Yesler Terrace demolition a sad end to city’s legacy of public housing

by John V. Fox and Carolee Colter, Seattle Displacement Coalition – March 30, 2015

If you haven’t driven by Yesler Terrace lately, you should. Nearly $300 million of your tax dollars are being invested in a complete makeover of this 28-acre, 560-unit public housing project owned by Seattle Housing Authority (SHA).

Just across the freeway from City Hall, the earthmovers and wreckers are busy leveling the housing, community gardens, old-growth trees, play areas and open space in preparation for the first of three phases of development. Plans call for about 5,000 housing units of mostly market-rate and high-end housing, plus some retail, and about a million square feet of high-rise offices. 

Now that the project is underway, it’s worth a closer look because SHA continues to convey the myth that the project will replace all the public housing and even result in a net gain of affordable housing. Wide-eyed admirers of runaway density also are quick to say this a “shining” example of how low-income housing can be successfully integrated into dense, mixed-income, urban developments. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The wrong turn

Seattle’s housing shortage is most acute for those with incomes at or below 30 percent of median, less than $25,000 annually. Citywide, according to a 2014 City Needs Assessment, there are about 48,000 households in Seattle in this category. That same report shows almost no privately owned rentals left in Seattle affordable to this population.

What this group depends on — especially families with kids — are subsidized units owned and managed by SHA. Most of those are federally funded “public housing,” nearly all created from the Roosevelt era to the pre-Reagan, late ‘70s. About 6,000 units remain, always full with 20,000 households on a years-long waiting list.

Nonprofits provide about 1,000 very-low-income units, but most of these are smaller, serving special needs populations — chronically homeless, seniors and those with disabilities — not the breadth of public housing-eligible households, including families.

SHA continues to pursue a policy of systematically replacing public housing with mixed-income developments. Since 1995, SHA has used federal funds to tear down more than 2,000 such units; less than half were ever replaced. The agency with a mission to serve the city’s poorest has become Seattle’s biggest destroyer of housing for this group. It’s now in the process of doing the same thing at Yesler Terrace.

Turning to nonprofits

There are about 8,000 Section 8 vouchers that SHA doles out, but waiting lists for these are equally long. Only about one out of every five very-low-income households is fortunate to get a voucher to help subsidize rent in a privately owned unit. Because those who get the vouchers take the remaining affordable units offered by the private market, those without must vie for what’s left, bidding up the rents on those units, meaning even more hardship for them.

Two years ago, when the Seattle City Council prepared to approve the Yesler Terrace plan, SHA vigorously resisted opponents’ efforts to ensure one-for-one replacement of all 561 public housing units on site. With 5,000 units planned there, SHA needed to include only one of every 10 as public housing.

Instead, the council allowed SHA to provide only 420 “replacement units” on site, with the rest built off-site. SHA also got permission to bring in nonprofit partners to develop the units, while SHA only had to provide the land and cover operating costs. This works out to be about 30 percent of the total cost of replacing these 560 public housing units.

So it’s the nonprofits that will actually build and cover most of the cost of the replacement housing. To do this, they will draw on existing limited city and state sources, like the city’s housing levy and state housing trust fund. These dollars were originally intended to expand our low-income housing stock, not replace units SHA destroys.

Also, while the nonprofit partners will be required to create units serving those with incomes at or below 30 percent of median, they’ll tap funds reserved exclusively for senior housing or those with special needs, but seldom for families — it’s one group or another, whereas public housing serves all.

‘Wiping out the past’

Yesler Terrace was one of the first public housing projects in the nation and an extraordinary legacy from the Roosevelt era. The units had been rehabbed many times and were structurally sound.

Generations of people were helped out of poverty, moving into the larger community as a result of the leg-up this housing provided. A low-income family could move in to a place where they could grow a garden in their enclosed backyard, where their kids could play and everyone knew each other. All that now is being ground to dust.

Somewhere in the new development of shiny towers and thousands of new, higher-end units there will be some 420 lower-cost units scattered and hidden — like the people who’ll live in them, not seen and not heard in the rush to pave over our city and wipe out our past.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. 

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