Let's not jeopardize a city treasure, Yesler Terrace

The City Council is about to review a controversial proposal for extensive redevelopment of this low-income village. The figures don't add up, and too many poor people will be displaced.
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The site is terrific, close to the city and with sweeping views.

The City Council is about to review a controversial proposal for extensive redevelopment of this low-income village. The figures don't add up, and too many poor people will be displaced.

Seattle has a reverence for its past, and generally cares for the less powerful, but now and thenthe city lapses into actions that make you wonder if its heart is in the right place after all. One of these could take place Sept. 4 when the full Seattle City Council will vote on terms of an agreement, adopted in council committee, which would give a death sentence to the historic Yesler Terrace public housing project without replacing, as earlier promised, many of the low-income housing units which will be lost.

(Disclosure:  I am one of several signatories of a letter, being circulated for further signatures, to be presented to the council prior to its Sept. 4 vote).

Yesler Terrace was and is an historic project in which many of our city's leading and less well known citizens have grown up. To my mind, it is comparable to the Seattle Public Market in its significance to our community. But, unlike the Market, it has lacked establishmentarian support. The Seattle Times, in its lead editorial Aug. 16, hailed the pending Seattle Housing Authority project as "a bold, ambitious promise to do more than rebuild the complex's World War II apartments.  It will also revitalize the community."

The agency, the Times said, "will rebuild all of the units, some a couple of blocks away."  "Plans to sell parts of Yesler's 30 acres to private developers for 3,000 condos creates a private-public partnership that leverages taxpayer dollars.  Funds from Seattle's housing levy are an appropriate use here. The levy is for building affordable housing." All present residents, the editorial said, will be able to return to the community.

This is a glittery description of a process that cries out for close consideration by the council before its Sept. 4 vote.

The agreement confirms the destruction of 561 public-housing units but does not ensure replacement of those units either on or off-site. Documents show that the Housing Authority can afford the project's full cost, including costs of replacing and expanding the existing public housing units.  Yet the council will vote on a proposal which would send millions of state and city tax dollars to the project which, in the end, will reduce the number of lowest-income units at Yesler Terrace and in Seattle. The agreement provides that 70 percent of the costs of building each "replacement unit" would come from existing public funding sources other than the Housing Authority. Yet in 2011 the Housing Authority's director asserted that no city tax money would be needed.

Official county statistics indicate there are 300 unsubsidized rentals in the county affordable to the 70,000 county households whose incomes are at or below 30 percent of median income. The primary source of such housing is the remainder of subsidized housing.

Moreover, the agreement under consideration Sept. 4, contrary to its sponsors' claims, does not ensure all present residents the right of return to the redeveloped Yesler site. Only 280 of the present 561 present units will be available to dislocated residents during the long construction period. Democratic and other organizations in Seattle have called for no net loss of low-income housing on the site. Yet, in the end, only 420 of the 561 units will remain. There will be more than 4,000 high- and moderate-income units and 1 million square feet of high-rise office space (about the same amount as in 76-story Columbia Tower).

Overall, some $290 million in taxpayer dollars are involved here. The Housing Authority presently says it can cover only land and operating costs, with the rest to come from city and state money intended for expansion of the present limited (see above) low-income housing. It wants $30 million in direct city subsidies, including money from the 2008 parks levy earmarked for parks. It seeks multifamily property-tax breaks, potentially, of $80 million. The council will be asked to approve allocation of another $7.6 million from the housing levy and more from housing trust funds originally intended to be allocated toward homeless housing.

Yesler Terrace supporter and longtime low-income housing advocate John Fox points out that, since 2000, the Housing Authority has spent $70-80 million to acquire nearly 1,000 market-rate units and is holding more than $40 million in the state's Local Government Investment Pool.

It seems clear that Yesler Terrace, as we have known it, soon will disappear from our city. Its residents will be displaced.  Only a few will be able to live in transition housing provided during developers' construction on the site. An equal number of replacements units, once promised, will not be there. The developers will get huge public subsidies for their conversion of the property for more upscale housing and office space.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill's World War II description of the Germans: Our City Council can be estimable in the individual but deplorable in the collective. Individual members who wear caring liberalism on their sleeves are often patsies for developers and agencies such as the Housing Authority who present plans whose fine print the members don't bother to study, or maybe don't understand. 

Let us hope they will, this time, review the fine print and, in the end, vote Sept. 4 to restore the low-income housing stock that would be lost and also reduce taxpayer exposure to a project the Housing Authority said only recently would not entail it. We will live to regret our collective acquiesence to an action that will leave our city less than it was.

Yesler Terrace is Seattle just as much as the Public Market, Seattle Center, and Ballard Locks. Those who live there lack power and, so, we're tossing it away.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.