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Seattle startup chooses Edmonds for first stackable housing project


Last updated 6/13/2018 at Noon

Blokable’s multifamily units are planned for the grounds of Edmonds Lutheran Church.

With the housing affordability crisis increasing, and showing no sign of easing, one Edmonds church is on the forefront of an innovative push to benefit what it calls the most vulnerable in society.

Get ready for a new approach to modular homes, the first of which is expected to be installed this month.

Edmonds Lutheran Church and Compass Housing Alliance have partnered to introduce a three-phase, multistory housing development for low-income individuals and couples.

The goal: To provide affordable housing for people experiencing “housing instability,” including students, veterans, the homeless, teachers, firefighters, service workers, seniors, refugees and others who find housing out of reach.

But instead of going through the usual process of hiring developers and myriad construction crews and subcontractors, the church partnered with Seattle-based Blokable, whose “Bloks” are efficiency dwelling units manufactured using steel-frame construction in Vancouver, Washington.

Businesses like Blokable are leading the move into a new housing strategy paradigm, and Edmonds is the first city selected for the company’s homes.

The New York Times reports that the number of residential construction workers is 23 percent lower than in 2006, while trades like plumbers, carpenters and electricians are down close to 17 percent.

With Blokable, the company assumes all risk in its projects, having its own staff of builders.

At a community meeting at Edmonds Lutheran last week, Blokable CEO Aaron Holm explained that a Blok is a 260-square-foot, single-story apartment manufactured in Vancouver, transported by truck, and installed and connected to the Internet, other Bloks, and to utilities on site.

Because units are premade, Blokable can shorten design time by as much as 70 percent and cut building time in half. Each unit, Holm said, has fire and smoke detectors, security, temperature control, power consumption tracking and leak detectors.

Blokable projects come equipped with smart-home technology called Bloksense that includes a tablet on a wall to control temperature, lighting and other amenities. The technology can integrate with programs such as Slack – a communications app – giving residents the ability to chat with property managers.

“The place we’re coming from is housing for people anywhere from middle income to all the way down to no income,” said Holm, who founded Blokable in 2016 and previously managed Amazon’s brick-and-mortar projects Amazon Go and Amazon Books. Blokable received $4.8 million in capital from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc.

Long-awaited project for church

“A project like this is in the DNA of Lutherans,” said the Rev. Tim Oleson of Edmonds Lutheran Church. “In the Lutheran church, we have a history of projects like this that include schools, hospitals, and housing, so it really begins there. As Lutherans, we are committed to caring for our neighbors and community so it can be as healthy as possible.”

Oleson said his congregation has long had hopes that something significant could be done with a specific parcel of land on the church’s property.

The church poured energy into seeing if it could possibly work out a low-income retirement living complex, but that never materialized because there were no strong partners previously, like Compass Housing Alliance, that the church could partner with.

When conversations started with Compass, a plan – and partnership – began to form.

The church has not sold the property at this point. “If things continue as the hope and vision is, we would be selling the property to Compass Housing Alliance,” said Oleson, who added that he didn’t currently have a selling price. “Compass Housing would then have this as one of their many housing sites like this that they manage and oversee.”

Oleson believes Blokable’s launch of their high-tech housing in Edmonds will be a successful one.

“They have designed a fantastic, trendy, long-lasting, high-quality living space. I am excited to have the demonstration model on our property in the near future and be able to show it to the community.”

The tentative date for the showing is July 7.

City approval

The project in Edmonds – the first of its kind in Snohomish County – has the approval of Development Services Director Shane Hope, the city’s lead on housing issues, and City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, a member of the city’s Housing Strategy Task Force.

“This is a good example of a nonprofit partnership taking a bold step to create housing for low-income people,” Hope said. “It’s a first phase, a pilot project really, and is an example of one kind of housing the proposed housing strategy encourages.”

“I hope other churches take the lead with this,” Fraley-Monillas said. “Other churches are sitting on quite a bit of land. We want to come up with a strategic set of actions the city can take to ensure more affordable housing – whether for moderate-income families or a whole range of folks who are struggling to pay for housing in our community.”

City leaders agree Edmonds needs more homes of all shapes and sizes. The Puget Sound Regional Council reports that the city is projected to add about 5,500 people by 2035.

And the Housing Strategy Task Force says nearly 6,000 households in Edmonds are cost-burdened. In addition, nearly 11,000 people work in Edmonds, and about 60 percent of those jobs pay less than $40,000 a year.


“This project is good-looking and a good-feeling place of hope,” Edmonds Lutheran Church Pastor Julie Josund said. “Hope for our neighbors, for all of the Pacific Northwest, for those living and worshipping here.

“This lovely piece of property was just calling out to be home for people who need a home. It’s flat, it’s buildable, it’s close to public transportation, public education and shopping.”

That’s rare in Edmonds these days, Josund added.

“The people of this congregation believe that it’s our calling to care for our neighbors. We’ve worked for a long time to make this amazing resource come to life for our community.”

Chris Collier, from the Snohomish County Alliance for Housing and a member of Edmonds’ Housing Strategy Task Force, said he attended a meeting in Edmonds recently where a resident feared rising rents could force her out of her home of 25 years.

“This is a place she might live,” he said. “There will be a lot of diversity coming to the community, with two to three caseworkers on site supporting residents.”

Several in attendance at the meeting expressed concerns about the type of people who could move into the new housing.

“The number of homeless people in Snohomish County is going up every year,” Collier said.

“We can absolutely guarantee that. This is something where we shouldn’t think of the worse stereotypes. Think of the full scope of people who will eventually live here. Some might not be getting help now. But here, they will be getting help, moving toward a place where they might be stabilized. They are improving their lives, and that will assist in reducing problems.”

The church said that those with certain criminal histories, including sex offences, would not be allowed to live in the housing.

Studios first

The first phase of the $10 million to $12 million project is the placing of a single, studio-size Blok unit this month. The second phase involves 24 units of single and double-occupancy housing and onsite amenities such as laundry and community rooms, as well as meeting space for program staff.

The third and final phase will see the development of a three-story housing complex, also with amenities for residents and staff.

All units are furnished. Approximate prices are $600 for a studio, $700 for a one-bedroom, $900 for a two-bedroom, and $1,200 for a three-bedroom. Assistance will be available, as the housing is intended for those making zero to 50 percent of median area income.

The inside of a Blokable unit, which comes furnished.

Edmonds Lutheran’s Oleson said he’s heard concerns from neighbors about the new housing.

“One of the most common questions is about what the buildings would look like,” he said.

“We have photos on site that we are able to show people when they come by, and the response to what it looks like has been the same. There’s a positive surprise that it looks so trendy and modern, and not anything like what they were imagining a low-income unit would look like.

“But I tell our neighbors to keep coming with those good questions, as this project is still in development, and we can work together so that those questions and concerns can be worked on as this continues to move forward.”


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