The 1960s brought a renaissance of sorts for the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), which had been established in 1939 and endured bleak years during the 1950s. In the Sixties different forms of federal funding became available, and the SHA began to provide assistance to the low-income elderly and disabled, expanding beyond its exclusive focus on the poor. The 1970s saw the beginning of a major shift in public-housing philosophy, in Seattle and around the country. The traditional practice of concentrating low-income families in a few large projects fell from favor, replaced in Seattle by the dispersal of subsidized housing among scattered sites throughout the city. When federal aid shrank in the 1980s, Seattle citizens twice voted to increase their taxes to pay for housing for low-income families and the elderly and disabled, and would do so three more times in later years. In the mid-1990s, helped again by federal money, the SHA began rebuilding several of its earlier projects, reconfiguring them as mixed-income neighborhoods and further diminishing the isolation of the poor. The Seattle Housing Authority faced challenges and controversies over the decades, but worked tirelessly and with significant success to provide safe, decent, and affordable housing to tens of thousands of low-income, elderly, and disabled city residents. Part 2 of this two-part essay summarizes the work of the housing authority from the 1960s through its 75th anniversary in 2014.
Expanding the Scope
Before the mid-1950s, few among the city's low-income elderly or disabled were being helped by SHA programs, yet their needs often were greater than those of the merely poor. Change first came with the federal Housing Act of 1956, which required public-housing programs supported by federal funding to give preference to the low-income elderly. By 1961 the Seattle Housing Authority had among its tenants "550 single [elder] persons and 237 elderly families" (115,000 Senior Citizens), and in 1962 opened its first senior-citizens' center, at its Holly Park project on Beacon Hill.
A long drought of federal funding ended in late December of that year when the U.S. Public Housing Administration agreed to lend the authority up to 95 percent of the nearly $4.5 million construction cost of Jefferson Terrace, a First Hill high-rise for the low-income elderly. Designed by Seattle architect Paul Kirk (1914-1995), the 17-story, 300-unit building was the city's first new construction built specifically for low-income tenants since Yesler Terrace had opened 20 years earlier.
Most of the land at the site on 8th Avenue at Jefferson Street was already owned by the housing authority, and officials hoped to start construction almost immediately. This proved naively optimistic. Nearby landowners filed suit, claiming the building would block their views and lower their property values. When they lost the first suit, they filed a second, and others jumped in with suits of their own. While these were wending their glacial way through the courts, opponents contested every step of the zoning and permitting process in city hall hearings and court appeals.
Ground was finally broken in August 1965, almost two years before the last legal challenge was dismissed by the Washington State Supreme Court. On July 16, 1967, Harry Bannister (1897-1974), a 70-year-old veteran of both of the century's world wars, became the first tenant to move into Jefferson Terrace. It was a notable milestone in the city's efforts to help its less fortunate, but during the long and litigious years preceding completion, the waiting list of low-income elderly seeking housing assistance had increased by more than a thousand.
In 1963 a start was made on addressing the housing problems of people with disabilities, another group that had been mostly left out of earlier efforts. The Seattle Housing Authority obtained city council approval for a 17-story, 150-unit apartment development in the Rainier Valley, designed to accommodate the special needs of men and women with a range of handicaps. Called Center Park, it was built on the former site of Stadium Homes, a temporary wartime housing project for defense workers. The land was owned by the Seattle Parks Department, which sold it to the SHA in 1966.
When Center Park was dedicated in October 1969, it was the first subsidized housing development in the country to be built specifically for the disabled. But it wasn't all that the housing authority had to show off that month. Three more high-rise facilities, these for the low-income elderly, were also opened -- Denny Terrace, Ballard House, and Center West. They joined four similar apartment buildings for the elderly -- Cal-Mor Circle, Harvard Court, High Point Court, and Olive Ridge -- that had been dedicated the previous May. Together, the seven high-rise buildings provided a total of 732 housing units.
All those apartment buildings for the elderly were built using the Turnkey funding model created by the federal government in 1966 and first used in Seattle in 1968. Turnkey was in part an answer to the conservative argument that government-built housing harmed private enterprise, but it proved to have substantial benefits for local housing authorities. Private developers contracted with the SHA to find and purchase suitable sites, built housing to a specified design at a set cost, and would "turn the key" over when it was completed. The developer then received the agreed price in cash, which the housing authority recouped through the sale of bonds. The authority's bond obligations were guaranteed by the federal government, which also provided loan guarantees to contractors for interim construction financing. This program freed the SHA from much of the nuts-and-bolts of property development and enhanced its ability to have several projects underway at the same time.
Other alternatives were also being explored in the 1960s, some of doubtless benefit, others well-intentioned but problematic. The federal Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 authorized local housing authorities to rent privately owned housing at market prices, then make it available to low-income tenants at lower rates. This worked well and helped disperse some low-income families away from the large projects. But the next year, Massachusetts Republican Senator Edward Brooke sponsored an amendment to the Housing Act that capped rent for families living in public housing at 25 percent of household income (soon raised to 30 percent). The intent was to ensure that rent did not consume all of a family's resources, but the income-based "cap" ended up a de facto minimum, so that working families climbing the economic ladder began to leave public housing when their rent rose to a level comparable to what was available on the open market. This may have seemed a laudable goal, but at the same time the philosophy of public housing was moving toward increased economic diversity, providing subsidized housing not only to the very poorest, but also to families and individuals with a range of incomes (albeit all at the lower end of the scale). The Brooke amendment led to the opposite outcome: Fully employed wage earners moved up and out, further isolating those left behind.
By 1972, the Turnkey program had helped the Seattle Housing Authority build a flurry of new projects, including 22 high-rises for the elderly and 141 townhouses in four dispersed "villages" for low-income families. When the program started in 1966, SHA managed approximately 2,500 living units; by 1972 that number had increased to nearly 7,500. But when it came up for renewal, Congress balked at extending the Turnkey program. The spectacular failure of low-income housing projects in several large cities -- the worst of which had become vertical ghettos plagued by crime, drugs, and despair -- soured many on the efficacy of public housing entirely, or at least on the models that had been predominant for decades.
Seattle's experience was not nearly as bad as many other cities, but increasing segregation was troubling nonetheless. At the Holly Park development alone, more than 40 percent of the white population had moved away during the 1960s, and 48 percent of the tenants remaining in 1970 were black. Rainier Vista saw a similar change -- the number of whites shrank by about 30 percent, the number of African Americans tripled, and the Asian population almost doubled. The racial and economic demographic in the valley changed further with the Boeing meltdown of the early 1970s, when almost two-thirds of its employees were let go. Many of them lived in the Rainier Valley, although not in public housing, and when these families moved away, their houses and apartments stood empty for lack of takers.
Concentrating low-income housing in confined geographical areas had been shown to contribute to a host of problems, but solutions were hard to come by. Many started taking a hard look at some of the basic premises that had guided previous efforts. The Turnkey model accomplished much, but it encouraged developers to buy land where it was inexpensive. Since existing low-income housing tended to pull down property values, new projects often were sited near older ones, driving values down further and drawing additional low-income use -- a potentially endless downward cycle. In 1971, a study commissioned by the Rainier Chamber of Commerce found that the Southeast District (one of 12 in the city) had nearly as much low-income housing as the other 11 districts combined. It was undeniable that this was, in the study's words, "not in keeping with any rational urban planning strategy" (Hoole, 7)
Even the "garden city" housing model, so promising when adopted for Rainier Vista and Holly Park in the early 1940s, carried the seeds of its own demise. For one thing, the housing had been built during the exigencies of war, with a useful-life expectancy of a mere 40 years. By 1970 these developments were three-fourths of the way there and much the worse for wear, victims of poor design, hasty construction, and challenging maintenance. The Seattle Housing Authority began a renovation push in the early 1970s, but in mid-1973 President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) declared a moratorium on housing and community-development assistance, bringing those efforts largely to a halt.
In addition to the physical deterioration, SHA officials and others concluded that the seemingly benevolent plan of curved streets, cul de sacs, and open spaces between clusters of homes had facilitated the formation of gang "turfs." This was the very opposite of the sort of community cohesiveness that many had hoped would flow from a design that in large measure sought to mimic an idealized suburbia.
As is often the case, it was the courts that finally forced remedial action. In 1966, Dorothy Gautreaux, an African American in Chicago, sued the Chicago Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that they had intentionally concentrated low-income housing in black areas of Chicago, violating both the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court decision in Gautreaux's favor was affirmed by the federal Court of Appeals in 1971 and would change forever the way federal and local governments dealt with low-income housing. (In 1976, the Court of Appeals decision was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. Remarkably, the Gautreaux litigation continued for decades, although the fundamental holding of the case remained valid.)
Section 8, Another New Approach
In 1974, in response to the Gautreaux decision and the unavoidable facts on the ground, Congress amended Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937. The 1968 law that had permitted local housing authorities to rent units on the open market and sublet them to the low-income was abandoned and replaced by the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The poor received federal vouchers that, at least in theory, allowed them to find their own accommodations without being restricted to particular areas. Local housing authorities would further subsidize the rents paid to private landlords. The program was administered in Seattle by the SHA and immediately drew 893 applications for the 110 available vouchers.
Also in 1974, Congress lifted President Nixon's moratorium and passed the Housing and Community Development Act, which provided block grants (money that was not tied to a specific program or project) to local housing authorities to spend at their discretion. The Seattle Housing Authority's first block grant of $200,000 was used in large measure to help renovate downtown Seattle's Morrison Hotel as housing for low-income single people and office space for several social-service agencies. (In 2002 the SHA turned the Morrison over to the Downtown Emergency Services Center.)
Battered Sites, Scattered Sites
Although it was another period of reduced federal funding, in 1975 HUD started the Target Projects Program to provide local authorities assistance in modernizing and updating existing low-income housing. The Seattle Housing Authority received $4.5 million to renovate first Holly Park and High Point, to be followed by Rainier Vista and Yesler Terrace. Given the philosophical vagaries of national housing policy, the SHA also strove to create partnerships that were not dependent on federal largesse. These included the 1975 Neighborhood Housing Rehabilitation Program, with the City of Seattle; a pilot program with the Seattle Department of Community Development to study redevelopment of Yesler Terrace; and a 1977 agreement with the same agency to subsidize the renovation of homes owned by low-income people. On the supply side, also in 1977, the SHA and several Seattle banks negotiated a $3.2 million loan fund upon which the agency could draw.
The complaints of Rainer Valley residents about the concentration of low-income housing there, together with the legal ripples of the Gautreaux decision, brought about the next major innovation in SHA methodology. A Democrat, Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), was elected president in 1976, and this led to a temporary loosening of federal purse strings. In September 1978, using $12 million from HUD and $1 million from the City of Seattle, the SHA kicked off the Scattered Site Family Housing Program and built or bought on the open market 269 living units in duplexes, triplexes, and small apartment buildings at scattered sites throughout the city. Tenants' Section 8 vouchers were applied to rent, which was further subsidized by the SHA.
The need was great and growing. By the end of 1978, the Seattle Housing Authority was managing approximately 2,300 units of low-income housing for families, but had a waiting list of more than 1,500, and very little turnover. The booming condominium market consumed many of the most suitable sites for multi-family subsidized housing, and sites that remained available were prohibitively expensive. The most cost-effective approach -- building concentrated low-income housing in specific areas, as had been done at Yesler Terrace, Rainier Vista, Holly Park, and High Point -- had been shown to contribute to serious socio-economic problems and was largely discredited; the scattered-site model marked the agency's full embrace of a deliberate departure from past practice. As an SHA official, Theresa Murphy, explained in 1978:
"The days when you could go out and get a large piece of property and put a lot of units on it for families are over. That is not acceptable any more -- not for the community, or for HUD, or for the city" ("Little Money, Little Chance").
One of the biggest problems in areas of concentrated low-income housing was crime. The SHA had been working on the problem since 1974, and in 1978 Congress passed the Public Housing Security Demonstration Act. In Seattle, Rainier Vista and Holly Park were selected as test sites, making federal funds available for (in an unfortunate use of military nomenclature) "target hardening," including better locks, a switch to solid-core doors, strengthened windows, and a variety of other measures (Evaluation of the ..., 8). But the problems seemed intractable, officials considered tenant cooperation to be spotty, and the efforts "did not measurably reduce crime rates or lessen tenant concern" (Evaluation of the ..., 24).
It was a tough decade, and as the 1970s drew to a close, the Seattle Housing Authority faced numerous problems and challenges. Federal funding cutbacks would soon make things worse, but adversity would give Seattle's citizens the opportunity to demonstrate a strong civic commitment to helping the less fortunate.
The Voters Step Up
Republican President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), elected in 1980, brought with him to office a deep distrust of government social programs and an avuncular, Hollywood-honed ability to convince others that federal efforts to help the poor were at best nearly useless and at worst nearly evil. But in 1980, before Reagan took office, the Seattle Housing Authority received substantial federal money for its scattered-site program and authorized construction of 81 new housing units spread over 10 sites around the city. That would be just about it for federal aid for the next decade.
With the federal spigot down to a trickle, the housing authority turned to voters, something it had not had to do since 1950, and then with very disappointing results. But this was a different generation, and Seattle had become increasingly liberal during the 1960s and 1970s. A 1981 bond-issue measure primarily targeted the needs of the low-income elderly, partly because those needs were pressing and partly because such aid was less likely to trigger voter resentment than would subsidies for the working-age poor. Well-worn arguments about creeping socialism had largely lost their force, and voters, by a margin of just more than three to one (98,341 to 32,763), passed the $48.1 million bond issue, which funded 1,000 new units of housing. This paid for the Seattle Senior Housing Program, the first (and for many years to come, only) such program in the country funded almost entirely with local tax revenues. Sentiment had turned against the construction of high rises (thought to be too isolating for the elderly) and instead 24 small to medium-sized buildings were put up at scattered sites around the city.
In 1986, the Seattle Housing Authority turned to the electorate again, this time for a property-tax levy that would build low-income housing, although some of the money would be spent on the needs of the mentally ill and the addicted. The measure passed handily, leading an ecstatic Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) to gush, "This is an incredible town. Five years ago, they voted $50 million for housing, and this year they vote $50 million again'' ("Housing, Museum Levies ... ").
By Royer's measure, Seattle would become even more incredible. In 1995, city voters again approved a property-tax levy for low-income housing, which they renewed in 2002 and 2009. It was estimated that the 1981 bond issue and the subsequent four tax levies financed the creation of more than 10,000 housing units over those years.
HOPE for Holly Park
Demonstrating its penchant for devising clever acronyms at any cost, Congress in 1992 passed the Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere Act, or "HOPE VI." It was in large part a response to a three-year federal study, begun in 1989, that found much of the public housing in America to be "severely distressed," "unfit, unsafe, unlivable," and a "national disgrace" (The Final Report ... , 2). The law amounted to a frank acknowledgment that decades of public-housing efforts had been premised on faulty ideas, and, as the SHA later put it, had "isolated the poor in concentrated enclaves" (Annual Report, 1997).
By this time, Holly Park was considered the most degraded and degrading of the housing authority's three major developments originally built to house defense workers and military families in the early 1940s. In January 1995, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $47.1 million HOPE VI grant for its redevelopment, and the planning process got underway in earnest.
As had become almost de rigueur in Seattle, the debate over what to do with Holly Park was prolonged, contentious, and seemingly impervious to outside prodding. By May 1997, with part of Holly Park vacated and demolition ready to begin, the city council was still debating whether to endorse the plan. The proposal for mixed-income housing brought charges that the Seattle Housing Authority had become little more than a real-estate developer, and that the needs of the truly poor were being sacrificed to a doomed attempt at gentrification. Many argued that, with 16,000 families on the SHA waiting list, all efforts should go to creating new housing, rather than tearing down and replacing what already existed. Chris Hornig, a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development deputy secretary, was clearly frustrated by the infamously slow way of making decisions: "It's time. We respect the Seattle process, but Seattle has not moved as quickly as we think appropriate . . . and, in our view, has used up the time it had for planning" ("Holly Park Plans ... ").
Less than a month later, on June 2, 1997, the city council finally voted to approve the Holly Park rebuild. The estimated total cost of NewHolly, as it was named, was $180 million, and the federal contribution was supplemented by $6.3 million from the City of Seattle and $110 million in private investment. The Seattle Housing Authority took the construction-management reins itself and provided guidelines to builders. NewHolly would take 10 years to complete, in three phases. During Phase 1, rental housing was built and the NewHolly branch of The Seattle Public Library opened. Phase 2 included a 318-unit Elder Village, and during Phase 3 market-rate housing was built and the rest of the project completed.
A primary goal for NewHolly was to end the day-to-day isolation of low-income people, and two years after its 2005 completion The Seattle Times said of it:
"Built on a foundation of lofty goals, NewHolly is a bold and risky experiment to create an ideal urban community -- a multicultural haven where middle-class homeowners and poor people in public housing can live on equal ground. Sales literature promotes it as a return to the days when neighbors swapped stories on the porch and greeted each other with friendly waves as their children played catch in the park" ("A New Neighborhood ... ").
The original Holly Park comprised 871 subsidized apartments for very-low-income renters. When NewHolly was complete, there were 1,390 living units, including 530 subsidized apartments for very-low-income renters, 338 subsidized apartments for lower-income families, 100 subsidized homes for first-time and lower-income buyers, and 422 homes and apartment for sale or rent at market rates. The "garden city" design with its curved streets and cul de sacs was abandoned, replaced by the common urban grid pattern that better blended NewHolly into surrounding neighborhoods. The socioeconomic swing within its boundaries was now huge; some Phase 3 houses sold for as much as $450,000, while the average rent in 2007 for a NewHolly public-housing tenant was $260 a month.
Rainier Vista and High Point
HOPE VI became the primary federal mechanism in the new century for subsidized low-income housing. In August 1999, $35 million in HOPE VI aid was committed by the federal government for the redevelopment of Rainier Vista, supplemented by $14.4 million in economic-stimulus money prompted by the country's deepening recession. Private investment came to $130 million, and other funding sources brought the total to $240 million. Relocation of tenants began in 2000, and in 2003, after another lengthy process, the city council approved the project.
Phase 1 of Rainier Vista was officially completed in 2006 with the opening of homes for sale, although some low-income families had moved into new rental units the previous year. In 2009 a Link light-rail station opened, giving residents easy access to downtown Seattle. Phase 2 development kicked off in August 2009 with a groundbreaking for Tamarack Place, an 83-unit apartment building for low-income, elderly, and disabled tenants, to be opened in January 2011. By 2014, 809 of the 965 living units planned for a remade Rainier Vista were complete.
High Point in West Seattle was the largest and last of the 1940s defense-housing projects to be remade, again helped by HOPE VI funding. In 2004, redevelopment began at an estimated total cost of more than $550 million. By 2009, all 716 existing units had been replaced with 425 new rental units (some of which were off-site). In 2014, construction was underway on homes to be sold on the open market. When complete, High Point was slated to have a total of 1,700 units, a mix of low-income and market-rate housing.
And the First Shall Be Last
Yesler Terrace, the Seattle Housing Authority's first, and until the 1960s only, purpose-built housing for low-income residents, was completed in 1941. It originally had 690 units, and an additional 178, built for defense workers in 1942, were later put to low-income use. In preference to "sample" plans drawn up by the federal government, the entire complex was designed by a team of local architects. Perhaps unique among the country's first public-housing developments, Yesler Terrace had from the start aspired to follow a policy, although unwritten, that barred racial discrimination. Despite the interruption of war, it was one of the most successful such projects in the nation, and a model for others.
Time had taken its toll, however. Yesler Terrace's low-rise row housing units, modeled after worker housing in Sweden, were designed to last for 60 years, the end of that expected useful life corresponding almost precisely to the end of the century in which they were built. In the early 1960s, the construction of Interstate 5 claimed 11 of the original 43 acres of the terraced site, causing the loss of 260 housing units. Between 1978 and 1982, and resuming in the early 1990s, the housing authority rehabilitated and modernized most of the remaining units before redeveloping Holly Park, Rainier Vista, and High Point. Over the years, and despite the goal of a racially integrated community, the minority population of even Yesler Terrace became disproportional to that of the city at large, a trend that had been evident as early as 1949, when 14 percent of its residents were African American. By late in the first decade of the twenty-first century, nearly 80 percent of Yesler Terrace residents were non-white, including sizeable numbers of first-generation immigrants, many from Africa and Asia. Approximately one in five residents were classified as disabled.
The Seattle Housing Authority turned its attention to Yesler Terrace in the first years of the new century. A familiar debate ensued; many advocates for low-income housing believed that the city should concentrate its efforts on adding to the stock of available units, rather than rebuilding those that existed. Eventually, all proposals to limit the authority's ability to demolish the existing development were unsuccessful. As late as 2010, opponents tried to kill the project by having Yesler Terrace designated an official city landmark, an effort that was largely unsuccessful, although two buildings, the steam plant and a community building, did win landmark status.
Formal planning for Yesler Terrace's rebirth began in April 2006. A Citizen's Review Committee, headed by former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943), established four principles to guide the redevelopment: social equity, economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, and one-for-one replacement housing. The SHA agreed to replace all 561 existing low-income units, either on-site or nearby, and to add 100 units in partnership with non-profit developers.
Things proceeded in the manner normal for Seattle on issues of great public interest. After six years of hearings and debate, the city council on September 4, 2012, finally and unanimously approved a redevelopment plan for Yesler Terrace that would result in a much denser, more vertical (up to 300 feet) neighborhood with a much greater mix of uses:
Approximately 5,000 units of housing (1,800 subsidized for low-income tenants, the remainder for sale or rent at market rates).
Up to 900,000 square feet of office space.
Up to 60,000 square feet devoted to neighborhood services.
Up to 88,000 square feet of retail space.
Nearly 16 acres of parks and public open space.
HOPE VI funding, used in part to rebuild the city's three other large low-income housing projects, was not available for Yesler Terrace, but nearly $30 million in federal funds were allocated under HUD Choice Neighborhoods Grants. Much of the remaining cost was to be financed through the sale of some of the prime land within Yesler Terrace's boundaries, expected to raise approximately $145 million. In January 2013, the SHA announced that Vulcan, a real-estate-development firm owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (1953-2018), would be the primary private developer for the project. Work on the first phase began in September 2013.
The Seattle Housing Authority's accomplishments since its formation in 1939 could only be briefly summarized in this two-part essay. With generous dollops of federal funds, often supplemented by Seattle voters' willingness to raise their own taxes, the authority has over the years built thousands of units of low-income housing and sponsored or participated in dozens of programs to benefit those who live in its facilities. It has been a leader in the rethinking of public housing and has not hesitated, when money was available, to abandon old models and try new approaches.
As it celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2014, the authority was providing housing for more than 29,000 people, which included 5,000 elderly, 9,000 children, and 8,000 men and women with disabilities. Fully 85 percent of the households it helped had incomes below 20 percent of Seattle's median, and the average income per household in 2012 was just $13,266. If it is true that a society's worth is best judged by how it treats its least fortunate, the Seattle Housing Authority has helped secure for its city a place in the top ranks.
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