The Seattle City Council is poised to approve a bold — some say risky — plan to remake the city's first public-housing project into a high-rise mixed-income community. Attention now turns to relocating more than 500 households during redevelopment that could take 20 years.
The Seattle City Council is expected to approve Tuesday an unprecedented plan to bulldoze Yesler Terrace, the city’s first public-housing project, and remake it as a high-rise neighborhood where the affluent would outnumber the poor.
To finance the rebuilding of Yesler’s 71-year-old apartments, the Seattle Housing Authority will sell some of the project’s 30 acres on First Hill to private developers. They’d pay at least $145 million, the authority is betting, to build office and market-rate condo and apartment towers at Yesler Terrace, a short walk from downtown with stunning views of Elliott Bay. Residents will be moved out, in phases, during construction, and there won’t be a net loss of low-income homes.
A majority of council members already have voted in committee for key parts of the proposal, including allowing towers up to 300 feet tall. They say the plan meets worthy goals: new subsidized housing for poor people; more housing close to downtown jobs for people of all incomes; integrating integration of housing-authority tenants in a mixed-income community.
The result, says Tom Tierney, departing chief of the housing authority, will be a “21st-century neighborhood” that embraces people of all backgrounds.
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Some are less enthused. “This is the dismemberment of that community,” said John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Fox predicts that many of Yesler’s 1,200 residents will never return once they are moved out during redevelopment that could take 20 years to complete.
Yesler resident Kristin O’Donnell said Tuesday’s council vote will write the epitaph of Seattle’s most storied public housing — and begin a period of relocation and uncertainty for some. It also will trigger housing-authority efforts to minimize distress for the departed.
Tierney maintains the housing authority has little choice but to plow ahead with the plan, which a city consultant said was “untested anywhere in the United States.”
Current housing and sewer lines are decayed beyond the point of patching-up, he says. Selling parts of Yesler is the most feasible way to fund subsidized housing for future generations in a time of declining federal support.
O’Donnell reluctantly agrees. “It may be the least bad decision that’s available, considering that funding to do anything else is not available,” said O’Donnell, a longtime member of the Yesler Terrace Community Council.
Fox and other activists have argued that all of Yesler’s current households should be guaranteed a dwelling at the new Yesler Terrace.
Tierney maintains that all can return, although up to 140 of the new apartments will be several blocks away from the current Yesler community. O’Donnell calls that a “reasonable compromise.”
Once the council formally blesses the plan for 5,000 new apartments and condos, the housing authority will have 60 days to come up with detailed relocation plans for the 503 households now at Yesler.
After consulting with residents, the plan will determine who gets priority in moving back. It could be that the first to leave are first to return, Tierney says. Or, residents might decide that seniors who rely on nearby medical services should get top priority.
It didn’t make sense to develop such details, Tierney says, until the makeover plan was approved.
O’Donnell doesn’t know when she’ll be evicted from her home of 38 years.
It could be two years, or several more. “None of us know. It’s hard on me and everyone else because you know something is hanging over you but you don’t know when,” said O’Donnell, 72.
As new subsidized apartments are built in phases, dislocated residents will have several options, Tierney says. They can move into apartments several blocks away; take vouchers allowing them to find private housing elsewhere in the city; move into other Seattle Housing Authority properties; or even move into vacant Yesler apartments.
Dislocation and demolition of the first racially integrated public housing in the country will not start for at least 18 months, Tierney said.
The authority will offer counseling and assistance, he added. It will pay for moving expenses and guarantee that residents who stay in public housing won’t pay more rent than they do at Yesler.
Some tenants will welcome a move, O’Donnell said, because it will give them more choices of places to live. But for those who believe Yesler Terrace’s two-story, town-house-style apartments with yards foster a real community, change will be difficult. The yards are especially important to parents at Yesler, where 39 percent of the residents are children.
“There’s no amenity they’ve come up with yet that remotely replaces those yards,” O’Donnell said. “Then again, having yards within six blocks of downtown is a luxury.”
O’Donnell would like to see guidelines that specify how long a household could expect to be off-site. Theoretically, some residents could be gone a decade or longer, she said, while the project — relying on the private housing market — is built out.
“I can’t imagine there will be waits anything like that,” Tierney said.
Yusuf Cabdi resigned from the housing authority’s board last month, saying he thought the redevelopment plan was risky and relocation plans were inadequate. He called for the city to hire a third party to ensure tenants’ rights.
Tierney doesn’t believe that’s necessary. “We probably have done more relocation than anybody in town and we have a good track record,” he said. An appeals process will be created, for tenants who don’t like their relocation options, he added.
Tierney, who has run the housing authority since 2004, retired Saturday. In a transition announced earlier this year, Andrew Lofton, the authority’s deputy director since 2004, takes over.
Tierney, 65, said he understands the anxiety of some tenants. He’s confident, though, that as the project comes to fruition they’ll see that “they’ll be living in dramatically better housing.”
O’Donnell remains unconvinced. And she notes some elderly residents might never live to see the bold plan completed. “I’m going to miss the neighborhood,” she said, “and the one that’s replacing it will, I think, be less human-friendly and child-friendly than what we’ve got now.”
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org