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The Yesler Terrace rebuild: A ‘risky’ venture

By Robby Stern and Will Parry

The Seattle Housing Authority, (SHA) has been authorized by a unanimous †vote of the Seattle City Council to move ahead with a 30-acre, $300 million redevelopment of the Yesler Terrace housing project that first opened in 1941.

Councilmember Nick Licata, the Chair of the City Council’s Housing, Human Services, Health and Culture Committee, has outlined the terms of the agreement in a response to concerns that were raised by the Seattle/King County Advisory Council on Aging and Disability Services. The Advisory Council had asked the City Council to delay the decision given the many concerns that had been expressed by low- income housing advocates and that had not yet been addressed. PSARA joined with the Advisory Council in asking for a delay in this momentous decision.

At issue is the continuation of affordable housing for a long-established and very diverse community of 561 households whose average income is about $14,000 a year. The challenge is to maintain the integrity of the existing Yesler Terrace community in the midst of what is planned to be a dense, mixed-used neighborhood including office buildings and retail spaces, with a population of about 5000 families, over half of whom will be living in more expensive market-rate housing.

The agreement between SHA and the city requires the replacement of the 561 low-income units within the immediate Yesler Terrace neighborhood. Every Yesler Terrace resident has been given a certificate entitling them to return, although the return of some residents may be delayed, possibly for years, because of the time required to replace all 561 units.

SHA has been working with the city and the Yesler Terrace Review Committees since 2006. A series of meetings and two public hearings earlier this year led to the agreement on redevelopment.

The SHA hopes to use $145 million from property sales to private developers to rebuild the 561 units of low-income housing. Relocation of the residents could take as long as twenty years.

Councilmember Licata has acknowledged that this is a “risky” venture. He worked to create as many safeguards as he could get. The city’s own land use consultant, Matthew Gardner, stated that the project is “unprecedented and untested anywhere in the U.S.”

Placing some of the lowest-income earners in our city in the same housing project with some of the highest-income earners will require a level of empathy and community that we simply have not seen from many of the one percenters. It is predictable that the genuinely well-to-do who occupy the prime real estate will demand changes that will negatively impact the low-income residents.

Also of serious concern to low-income housing advocates is SHA’S plan to divert millions of dollars from Seattle’s voter-approved low income housing levy to the Yesler Terrace rebuild. Advocates say the levy was supposed to be dedicated to adding new low-income housing units, not to replacing existing units.

The controversy led to the resignation of a member of the Seattle Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, Yusuf Cabdi.“Yesler Terrace is a clear example of how the agency is moving away from its commitment, and engaging in very risky projects that will cause irreparable damage to affordable housing stock in the city of Seattle,”Cabdi said.

Inevitably, the cherished gardens of the mostly immigrant residents will not survive the redevelopment. There will be much pain associated with this plan, most of it borne by the low-income residents of Yesler Terrace.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the SHA and City Council faced a daunting problem. The infrastructure of Yesler Terrace was clearly aging and in need of major work. The sharp reduction in federal funds for low income housing had presented a major challenge.

We know that low income housing advocates will remain vigilant and critical as this project moves forward. The low income residents of Yesler Terrace must not be treated with the arrogance and disdain that many of our PSARA members have reported they experienced while living in SHA housing projects.


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