Bellevue district suspicious of a rededication plan
By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly Newspaper
Longtime Chinese and Indian immigrants in Bellevue were surprised by an announcement in early September that the city plans to initiate its new affordable housing strategy in its neighborhood.
At a meeting on September 14, dozens of Somerset and Factoria area residents turned out to ask the city for more time to assess the impact. Many said the city was under-informed about the strategy, which allows religious institutions that meet certain criteria to sell their land for affordable housing, and is changing the zoning in such neighborhoods. Currently, zoning in their neighborhood allows only single-family homes.
City officials‘ response to both these concerns and questions about public relations in general seemed to indicate some level of discrepancy between the two sides.
City officials also said in an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly and in written statements that they had been in contact in the months leading up to the September meeting when the city planning commission recommended that the city council enact the zoning change.
In addition, officials said they had increased their efforts to engage the community in recent years.
However, at previous summer meetings, outreach seemed less effective in reaching large numbers of residents. And some longtime residents, originally from China, said officials appeared to be responding to stereotypes about them.
Officials said the current strategy, which identified 25 sites for conversion, is just part of a grand plan to build affordable housing in Bellevue first formulated in 2017.
Emil King, deputy director for community development for the city of Bellevue, said there is an abundance of units either already built or planned.
“Of the approximately 5,000 affordable housing units on the ground and in the pipeline, only a small proportion are in Factoria and Somerset,” he said.
The new outreach to religious facilities in Bellevue as potential affordable housing sites came after a 2019 state law passed that approach, King said.
While the city has had partnerships with religious institutions in the past, with this new strategy the city is offering density bonuses to encourage the sale of such lots. This means developers can build more units on lots originally intended only for single-family homes. At the Factoria/Somerset project the developer will have the right to build 7.5 units per acre resulting in an as yet undetermined combination of duplex, triplex or townhouses and possibly a community centre.
“If this space were to be used for some form of permanent housing for the homeless in the future, a different land use process would need to be followed,” said Michelle DeGrand, the city’s assistant communications officer.
Habitat for Humanity is the potential developer, officials said.
“We’re still working out 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 that can be used by the Habitat homeowners in this development or by members of the Holy Cross community.”
If Habitat developed the homes, families would go through the mortgage application process to qualify for a monthly payment they can afford, D’Antonio said. With help from donors, Habitat would cover the rest.
“Housing partner families are investing in their new home and 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, a lack of knowledge about how this development would affect their community and adjacent schools, and that they were not being given enough time was used to evaluate the project.
Local residents said they received a notification from the city in the first week of September – just before the meeting.
Officials said there were meetings in both June and July and they couldn’t understand why concerned community members didn’t come.
In a remark at an earlier meeting, Gwen Rousseau, a senior planner in the Department of Community Development, said that prior to the first meeting on March 22,
“On June 16, a courtesy notice of application and public meeting was sent to all 500 households within 500 feet of the original 25 eligible sites,” she said.
The next meeting took place six days later. Only one community member showed up to speak to the planning committee about the new strategy.
Rousseau said that “interested parties” were then emailed on June 27 about the next meeting, a virtual meeting that took place on July 27. She noted that “just over 20” people showed up.
This time, according to the log, it was two community members – one the same as the last meeting – who showed up to address the new strategy. Neither appeared to be Asian.
One resident expressed concern that the strategy would divide the city along wealth lines, explaining that the new projects are all in relatively less affluent areas of the city.
“What Bellevue is doing is moving towards socio-economic red lining in the name of compassion and providing affordable housing. The city is striving to pool affordable housing in the most affordable neighborhoods,” the resident said. “Lake Hills owns nine of the properties and the other targets are Eastgate, Crossroads and Factoria. Two of the properties listed as Somerset are practically in Factoria. The implications of clustering are clear.”
City officials said they don’t have to group the new projects and depend on criteria church sites must meet. These include proximity to existing zones for multi-family or commercial real estate and proximity to high-frequency transit.
They also said religious institutions are not compelled to accept the offer. The city finances the contact to the churches.
Longtime Chinese immigrants living nearby say they don’t know if they missed the earlier announcement in June. However, they say that not only they but also their neighbors were surprised when they heard about the development in September.
At the September 14 meeting, residents of various ethnicities, White, Indian and Chinese, expressed their dismay at what they described as an apparent lack of notification. No one mentioned the earlier meetings.
“We weren’t aware of that and then we weren’t given enough time to make a decision,” said one woman, who asked not to be named. “If they don’t get a reply from us, shouldn’t they check if we got the message instead of waiving the default of no objection from us?”
City officials said they sincerely wish to keep improving their communication with the Chinese community.
“In my 20 years in the city, there has been a tremendous increase in the diversity of the city and the way we do our outreach and some of our goals have definitely changed,” King said. “We’re trying to keep raising the bar to reach out to community members who may not understand the government or even know how to get the materials.”
According to the US Census, Bellevue’s population is 37.5% Asian. The proportion of the foreign-born population increased from 13% in 1999 to 39% in 2015, according to the city.
However, some Chinese immigrants say the city may still be working with stereotypes about them that are either outdated or incorrect.
Mike McCormick Huentelman, deputy director of the City of Bellevue’s Neighborhood Services, said every community is surprised when there are new developments.
“I would say this is not unique to our Chinese community. It’s also happening in different neighborhoods around many projects,” he said. “When people first learn about a project, when they first hear about it, they’re surprised. You are reacting against something. They’re like, ‘Oh my god, where is this coming from, how is it affecting me or my neighborhood?'” he said during the interview.
Many Chinese immigrants on the East Side rely on WeChat for information, and in some cases this is raising concerns among them. In many cases, however, their trust in the Chinese social media platform facilitates political and civil society engagement in the city.
Three people who spoke to Northwest Asian Weekly about the development have lived in Bellevue for decades, are graduates from elite universities in China and the US, and longtime citizen activists who regularly visit and follow government activities.
“It’s a cliché about Asians,” the person who asked for anonymity replied to Huentelman’s testimony. “We weren’t used to participating in something like this before because of our background, but now we’ve totally changed, we protest.”
“And even if that were true, shouldn’t he be doing something to help our community?” said this resident.
More resources are coming
For immigrants who have recently arrived, the city offers various outreach services and interpreters. But officials seemed unaware of the relative lack of interpreted material compared to, say, the city of Seattle.
Officials said a small “town hall” located in Factoria Mall offers services in nine languages to help immigrants do business in the city. However, according to the website, which is only available in English, the services are available in five languages upon request.
Officials say budget requirements have not allowed them to translate all of the materials into other languages.
The city is compiling a list of FAQs for the new affordable housing strategy, which will be translated and posted online within weeks, DeGrand said.
Mahlon can be reached at [email protected]