Officials tour Highline affordable housing sites

Less than 10 years ago, you would have driven by certain apartment complexes and made a note to never walk by there at night.

You likely wouldn't say that now.

The Housing Development Consortium and King County Housing Authority organized a bus tour Sept. 21 to show elected officials, city planners, and other government workers the improvements made to what used to be dilapidated apartment buildings in Burien, Tukwila, and SeaTac.

The properties that were looked at were Windsor Heights, Group Home and Park, and Angle Lake Court in SeaTac; Pacific Court apartments and a single family home in Tukwila; and Burien Heights in Burien.

Most notable were Pacific Court and Burien Heights, which provide housing for the mentally ill, people with criminal convictions in their past, and people who would otherwise be chronically homeless.

"People have this perception of what mentally ill people look like, act like, and what they do," said Thom McKeon, vice president of residential services at Burien Heights.

He said those perceptions were typically off the mark.

"Mentally ill people are more likely to be the victim of the crime than to commit one," he said.

A significant portion of the funding that supports the housing for the mentally ill came as a result of a sales tax increase of one-tenth of 1 percent that went into effect in 2008. Another key piece of county legislation was the Veterans and Human Services Levy that passed in 2005.

Declan Wynne, director of Sound Mental Health, which oversees the tenants at the 32-unit Pacific Court property, said that King County was saving thousands of dollars by housing the mentally ill and former criminals rather than keeping them locked up in psychiatric wards or jails.

"Psychiatric units cost $300 per day," he said.

He and other housing advocates agree that the savings of housing someone vulnerable to society are astronomical.

"If someone is a chronic user of emergency response services [and] you can get them housed and have someone coming to make sure they're taking their meds and going to job training, it's a lot cheaper than the expensive costs of emergency responses," said Karen Williams, the suburban cities outreach director for the Housing Development Consortium, which helped organize the bus tour.

The mentally ill were not the only people being served by affordable housing. Windsor Heights in SeaTac also has a large immigrant and refugee population, which carries with it many unique needs.

Prior to 1998, it was a dilapidated apartment complex that no one would approach if they feared for their safety. A walkthrough of the property shows a completely different story.

For instance, Windsor Heights also plays host to the nonprofit, New Futures, which partners with families and educators to provide educational and moral support for children who otherwise lack it.

Mario Paredes is the executive director of New Futures.

"Many of these kids [at Windsor Heights] don't have the resources and their parents don't have the educational background [to motivate them to do well in school]," he said.

Seniors also round out the list of those in need of affordable housing - and that was shown on the last stop of the bus tour at Angle Lake Court, which provides housing for seniors 55 years and older.

Advocates say seniors are in the most need of affordable housing and they predict their population South King County will double by 2025 - making them roughly 23 percent of King County's population.

More than 6,700 seniors are on waiting lists for affordable housing and an estimated 1,000 are homeless in King County.

Harry Hoffman, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium, said that developing affordable housing also contributes to the economy by providing jobs and bring new business to the surrounding communities.

"It's not just charity and it's not just altruism," he said.

"Think about who we're serving: we're serving the restaurant workers, the nursing assistants, the gas station attendants, folks in your everyday life who cannot afford market rents. Affordable housing is one part of a healthy community."

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