‘Everyday’ people can afford rent at Renton’s Liberty Square

Painted green, orange and yellow, the conjoined buildings on South Fifth Avenue and Williams Avenue South are hardly invisible. But the tenants of Liberty Square may be. They are the area’s modest-income workers. The cashiers at Fry’s Electronics, Target and Wal-Mart, the office secretaries, the entry-level teachers, the nurses. The people in our everyday lives.

“Almost the invisible people in need out there,” says Dorothy Lengyel, executive director of Downtown Action to Save Housing (DASH).

These workers can’t afford to live in most of Renton’s new upscale housing complexes. But they can afford Liberty Square. That’s the name of the apartment complex at Fifth and Williams. Renton Housing Authority and DASH partnered to build the four-story building. DASH is a Bellevue-based, non-profit, low-income housing provider. Liberty Square, which opened in mid-August, is about half leased. When full, Liberty Square will house 92 of those “invisible” families, or families who make up to 50 to 60 percent of the area’s median income.

As measured by King County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), King County’s median income for all family sizes is $81,400. The median income is $65,100 for a family of two and $48,800 for a family of four.

Monthly rent at Liberty Square is $808 for a studio, $859 for one bedroom and $1,032 for a two bedroom.

Rent is calculated based on bedroom size and the area’s median income.

According to Renton Housing Authority, rent at two comparable nearby apartment complexes is $870 for a one bedroom and $1,170 for a two bedroom.

The difference between the rents at those buildings and Liberty Square may not seem like much. But the 25 families at Liberty Square who make 50 percent or less of the area median income receive rental assistance from Renton Housing Authority. And because Liberty Square’s rents are underwritten by Renton Housing Authority bonds and tax credits, the monthly fees will continue to be affordable even as rents rise at neighboring complexes. Rents at Liberty Square must always be affordable to people who make 50 to 60 percent of the area median income.

“We’re not going to be raising rents as fast or as high as private apartment units in the area,” says Mark Gropper, Renton Housing Authority deputy executive director. “Right now $859 for a one bedroom is a good deal.”

And five years down the road, when other comparable one bedrooms are $1,000, Gropper says Liberty Square’s $859 will be a “really good deal.”

Liberty Square also has many amenities not usually found in affordable-housing complexes. Amenities like secured, underground parking, a community room and exercise area and laundry rooms, decks or patios in each unit. Nineteen of the units are accessible to the disabled.

DASH’s Lengyel says these features are “not routine” for affordable housing complexes. Liberty Square’s good design, good location and affordability makes DASH “very proud of the project,” she says.

“The quality of construction is very good,” she says. “It’s not like some kind of rubber-stamp approach to design. You see a number of nice features — balconies, an incredibly beautiful entrance to the building — all done in a very cost-contained way. It demonstrates good design doesn’t have be very expensive.”

Gropper is also impressed with Liberty Square.

“I think it’s a fantastic building,” he says. “… I think it’s a very handsome building.”

Renton Housing Authority is the funding conduit of Liberty Square and DASH the managing developer. Woodinville-based Synergy Construction built the complex.

Half of the $18 million building was financed by bonds issued by Renton Housing Authority. The other half came from a mixture of sources, including tax credits, county and state funds and money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Liberty Square marks 1,000 DASH units built. The nonprofit, which formed in the early 1990s, has built 15 low-income developments.

DASH uses a mixture of public and private funds to construct affordable housing in downtown areas throughout East King County. Downtown is the focus because that’s where most jobs are, but where most affordable housing is not.

Jobs at new Renton developments such as The Landing increase the demand for cheap, downtown living. Liberty Square’s quick fill-up demonstrates that need.

“The fact that it rented up in less than three months speaks for the demand,” Lengyel says. “Like, bingo. Lots of people are wanting to live there.”

Renton Housing Authority’s next projects will be on three sites in the Highlands. Work begins in 2009.

DASH doesn’t have any other Renton projects planned, but Lengyel says she would like to continue building in the Renton, which she calls “one of those little secrets in South King County.”

“We’re not quite ready, but I can see doing more in Renton,” she says. “We think it’s a good place to build.”

Liberty Square

Liberty Square is at 415 Williams Ave. S. For more information, call 866-554-6993.