Putting a bell on the Seattle Housing Authority cat

Much is said about the need for accountability in government spending, but when it comes to action, we're like the mice in Aesop's fable asking, "Who will bell the cat?" A provision in a bill from state Rep. Mark Miloscia might just put a bell on the cat's collar when it comes to Seattle Housing Authority's continued destruction of low-income housing and the use of state money to pay for it.

Miloscia, a fourth-term Democrat from Federal Way, chairs the Housing Committee. In the last session he championed bills for performance audits of state programs and a plan to end homelessness.

The latter created a new state and local funding source with a $10 surcharge on real estate transaction documents, generating close to $20 million a year for cities and counties to serve their homeless populations. In order to access this money, local governments must provide hard data and put in place plans for ending homelessness.

While we have criticized King County's Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, we admire Miloscia's bill because it requires jurisdictions that were formerly doing nothing to start addressing the needs of their homeless citizens, and because it demands accountability in how the funds are spent.

For this session, Miloscia is introducing housing bill HB 2649 that will set policy, goals and performance measures for cities and counties statewide to ensure they are making effective use of any state dollars they receive for low-income housing. For the first time it will demand accountability from local governments to maximize the number of low-income units they produce with those limited dollars.

Already, an amendment to this bill is generating controversy, an amendment that would apply only to Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and its Yesler Terrace housing project.

Since 1997 there has been special language in the state of Washington enabling legislation for housing authorities, that applies only to "housing authorities in cities with a population of over 400,000." Only SHA is affected by this provision. Our state legislature adopted it because of the unique and enormous impact this one housing authority has on Seattle, King County and all of Washington.

SHA owns and manages over 10,000 low-income housing units and dispenses about 7,000 Section 8 vouchers to the needy. If SHA takes actions that reduce its stock of units, that translates directly into more low-income households seeking shelter in every community across the state.

Furthermore, each year SHA makes enormous demands on the state's limited housing funds. Millions of state trust fund dollars, called the "bond cap," and low-income housing "tax credits" have been tapped (directly or indirectly) by SHA - far more than any other housing authority since the inception of these programs.

Since 1997, SHA has gradually transformed itself into a major developer. No longer just builders of low-income housing, the authority now competes with the private sector and dedicates increasing portions of its budget towards high-end redevelopment.

Unlike private developers, however, SHA has considerable tax advantages and access to limited city, federal, and state resources. SHA has accepted state money dedicated to serve very low-income households and used it to fund its move into the private sector, selling market-rate housing.

For example, tens of millions of state funds went into SHA's redevelopment of High Point, Roxbury Village, Holly Park, and Rainier Vista. At these four projects, over 2,100 units of public housing serving those in most desperate need were torn down. These sites are now being redeveloped as "mixed income" communities, which include high-end homes selling for over $450,000 and a smaller portion of public housing units.

Of the 2,100 public housing units demolished, only about half are slated to be replaced on site. The rest are to be built at other locations. To build these replacement units, SHA has sucked up still more limited state housing funds - money that was supposed to be used for expansion of our state's low-income housing stock.

Currently a similar fate hangs over the 540 units at Yesler Terrace and the more than 1,000 high-rise public housing units in Seattle, most of them for seniors. Without further state oversight and restrictions, SHA will once again seek millions in state funding to convert these units to higher end development.

With the help of over a dozen church, labor, and community groups across King County, the controversial amendment to Miloscia's housing bill was drawn up and is now being circulated to area legislators for their support. It would bar "housing authorities in cities of over 400,000 population" (which would apply only to the Seattle Housing Authority) from tearing down any low-income housing units anywhere in the city without first replacing those units - all of them - and at comparable rent. For SHA housing complexes of 100 units or more, such as Yesler Terrace, 100 percent of any public housing units SHA removes would have to be replaced on site.

Additionally, this amendment would bar SHA from tapping the existing, and limited, state housing funds for projects that result in a net loss of low-income and public housing units. Nor would the state pay for replacement housing units should SHA choose to go forward with demolition of their existing low-income and public housing inventory in the future.

In effect, this would mean "no more robbing Peter to pay Paul" for SHA.

Seattle Housing Authority is resisting any limitations on its prerogatives and demanding withdrawal of this amendment. A coalition of Yesler Terrace residents, seniors, labor groups and low-income housing advocates is forming to go to Olympia to fight for preserving our public housing and for the accountability of our public money. Call or write your state representatives and senators. (Go to http://apps.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/Default.aspx for help.) Tell them to support HB 2649 and amendments to that bill to save Yesler Terrace and require SHA to provide one for one replacement of any housing they destroy.

Carolee Colter and John Fox may be reached by writing to the address below or via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

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