Seattle Housing Authority: Interview with Al Levine

  • Posted 4/02/2014
  • Essay 10768
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This is an interview with Al Levine, former deputy executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority, on lessons learned from the redevelopment of the authority's Holly Park project into the NewHolly development between 1995 and 2005. The interview was conducted on March 13, 2014, by Joshua McNichols.

Lessons from NewHolly

JM: I'm interested in knowing sort of what we learned from NewHolly and were able to apply to some of the subsequent redevelopments.

AL: The first thing that happened was, after Phase 1 of NewHolly we realized that the housing authority was not a very good homebuilder. It didn't make any sense for us to build homes. There were people whose business was building homes. So we only built homes in Phase 1 of NewHolly. Then we hired private builders. We sold land to them, they took the market risk, they figured out what their customers wanted, they responded to changes the customers wanted. So that was a very early lesson learned.

JM: Can you give an example of a short story of where something revealed that SHA was not a good homebuilder.

AL: Yeah, well, we built these homes and they sat forever. We were selling two or three a month. And I'm going like, "That's not right. You know, you can't, why is it not selling?" And the problem was that we had basically, with our public housing architect, designed a home and just built it. And it was the same product: every home, every price point, every product. Well, if you're trying to attract people to buy homes in a community, if you look at how it works in the suburban model, the master developer will bring in multiple builders, they will build different product types for different price points, they will jointly advertise the availability of homes in that community, and it will drive lots of traffic. People who want to spend $300, people who want to spend $500. You're not selling $1 million homes, but there's a range. People want two bedrooms with an open floor plan, people who want four bedrooms with a closed floor plan. So builders, we realized we hadn't done that. As soon as we switched, builders were selling 12 to 14 homes a month. Triple what we were selling, because they knew what they were doing. And then they also knew how to market it. We hired a private company to help market it. We did that at NewHolly and then we carried that model forward and it's worked extremely well.

JM: What else did you have to change?

AL: One of the big notions was make all the homes look alike so no one knows who the poor people are. Well, any idiot walking through the community will quickly know who the poor people are. The family with five kids that looks like they came from East Africa is more likely poor than the empty nester couple living across the street. So the idea that the homes can just make who lives there indistinguishable is bogus in my mind. So the way I advocated and the way we started looking at it was let's build everyone a quality looking building. But we can't bring builders in and tell them make everything look like everything else, which is what happened in NewHolly Phase 1.

It is hard to tell in NewHolly, but you know people want different-style houses. Let's make this more organic, let's make it more like a Seattle neighborhood. Go down the street in Capitol Hill or Wallingford or Green Lake. Every house does not look alike. That shouldn't be the measure. The measure, let's create a community that people want to live in together and are willing to live in together and let's create the infrastructure that can make that happen. Parks, playgrounds, tutoring centers, libraries, let's bring a community builder into each community and that person needs to kind of proactively help create a sense of community.

One of the great fallacies here is you build this mixed-income community and everyone's going to get along and know each other. Well, that's not true where I live in Green Lake; I know a few of my neighbors. That's not true on Capitol Hill, that's not true in Wallingford. Why is it going to be different in our communities? What you want to do is create a neighborhood where everyone can live in peace and happiness, enjoy living there and if there are issues, there's a way to address them. And we've been very effective with that. Our community builders ... in one neighborhood it's about traffic safety, in another neighborhood it's about potlucks and youth tutoring, and another one it's about literacy and reading, another one it's about sharing cultures. But you can't bring a program. You have to let it evolve from the people who live in the neighborhood. What is it going to be here?

I will say one thing that's just surprised me and impressed me. I think 90 percent of the homebuyers that bought in our communities bought there because they really believed in the values of those communities. They wanted to live in or raise their family in a diverse ethnic community. And I think that's great, and I see the younger generation so much more accepting now of diversity and how America's going to look than the older generation. And it's all very positive from that perspective. Knock on wood because this has been going on since '98. We have had virtually no serious problems in any of these communities caused by interaction between income groups, and I think that's a tremendous thing.

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