Seamless Design and Community Engagement Critical to Affordable Housing Success

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[caption id="attachment_15525" align="alignleft" width="300"] The redevelopment was divided into three phases. Of the original 481 low-income units from the original Rainier Vista project, 411 were replaced onsite. Photo courtesy of Dwell Development[/caption] The Seattle Housing Authority’s (SHA) redevelopment of one of its properties, Rainier Vista, transformed the surrounding community. The large-scale project replaced 481 deteriorating public housing units from the 1940s with a new mixed-income, mixed-use community of 1,092 residential units with office, retail, services and recreational space. 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. 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 2010s. The financing of the new construction of public housing units, with market-rate and affordable homes, was a delicate balancing act, with the Great Recession slicing through the middle of the project timeline. Seamless Design Integrates Community [caption id="attachment_15525" align="alignleft" width="300"] The new Rainier Vista neighborhood of the development comprises 294 units ranging from one to five bedrooms. Photo courtesy of Dwell Development.[/caption] 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. “There was a lot of thought put into the design of the project,” stated Stephanie Van Dyke, SHA director of development. “The design guidelines are the same for Seattle Housing Authority units and the private sector. The design review process tried to keep it simple by asking: ‘How do you achieve diversity?’ We wanted them to vary frontages, minimize garages and setback, and add alleys.” 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. New Transit Creates New Opportunities 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. The LINK Light Rail service opened in the summer of 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. Redevelopment at Rainier Vista more than doubled the density, so public outreach for the redevelopment of Rainier Vista, particularly with current residents, was conducted throughout the process. To create a sense of community and an outlet to discuss potential issues, the SHA and Homeowners’ Association (HOA) Phase I established a “Good Neighbor Agreement Committee.” Several community solutions have been addressed through this committee, which has improved the spirit and quality of the relationship among neighbors. Key Factors for Success:
  • Housing authority served as master planner for a comprehensive development
  • City of Seattle’s collaborative commitment to coordinate on infrastructure development
  • Rainier Vista design book for consistent design standards throughout the project
  • Active Citizen Review Committee for stakeholder engagement
  • One-to-one replacement policy for public housing units
  • Transit-oriented design to prepare for the new light-rail line
  • Doubled density from the original project to create a mixed-income community
  • Infrastructure redesign to integrate with the existing street grid
For more housing affordability resources, including the full case study on the Rainier Vista neighborhood, visit and the Land Use 101 toolkit at The toolkit also includes access to the full How Did They Do It? report. Deborah L. Myerson, AICP — author of the How Did They Do It? Report — contributed to the content of this article. Myerson is an urban planner with 20 years of experience in housing, community development, land use and transportation policy, and urban revitalization.

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