Destroying public housing, the Seattle way

Like Social Security, the federal public housing program was born out of the struggles for social justice in the Depression. With the passage of the Public Housing Act in 1937, the federal government began to provide what the market had failed to-clean, safe, decent and affordable housing.

Today despite the fact that more than 1,300,000 low-income families have come to depend on this public housing stock, nation-wide, and over 5,000 households alone here in Seattle, the program has come under increasing attack, and not just from budget-slashing national administrations. Our own Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) has embarked on a plan to effectively eliminate most of our city's remaining public housing stock.

In 1995 SHA applied for, and received, $500 million worth of federal HOPE VI grants. The acronym stands for Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere.

The catch was that to get these funds, SHA had to tear down four of its "garden communities" (Holly Park, High Point, Rainier Vista and Roxbury) with 2,100 low-income public housing units. They had to replace them with larger, denser mixed-income projects with a total of only 1,100 public housing units.

The rest of the units would be for higher-income renters and homeowners. Low-income residents lucky enough to access the remaining public housing were also promised jobs, training and services to help them get out of poverty. They were also promised an opportunity to purchase some of the homeowner units built at these sites.

SHA says they replaced 100 percent of the 1,000 public housing units lost due to these four HOPE VI projects. That's a wild claim coming from an agency that initially refused to contribute anything toward replacement housing and only acted at all after lawsuits and public outcry.

In reality, most of the off-site replacement housing was built by non-profit agencies using existing state and city housing levy money: funds that should have been used to create new low income housing instead of replacing what SHA destroyed. SHA's contribution covered only about 20 percent of the cost of these projects that were going up anyway in Seattle.

As for Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere, consider that SHA is now selling homes at NewHolly for $450,000 (originally promised at no more than $180,000).

While some homeowner units were set aside for low-income families, even these now are priced well above what former Holly Park residents could afford. In the end, only a handful of residents ever received the job training or the jobs to lift their incomes to levels needed to qualify for these "low-income" homeowner units. As a consequence, only about a half dozen of the 870 former households now own a home at NewHolly.

And only about 25 percent of the original households ever moved back into NewHolly's public housing rentals that were built on site. The project's cost, originally set at $180 million, has soared to $350 million, forcing SHA to cut corners, cram more expensive units on the site and drain still more of the city's limited housing resources to cover the added costs.

Meanwhile, up the road at the Rainier Vista HOPE VI site, where they are tearing down 481 public housing units, SHA has quietly privatized the 310 public housing units they were obligated under legal agreements to rebuild on site.

Working with private investors, SHA created a limited partnership with itself as the general partner. Then SHA sold the land to this entity to redevelop the site.

This conversion qualifies the new entity to receive federal tax credits to help pay for the planned project. What this means is that we have lost a public resource without any opportunity for public discussion. While SHA is required to maintain rents for these units at low-income levels (30 percent of median income or lower) for the time being, at the end of 40 years, or sooner under certain conditions, these units can be sold on the market and lost forever as a public resource.

Public housing residents seeking to return to Rainier Vista after construction are finding new barriers because these tax credit units have new rules differing significantly from public housing rules. While SHA has assured returning residents that their new units will remain affordable to those at or below 30 percent of area median, they must pay more in deposits and other costs. They also must meet new requirements such as debt limits that disqualify many households.

A family with a disabled child or senior citizen can no longer receive a rent deduction as they could under public housing rules, nor can they receive a deduction for childcare expenses. Tax credit rules do not allow residents or their children to live in these units while going to college, nor do they allow residents to run a small business out of their homes, such as a daycare center.

The 310 public housing units of Rainier Vista are not the only ones at risk. SHA last week announced plans to convert seven public housing high-rises with 400 units for the elderly and disabled, into tax credit buildings. They've also said that as many as 21 of their 28 remaining public housing high-rises will eventually be converted to tax credit buildings as well. While SHA so far has said nothing about their plans for the 580-unit Yesler Terrace garden community, that project, too, may now be facing conversion to tax credit housing.

The problem with SHA is that it's a quasi-public agency that is accountable to no one.

Its board members are nominated by the mayor as a form of political patronage and rubberstamped by city council. And no one at city hall has been willing to ride herd on SHA despite clearly codified authority they have over this agency.

It's time to rein in SHA with state oversight and public elections for board seats. To do nothing is to squander the patrimony of our predecessors who fought for public housing in the Great Depression. Seattle voters have shown they won't stand for privatizing Social Security and we shouldn't stand for privatizing public housing either.

Share your thoughts with John Fox and Carolee Colter and write them through

Outside City Hall is a monthly commentary from the Seattle Displacement Coalition.[[In-content Ad]]