By Caroline Li
Northwest Asian Weekly
This year, Secou Diate purchased his first home, a brand new four-bedroom townhouse that his wife, daughter, and unborn baby will enjoy. For Diate, it was the perfect time to purchase. Interest rates were low. The unit was in a brand-new development and it was in his price range.
Yet, in today’s economy, Diate seems like an unlikely candidate to purchase a new home. Diate emigrated from West Africa to the United States about 30 years ago. He’s made a steady, modest income working as a biomedical equipment technician, but cannot afford too many luxuries.
Yet, his new home is complete with stainless steel appliances and granite counters, situated just a few minutes from Lake Washington and I-5. It is located near a park that his kids will enjoy.
It wasn’t due to any special offers or a loop hole in the system that allowed Diate to purchase his home, but a federal program that many people, especially immigrants, aren’t aware of. It’s called affordable housing, also known as low-income housing or government-subsidized housing.
Affordable housing allows the average person to purchase a home without making major compromises based on their income.
Diate found his new home at Copper Lantern, a community of 33 new townhomes in the city of Kenmore, developed by Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). LIHI is one of the many nonprofits that serve low-income and first-time homebuyers by educating and helping them through their home buying process.
Diate paid $240,000 for his four-bedroom home. This would be considered rare in a market rate setting. According to Zillow.com, an online real estate Web site, neighboring single family homes in Kenmore currently go for $442,000 and condos for $358,000.
“We are creating options for those who have been priced out of the current market,” said Mike Woo, project manager at LIHI. That’s the message that organizations like LIHI are conveying to potential clients in an effort to shed old notions of what affordable housing is and who it’s for.
The federal government defines “affordable” as housing and utilities that cost no more than 30 percent of household income. In King County, most affordable housing serves renters who earn less than 60 percent of the median income and first-time homeowners who earn less than 80 percent of the median income.
Even with opportunities to become home buyers through affordable housing assistance programs, some people are still hesitant.
Currently, LIHI has only 200 people registered on their site to receive updates on new housing opportunities. Only a small percentage of those people are minorities, despite their current outreach efforts.
“I would think at first that a property developed for low-income residents would be made with low quality material and be in locations that are unsafe for kids, which are usually areas of low-income,” said Mark Wang, who currently lives with his parents so that he can save enough money to buy something at market rate.
Wang’s skepticism about security and the quality of living is a common misconception among immigrant communities, which have historically been associated with urban ghettos and the old model of government housing. Today, developers in this industry seek out neighborhoods that are safe for families, within walking distance to grocery stories, and near schools.
Another change that low-income advocates are working toward is a different attitude in the definition of ownership.
“Asians especially don’t like limits. They like it to be on their own and have a sense of ownership,” Wang said. “They don’t want to have limits on what they can and cannot do with their property. It defies their idea of the American dream of owning your own home, which first requires making it on your own.”
Woo views this differently.
“It’s actually a step toward the American dream. It gives people an opportunity to purchase a home where they otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” he said. And for those who don’t have the luxury of living with relatives in order to save up for that market rate house, affordable housing can be the next best thing, especially when rent can be hard to cover.
Those who are currently trying to save for their first home by renting are achieving their goals slower than they should be. In 2003, Housing Development Corporation (HDC), a nonprofit trade association, found that 45 percent of Seattle renters, or nearly 60,000 households, were living in rental properties that they could not afford.
According to HDC, the housing wage in King County was $18.94 in 2006. This is the amount that a full-time (40 hours per week) worker had to earn per hour in order to afford an average two-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment with rent of $985.
Woo said if people could get over the mind-set that affordable housing is only for poor folks, they’d be able to put more people into quality housing.
Diate agreed. “Very few people in my community know about affordable housing. We get most of our information by word of mouth and there is very little advertising to the West African community about affordable housing. I’m sure it is the same with all immigrant communities,” he said.
In addition to education, organizations like LIHI are proactive in changing their image and message. Though LIHI has several developments specifically serving the homeless, they’ve recently shifted their development goals, from apartments and single family homes to townhomes and condos, to serve a different demographic — the young, urban, first-time home buyers.
“Affordable housing is the middle step between renting and owning at market rate,” said Woo, who is convinced that if more immigrant communities knew about their options, they’d consider affordable housing and the programs designed specifically to protect them.
Many blue-collar and immigrant workers do not have incomes that are continually increasing. As property values increase faster than wages, these groups will be left with very few options. The average couple in this category makes about $46,000 to $49,000 a year.
“Many Asian families are struggling with making ends meet as much of the market rate rental housing in the region is not affordable to households making minimum wage or even double minimum wage,” said Sharon Lee, executive director at LIHI.
While the International District has some low-income senior buildings, there are very few affordable options for families, and the demand far exceeds the supply for both senior and family housing.
“As you know, Asians like to live in all parts of Seattle and the suburbs,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, affordability is a major barrier to where people can live.”
Affordable housing can be the most logical move into home ownership, but it’s not for everyone. In addition to researching the programs, one must carefully analyze their individual long-term goals and current situation. ♦
For more information, visit www.lihi.org.
Caroline Li can be reached at email@example.com.