affordable housing from highlands developer Port Blakely Communities. The development agreement for the highlands requires at least 30 percent affordable housing in the community.

“Over a decade ago, Port Blakely Communities sought to redefine community by creating a new kind of mixed-use urban-village community,” said René Ancinas, president and CEO of parent company Port Blakely Companies. “We envisioned a place with a mix of neighborhoods and diverse homes. It’s gratifying to see this vision continue to come to life.”

Family Village is not the only affordable housing effort in the neighborhood. Habitat for Humanity of East King County also plans to open highlands residences soon.

“That’s something that has been an important thing within the Issaquah Highlands, because with the Issaquah Highlands, we worked very hard to have socioeconomic diversity and ethnic diversity and all different kinds of diversities in the very strong belief that that is of value to our community,” Frisinger said.

The city donated the land for Family Village in May 2008. Leaders gathered at the windswept site in December 2009 for a groundbreaking ceremony.

The construction team included numerous women, including the architect, the project manager and members of the crews hanging drywall and pouring concrete.

‘It’s good now to be a survivor’

Rittenhouse said the plan offered by the YWCA impressed municipal officials and highlands residents.

“They just had a very compelling vision. They understood what the needs were and they understood how to satisfy those needs,” he said. “On the operational end, they were very, very clear about how the facility was going to run.”

In the months before the ceremony, YWCA planners started a long rollout to answer highlands residents’ questions about the facility.

Nina Milligan, a highlands resident and Urban Village Development Commission member, raised concerns about the location. (The commission oversees large-scale projects in Talus and the highlands, including Family Village.)

“The questions that I had regarded, how is that housing community going to be embraced by the rest of the Issaquah Highlands?” she recalled. “My concern was that it sat off on the edge of our development. It’s a facility that I wanted to see have great connections to the greater Issaquah Highlands.”

Milligan said the public spaces and facilities open to other highlands residents at Family Village — connectors to the surrounding community — assuaged the concerns.

“I think it says about Issaquah that it’s a place to live for so many people, from families to independent people to retired people,” she said. “And it’s a place that wants to be for folks who can live here their whole life.”

So, community programs, such as Zumba classes at the Family Village community center, and child care at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, remain open to the public, not just residents.

Family Village is also designed as a “green” showcase. Hall said the project is under review for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification.

(Under LEED, Projects receive points for sustainable features, and certification levels range from Certified, at the lowest level, to Silver, Gold and Platinum.)

The “green” features impressed Webb — and offered lessons in composting, energy efficiency and rainwater recycling.

“The best part for me, the ‘green’ part, is that we collect our own rainwater on our roofs — which is why they’re shaped the way they are — and then we water all of our native plants with our rainwater,” she said.

Webb, joined by cats Puddy Pie and Jellybean — “I know, I’m 5,” Webb offers in explanation of the cats’ names — enjoys strolls around the almost-completed complex. Puddy Pie tolerates a leash; Jellybean rides, Cleopatra-style, in a carrier.

“I’ve met many of my neighbors due to the cat walking and the spectacle of it all,” she said. “To a person, my neighbors are wonderful.”

The experience is something to savor for the domestic abuse survivor. The small freedoms gratify Webb as she rebuilds at Family Village.

“I’m able to recover areas of my life that were taken away and parts of my life that I gave up,” she said. “It’s good now to be a survivor.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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