There are 561 “public housing” units at Yesler Terrace all serving households, especially families whose incomes are at or below 30 percent of the area median. For seventy years, Yesler Terrace, located on the southern slope of First Hill, neighboring the International District, has provided a safe affordable haven for thousands of families—including low-income people, people of color, and first-generation immigrants. It has given them a leg up until they can find jobs and transition into the larger community.
Gary Locke and Jimi Hendrix grew up at Yesler Terrace as did many others who moved on to make their mark in our community. Twenty languages are spoken there and it is without a doubt the most racially integrated and multi-ethnic community in our city. As a city, we cannot afford to lose Yesler Terrace and the critical role it continues to play in our city.
After four years of planning, the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) recently announced its “preferred option” for redevelopment of the Yesler Terrace site. Unfortunately SHA has backed away from replacing all the existing public housing units in the new development and is viewing the 28-acre site more as an opportunity to generate revenue and fuel their move into market rate development.
Their plan calls for demolition and replacement of the existing housing in favor of a mix of mid-rise to high-rise offices, retail uses, and as many as 5,000 units of “mixed-income housing” including 2,000-3,000 condominiums. They are even considering selling much of this land (held in the public trust for generations) to the highest bidder.
Earlier SHA at least gave lip service to full replacement on site of all 561 public housing units they will destroy. Even with that commitment, that would mean only about 1 in 10 of the housing units in their redevelopment plan would serve a very low-income population they were explicitly chartered to serve.
Despite the dramatic increase in density and lucrative income generating uses SHA intends to put on site, which could easily cover the cost of preserving and even adding more than the 561 public housing units located there now, SHA says only 490 will be replaced there.
Based on past history, we know this means even fewer low income units likely will wind up there after SHA gets its permits. Since 1995, at Roxbury Village, Holly Park, High Point, and Rainier Vista, SHA tore down 2000 public housing units for “mixed income” communities. Only 1,000 were replaced in the new developments. Homes there now are reportedly selling for over $600,000. We cannot let this happen to Yesler Terrace.
Of course, SHA alleges that what it doesn’t replace on site, it will replace off-site and in the immediate area. What’s wrong with that? In the new development, public housing would make up less than one-tenth of all units. An existing community would be dismembered so that this prime land near downtown with great views can serve higher-income groups. This directly conflicts with what SHA was chartered to do—to serve the poorest of the poor in our city.
Further, if the City allows SHA to build any portion of public housing replacement units off-site, millions of existing Seattle housing levy, state, and other local dollars likely will be tapped by SHA to buy the land and build those units. That’s what happened at Rainier Vista, High Point, and Holly Park. Funds badly needed to expand our low-income housing stock instead were “raided” and used to replace existing housing SHA destroyed. It simply was a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
King County’s Housing Benchmarks Report indicates there are over 30,000 households in our City with incomes below 30 percent of median but only 310 privately owned unsubsidized units priced at rents affordable to that income group. It is SHA’s singular mission to fill this gap and reach down and serve these households. No other public agency plays this role. That is their mission, not to act like one more “bottom-line” developer.
Over the next six months, the City Council will be reviewing and making decisions on SHA’s request for an upzone and other land use changes needed for their plans. Since SHA won’t do it, our City leaders must exercise their clear authority to ensure no net loss of the 561 public housing now on-site with even an increase above that number. And that SHA will cover these replacement costs from the income their redevelopment will generate, not our limited housing levy or other local dollars.