By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Longtime Chinese and Indian immigrants in Bellevue were surprised at a planning commission meeting in September where they discovered the city is considering further housing density bonuses on certain religious-owned properties throughout Bellevue to encourage affordable housing creation.
At a meeting on Sept. 14, residents of the Somerset and Factoria area attended to ask the city for more time to evaluate the impacts, although not everyone who showed up ended up speaking. Many said the city had not done sufficient outreach about the strategy, which allows qualified properties to be reclassified when affordable housing development is proposed.
The response of city officials, both to these concerns and to questions about outreach in general, seemed to point to the need for more outreach, which city officials acknowledge they are stepping up.
City officials, in an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly and in written statements, also said they had done outreach in the months prior to the September meeting, when the city’s planning commission recommended that the city council pass the amendment which, if adopted, could lead to policy and code changes to meet the increased need for affordable housing.
Moreover, the officials said they had stepped up their efforts to engage the community over recent years.
However, in earlier meetings during the summer, outreach efforts appeared to be less effective in reaching a diversity of residents. The strategy
Officials said that the current initiative, which has identified 29 sites for conversion, is only one part of a grand plan to build affordable housing in Bellevue first articulated in 2017.
Emil King, assistant director of community development for the City of Bellevue, said there are a plethora of units either already built or planned.
“Of the 5,000 some odd affordable housing units on the ground and in the pipeline, there’s just a small share that is in Factoria and Somerset,” he said.
The new outreach to religious institutions in Bellevue as potential sites for affordable housing came after a state law passed in 2019 with this approach, said King.
While the city has already partnered with religious institutions in the past, with this new initiative, the city offers density bonuses to encourage the sale of such land. That means developers can build more units on property that may originally be zoned for only single-family dwellings. In a proposed development project in the Factoria/Somerset area, the developer will have the right to build 7.5 units per acre, which will result in an as-yet-undetermined combination of duplexes, triplexes, or townhomes, and possibly a community center.
Habitat for Humanity is the potential developer, said officials.
“We’re still working through who would own and operate the space,” said Brett D’Antonio, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Seattle-King and Kittitas Counties. “However, it will be a space for use by the Habitat homeowners in this development or by members of the Holy Cross community.”
If Habitat developed the housing, families would go through the mortgage application process to qualify for a monthly payment they can afford, said D’Antonio. Through the help of donors, Habitat would cover the rest.
“Habitat Partner Families are invested in their new home and the community,” he added.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church did not respond to emailed questions.
At the Sept. 14 meeting, residents of the surrounding community said they were concerned about an increase in traffic, the lack of knowledge about how this development would impact their community and adjacent schools, and not having been given enough time to evaluate the project. Residents said they had received notice from the city during the first week of September—only shortly before the meeting.
Officials said there had been meetings both in June and July and they could not understand why concerned community members did not come then.
In remarks at an earlier meeting, Gwen Rousseau, a senior planner with the department of community development, said mailings about the project had been sent out to everyone living within 500 feet of each of the 25 churches prior to the first meeting on June 22.
“On June 16, a courtesy notice of application and public meeting was mailed to all 500 households within 500 feet of the original 25 qualifying sites,” she said.
The subsequent meeting was held six days later. Only one community member showed up to address the planning commission about the new strategy.
Rousseau said that “interested parties” were then emailed, on June 27, about the next meeting, a virtual session, which was held on July 27. She noted that “just over 20” people showed up.
This time, it was two community members—one of them the same as from the previous meeting—who showed up to address the new initiative, according to the minutes. Neither appeared to be Asian.
One of the residents expressed concern that the initiative would divide the city by wealth distribution, stating that the new projects were all located in relatively less affluent areas of the city.
“What Bellevue is doing is heading toward socioeconomic red lining in the name of compassion and providing affordable housing. The city is looking at clustering affordable housing in the most affordable neighborhoods,” said the resident. “Lake Hills has nine of the properties, and the other targets are Eastgate, Crossroads, and Factoria. Two of the properties listed as Somerset are for all practical purposes located in Factoria. The impacts of clustering are clear.”
City officials said they are not clustering the new projects and must depend on the criteria that church sites must meet. These include being near existing zoning for multifamily or commercial properties and near high-frequency transit.
They also said religious institutions were not forced to take the offer. The city is funding outreach to the churches.
Longtime Chinese immigrants living in the vicinity say they do not know if they overlooked the earlier notice in June. However, they say that it was not just them, but their neighbors that were surprised in September when they heard of the development.
At the Sept. 14 meeting, it was residents of different ethnicities, white, Indian, and Chinese, who expressed dismay over what they said was the seeming lack of notice given. None mentioned the earlier meetings.
“We were not aware of this, and then we were not given enough time to make a decision,” said one woman, who asked that her name be withheld. “If they do not get any response from us, aren’t they supposed to check if the message has reached us instead of defaulting to no objections from us?”
City officials said they sincerely want to continue to improve their communication with the Chinese community.
“In my 20 years at the city, the diversity of the city has increased tremendously and the way we do outreach and some of our goals definitely have changed,” said King. “We’re trying to continue to raise the bar to push out to community members who might not understand government or might not know how to even get the materials.”
Bellevue’s population is 37.5% Asian, according to the U.S. Census. The percentage of its foreign-born population increased from 13% in 1999 to 39% in 2015, according to the city.
Mike McCormick Huentelman, assistant director of neighborhood services at the City of Bellevue, said that every community is surprised when there is new development.
“I would say that is not unique to our Chinese community. It also happens across different neighborhoods around many projects,” he said. “When people first find out about a project, the first time they hear about it, they’re surprised. They’re reacting against something. They feel like, ‘Oh my Gosh, where did this come from, how is it impacting me or my surrounding neighborhood?’” he said during the interview.
Many Chinese immigrants on the Eastside rely on WeChat for information, and in some cases this does cause a proliferation of worries among them. In many cases, however, their reliance on the Chinese social media platform facilitates political and civic engagement with the city.
Three individuals who spoke to Northwest Asian Weekly about the development have lived in Bellevue for decades, are graduates of elite universities in China and the U.S., and are longtime civic activists who regularly attend and follow government activities.
“In the past, we were not accustomed to participate in this kind of thing because of our background, but now we have totally changed, we protest,” said one Chinese resident of Somerset who asked for anonymity.
More resources coming
For immigrants who have more recently arrived, the city offers various outreach services and interpretation. But officials did not seem aware of the relative paucity of interpreted materials, when compared to the City of Seattle, for instance.
At the same time, a mini “city hall” that is located in Crossroads Shopping Center offers services in nine languages to help immigrants with city business. Officials say budget demands have not allowed them to translate all materials into other languages.
The city is putting together a Frequently Asked Questions list for the new affordable housing strategy that will be translated and put online within weeks, said Michelle DeGrand, deputy communications officer.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.