Northwest Asia Weekly
Longtime Chinese and Indian immigrants in Bellevue were surprised by the early September announcement that the city plans to launch a new affordable housing strategy in its neighborhood.
At a meeting on September 14, dozens of residents in the Somerset and Factoria areas turned up to demand more time for the city to assess the impact. Many say the city has not done enough publicity for the strategy, which allows religious institutions that meet certain criteria to sell their land for affordable housing development, and changes the zoning of those neighborhoods. Currently, only single-family homes are allowed in zoning near them.
The response from city officials to those concerns and general outreach questions appears to indicate a degree of disconnect between the two parties.
In an interview with Northwest Asia Weekly and in a written statement, city officials said they conducted outreach months before the September meeting, when the city planning committee recommended the city council pass the rezoning amendment.
In addition, officials said they have stepped up their engagement with the community in recent years.
However, outreach efforts appeared to be less effective in reaching diverse residents during the earlier summer session. Some longtime residents from China said officials appeared to be acting on stereotypes about them.
Officials say the strategy, which has now identified 25 retrofit sites, is only part of an ambitious plan to build affordable housing in Bellevue, first proposed in 2017.
Emil King, assistant director of the City of Bellevue’s Department of Community Development, said a large number of units have been built or are planned.
“Factoria and Somerset are only a fraction of the more than 5,000 affordable housing units on the ground and in the pipeline,” he said.
After a state law was passed in 2019 adopting this approach, Bellevue’s religious institutions received a new boost as a potential location for affordable housing, King said.
While the city has partnered with religious institutions in the past, with this new strategy, the city offers density bonuses to encourage the sale of such land. That means developers can build more units on properties that might otherwise be zoned only for single-family homes. In the Factoria/Somerset project, the developer will have the right to build 7.5 units per acre, which will result in an as-yet-undetermined mix of duplex, triple or townhouses, and possibly a community center.
“If the space is used in the future for some kind of permanent homeless shelter, a different land-use process has to be followed,” said Michelle de Grande, the city’s deputy communications officer.
Habitat for Humanity is a potential developer, officials said.
“We’re still working out who will own and operate the space,” said Brett D’Antonio, CEO of Seattle Kings and Habitat for Humanity in Kittitas County. “However, it will be a space used by Habitat owners or members of the Holy Cross community in this development.”
D’Antonio said that if Habitat developed the housing, families would go through a mortgage application process to get monthly payments they could afford. With help from donors, Habitat will cover the rest.
“Habitat Partner families invest in their new homes and communities,” he added.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church did not respond to emailed questions.
At the Sept. 14 meeting, residents of surrounding communities said they were concerned about increased traffic, a lack of understanding of how the development would affect their community and neighboring schools, and insufficient time to evaluate the project.
Residents said they were notified by the city in the first week of September — shortly before the meeting.
Officials said meetings were held in June and July and they did not understand why members of the community concerned did not come at that time.
Speaking at an earlier meeting, community development senior planner Gwen Rousseau said emails about the project had been sent to each of the 25 churches living in the church ahead of the first meeting on June 22. Everyone within 500 feet of the seat.
“On June 16, a courtesy notice of applications and public meetings was mailed to all 500 households within 500 feet of the original 25 eligible locations,” she said.
A subsequent meeting took place six days later. Only one community member appeared on the planning committee to speak on the new strategy.
Rousseau said “interested parties” then received an email on June 27 about the next meeting, which took place on July 27. She noted that “just over 20 people” showed up.
This time, two community members — one of the same members from the previous meeting — attended the new strategy, according to the meeting minutes. Neither seem to be Asian.
One resident expressed concern that the strategy would divide cities by wealth distribution, and said new projects were all located in relatively less affluent parts of the city.
“What Bellevue is doing is moving towards the socioeconomic red line in the name of compassion and providing affordable housing. The city is looking at clustering affordable housing in the most affordable neighborhoods,” the resident said. “Lake Hills owns nine properties, other targets are Eastgate, Crossroads and Factoria. Both properties listed by Somerset are located for all utility purposes in Factoria. The impact of the cluster is evident.”
City officials said they would not lump new projects together and would have to depend on the standards the church site had to meet. These include proximity to existing subdivisions of multifamily or commercial properties and proximity to high-frequency traffic.
They also said religious institutions were not forced to accept the offer. The city is funding outreach to churches.
Long-term Chinese migrants living nearby said they did not know if they ignored an earlier notice in June. However, they said that when they heard about the development in September, they were surprised not only by them, but also by their neighbours.
At the Sept. 14 meeting, residents of various races, whites, Indians and Chinese expressed disappointment that what they said did not appear to have been notified. No one mentioned the previous meeting.
“We didn’t know that and then we didn’t have enough time to make a decision,” said one woman who asked to withhold her name. “If they don’t get any response from us, shouldn’t they check that the message has reached us instead of tacitly acknowledging that we have no objections?”
City officials said they sincerely hope to continue to improve communication with the Chinese community.
“In the 20 years I’ve worked in the city, the diversity of the city has grown tremendously, and the way we do outreach and some of our goals has definitely changed,” King said. “We’re trying to continue raising the bar, rolling out to members of the community who may not know the government or may not know how to access the material.”
According to the U.S. Census, Bellevue is 37.5 percent Asian. According to the city, the proportion of its foreign-born population increased from 13 percent in 1999 to 39 percent in 2015.
But some Chinese immigrants say the city may still be operating under stereotypes about them that are either outdated or inaccurate.
Mike McCormick Huentelman, assistant director of community services for the City of Bellevue, said every community is surprised when there is a new development.
“I would say this is not unique to our Chinese community. It also happens in different communities around many projects,” he said. “When people discover an item for the first time, when they hear it for the first time, they’re surprised. They’re reacting to something. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, where did this come from, it’s right What is the impact on me or the community around me?'” he said in the interview.
Many Chinese immigrants in the Eastside rely on WeChat for information, which in some cases does cause them concern. In many cases, however, their reliance on Chinese social media platforms has fostered political and civic engagement in cities.
The three people interviewed by Northwest Asia Weekly have lived in Bellevue for decades, graduated from elite universities in China and the United States, and are long-term civic activists who have participated in and followed government activities for a long time.
“It’s a stereotype of Asians,” said one person who requested anonymity in response to Huentelman’s statement. “In the past, we were not used to being involved in this kind of thing because of our background, but now we have completely changed and we protest.”
“Even if that were true, shouldn’t he be doing something to help our community?” the resident said.
More resources to come
For recently arrived immigrants, the city offers a variety of outreach and interpretation services. But officials seem unaware of the relative paucity of explanatory materials compared to the city of Seattle.
Officials said the mini “town hall” at Factoria Mall offers services in nine languages to help immigrants do business in the city. But the services are available in five languages upon request, according to the website, which is only available in English.
Officials said budget requirements did not allow them to translate all materials into other languages.
DeGrand said the city is compiling a list of frequently asked questions for the new affordable housing strategy, which will be translated and posted online within weeks.
Mahlon can reach [email protected].