Seattle Housing Authority: Interview with Doris Koo

  • Posted 1/16/2015
  • Essay 11017

In this interview Doris Koo, who oversaw Phase 1 redevelopment of the Holly Park project in South Seattle for the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), describes how changes in federal funding for public housing necessitated new partnerships between SHA, the City of Seattle, and the mayor's office. Doris Koo came to the Seattle Housing Authority as director of development in 1994, after several years as a community activist and organizer in New York City, and served for seven years. The interview was conducted in 2014 by Dominic Black.

DK: For the first HOPE VI project, which was Holly Park, HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] was very clear that the federal government is no longer solely responsible for building affordable housing for the citizens that live in various cities, without those cities also being a partner in the effort. Not only would it not be appropriate, because the federal government at that point have acknowledged that it may not have the right solutions in terms of building type and all of that, but they wanted partners from cities. And so in submitting a successful implementation application from the city, from the Seattle Housing Authority, SHA has to have a lot of support from the mayor and city council, indicating not only support, buy-in to the vision, but also a monetary contribution to the effort -- and you are ranked by point score, and so if the city were to commit to a certain amount of money, you would score certain points. So SHA knew it would not have a winning application unless it has the city as a partner. So I think the city committed to $15 million of some kind of resource to be identified, subject to SHA winning a HOPE VI grant.

DB: And that could be infrastructure?

DK: It could be infrastructure money, City Light ... new transformers. Holly Park was widely -- well, there was total consensus from the city and the housing authority that Holly Park was not built to last. It was World War II, everything on the ground was antiquated and would need replacement, and so City Light had to budget for infrastructure replacement anyway. And then there was some transportation money from DOT for streets so connecting back Holly Park to the rest of Beacon Hill would qualify for that kind of funding. So the city council and the mayor in a sort-of 10,000-feet-level kind of way issued a commitment that should SHA win the grant, we would sit down and roll up our sleeves to find where the budgets would come from. And Mayor Norm Rice was exemplary in not just honoring his commitment to SHA, but encouraging Holly Park to be one of his visionary urban villages that will seek to create shared prosperity, racial diversity, and environmental stewardship and make these urban villages dense, livable, and integrated, both economically and racially, communities in the city.

DB: How significant is that collaboration as a new model of working?

DK: It was so significant that I could not find words to describe it. The mayor almost seemed like he wrote a directive saying, "You will help SHA get this done because it's my vision too." And we had nothing but doors opening, there were no roadblocks, there were no, you know, "this is not my job" type of things. The mayor's office pulled together an inter-departmental team, and put together the Office of Housing, Community Development, Economic Development, City Light, Budget Office, Department of Transportation. Every possible city department you can find. Department of Neighborhoods. And said: "Help SHA get what they need and help me put a proposal together to find $15 million from your budget, that you would have done anyway, but you can now prioritize to get done first because Holly Park's happening first."

And then the mayor led the Libraries for All bond issue and convinced the citizens that not only do we want a world-class central library, we want neighborhood libraries too, don't we? And the first neighborhood library was built in Holly Park. The bond was passed. And so that was the flexibility of the Norm Rice administration. We didn't have $15 million floating around somewhere, but by golly if we stacked up everyone's budget and we identified that zip code that a project was planned, it didn't matter if it was planned in 2002, put it up front in 1997 now. And we shall roll your deck. And pull in your planning people and get going. And that was the kind of support we got from Mayor Rice.

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