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If Seattle Housing Authority proposals go as planned, 15 years from now Seattle's oldest and best known public housing development will be gone. Yesler Terrace will have been demolished and replaced with a dense, new, mixed-income neighborhood. It's a plan every bit as radical and controversial as the plan that built Yesler Terrace in the first place.In this four-part series, Dominic Black explores the history, present and future of one of Seattle's most distinctive communities: Yesler Terrace.

Yesler Terrace: Mixed Income Neighborhoods And The Seattle Housing Authority

Housing in the Yesler Terrace area.
KUOW Photo/Dominic Black

When Yesler Terrace finally becomes a planned, mixed-income neighborhood in the next 10 or 15 or maybe even 20 years, it won't be the first in the city. New Holly, Rainier Vista and High Point are all former public housing projects. They were redeveloped through Hope VI, a federal program that came into being in 1993, at a time when public housing was seen by some as a social policy failure, an example of how government got things wrong.
As the famous remark by Ronald Reagan has it, summing up the mood of the times, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'”

The Idea Behind The Mixed Income Neighborhood

Hope VI was born into this hostile climate and was designed to address three things: the physical state of public housing, its management and the broader needs of public housing residents. The idea of the mixed-income neighborhood was a key mechanism for making it happen.

Dr. Susan Popkin is a leading researcher who specializes in public housing with the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. She is also director of their Neighborhoods and Youth Development program.  

“I think the hope was that if you had people who had been isolated in high poverty communities and you made a situation where they were able to live in a more mixed community with higher income folks that, yes, they might get leads about jobs,” says Popkin. “Kids might get better role models and also those higher income people would bring more resources to the community and more pressure for good schools, more pressure for clean development, more pressure for good management. I think the latter has actually happened. I think there's less evidence of people socializing and forming real communities.”

A successful community, however you might define success in this context, is hard to create artificially — a point not lost on some current Yesler residents as they face the future.

However, Susan Popkin's research shows that mixed income communities can work. In Chicago she has found significant improvements in the lives of many residents who have made the transition from old style public housing. It's not perfect, she says, and it's not been easy, but on the whole, Chicago's attempt to reform public housing has been “a very successful housing intervention.” One crucial element of this success is the provision of wraparound services, which do not address just the housing needs of individuals and families, but everything from health care to education to financial literacy.  

From Hope VI To Choice Neighborhoods

Which brings us neatly back to Yesler Terrace. Wraparound services are integral to how the Seattle Housing Authority is approaching redevelopment here. The first two grants for Yesler come to just under $30 million. They're part of the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative — a federal program that's a successor to Hope VI.

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I asked Andrew Lofton, the executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority, to help me untangle the distinction. “The Choice Neighborhoods grant is really about a broader community revitalization than simply the public housing component,” he says. “So, there's a portion of the grant that goes for the physical redevelopment of the property, and then there's a portion of the grant that goes for services.”

These are similar to the wraparound services that were so integral to success in Chicago. What makes Choice Neighborhoods distinct from Hope VI, though, is the holistic approach that's written into the program's design.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded grants to Seattle on the understanding that the Seattle Housing Authority will partner with as many community stakeholders as possible with the aim of taking on challenges that affect the entire area, not just the real estate where the public housing sits.

So the Authority is partnering with the city and county to improve transportation infrastructure and services; with Bailey Gatzert school and Seattle University to address issues relating to educational attainment for children who live in Yesler Terrace; and with potential employers like Swedish and Harborview Medical Center to target training for residents towards employment opportunities.  

Making this happen is like spinning plates, though, especially on the money side. Initially, the Housing Authority planned to sell off much of the land where Yesler is now. The City Council asked them to reconsider this aspect of their development plan, in a process Andrew Lofton says is currently underway.

“Well, we haven't completed it yet. We are taking our time to structure the right question so that we get the right analysis for the comparison between leasing and selling,” says Lofton.  “Before I have gone too much further in actually selling anything we will have — for every parcel that we will have sold — we will have gone through the analysis to see whether or not there is another option.”

The Housing Authority will do whatever brings in the most revenue says Lofton. That will depend on a range of factors, including land prices and the market for apartments in the city over the life span of the Yesler project. The precise details of when each parcel of Housing Authority land might come up for sale or lease, therefore, will be opportunistic. When it seems like a good time to act, that's what the Housing Authority will do.  

Doing More With Much Less

That opportunism is born of financial pragmatism. Although the Seattle Housing Authority’s first priority is serving its residents, its most urgent ongoing challenge is doing so in a climate of fiscal austerity. Funds allocated for Yesler redevelopment so far are secure, but overall, the Seattle Housing Authority has lost 18 percent of its workforce since 2011. It faces a 5 percent budget cut in 2013 on top of that. Every housing authority in the country faces the same problem, says Lofton.

And then there are the waiting lists.

“We last opened up our wait list in 2008. We had 4,000 names on that list and we still haven't gotten through that wait list yet. So we've had people on that wait list for over five years,” says Lofton. In preparation for completing the 2008 list, though, the Housing Authority began collecting names for a new one. “We got 24,000 applications for that wait list, for which we can only have 2,000 names from that group who would be eligible for a housing choice voucher,” says Lofton.

So, to summarize: 24,000 low-income people in Seattle need help with housing and 22,000 of them can't get that help because the Seattle Housing Authority doesn't have the resources. That’s the context within which Yesler Terrace redevelopment is taking place. Budget cuts and a declining public sector mean that in its everyday functioning, the Housing Authority is trying to do more with less. Which raises the question: Can Andrew Lofton be optimistic about the Seattle Housing Authority's ongoing ability to provide the services it needs to?

“I'm optimistic about our ability to provide our services, absolutely,” says Lofton. “The question will be at what level, and that question will be answered by what happens at the federal level with the budget and the resources that are allocated for low-income housing.”

Simple Math

So you might be of the opinion that the Seattle Housing Authority plans to redevelop Yesler Terrace are part of a conspiracy to gentrify the neighborhood. You might be of the opinion that they're commendable and visionary. Or you might think that they're fraught with risks, financial and otherwise. Ultimately, though, maybe everything just comes down to simple math. Threaded through the lives of the residents who live in Yesler Terrace are the numbers that tell the story of why their neighborhood has to change, 70 years after Jesse Epstein's vision for Yesler Terrace first came to fruition.  

Additional Audio

Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute has been researching the impact of Chicago's public housing redevelopment on residents for over 10 years. Dominic Black asked what key ingredients make up what she describes as, on the whole, “a very successful housing intervention.”

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Andrew Lofton describes the organizations with which the Seattle Housing Authority are partnering, as the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace dovetails with efforts to tackle broader needs in the surrounding community.

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On its website, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development describes how the 561 housing units in Yesler Terrace will be replaced with 561 "project-based voucher units." Dominic Black asked Andrew Lofton to unpack just what that term actually means.

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Funding for this story was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW Board of Directors and Listener Subscribers.