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Originally published Friday, January 16, 2015 at 4:21 PM

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Editorial: Bellevue should use tax breaks to encourage housing options

A multifamily tax exemption is a smart strategy for a city like Bellevue, where low- and middle-income people have few housing options.

Seattle Times Editorial

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This is a really bad idea. I moved to Bellevue because there WEREN'T MANY POOR PEOPLE HERE. There is plenty of... MORE
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BELLEVUE is making a wise choice to encourage housing development that isn’t built just for the most affluent.

The City Council is moving forward on adopting a multifamily tax exemption (MFTE) that would give housing developers a tax break for including income-restricted units in their buildings.

Bellevue, a city of 134,000 people, is playing catch up to neighboring cities, such as Seattle and Kirkland where similar programs are already in use.

Cities use MFTE programs to stimulate development in areas where new housing isn’t under way or as a way to encourage new developments to accommodate a mix of incomes.

“What we want to do is make sure developers are providing affordable housing as we create market rate housing,” said Bellevue Councilmember Lynne Robinson.

Robinson said she’s concerned about building housing at various income levels so that more people who work in Bellevue could live closer to work.

“You’ll have market tenants living alongside reduced-rent tenants, and no one will know who’s who,” she said.

Bellevue officials and staff are still honing the details of the proposed ordinance. The council is weighing factors such as which neighborhoods to implement the program in, what income levels to target, how often tenants need to report their incomes and how long to keep units restricted, such as 50 years — in Seattle, the requirement is 12 years.

So far, the city has zeroed in on four areas: downtown, Bel-Red, Eastgate and Newport Hills.

Bellevue’s idea of pushing for units to remain income-restricted for 50 years would ensure that new buildings maintain a mix of incomes and prices over the long term. It makes sense to check tenant eligibility regularly to make sure the program serves the most deserving tenants.

Seattle’s MFTE program has been criticized in the past for a lack of enforcement. And, during the Great Recession regular rents in some buildings dropped below some of the income-restricted unit rents. Overall, however, Seattle’s program has generated thousands of affordable units proving that MFTE programs can be an effective tool.

Housing people earning the lowest incomes is a continuous challenge in most cities, said Arthur Sullivan, program manager for ARCH (A Regional Coalition for Housing), a partnership of East King County cities that focuses on affordable housing. But, in the current real-estate upswing, middle-income people are also having a hard time finding affordable rents.

Sullivan cautions that the MFTE program is just one strategy and is by no means a silver bullet — which don’t exist when it comes to affordable housing.

In Bellevue, known more for McMansions replacing smaller houses, the program could usher in much-needed housing options.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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