No one would have believed that bureaucracy could move so fast, but there it was: homeless people displaced from the Jungle were moving into newly available housing within days of the destruction of their Beacon Hill greenbelt encampment.
Due to an eleventh-hour collaboration between the Regional office of HUD, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), the Homestead Organizing Project (HOP), and the City of Seattle, a deal was struck making 2 HUD properties available as housing for some of the displaced homeless, and arranging for the site’s renovation and management.
The moment the intense glare of the media dimmed, however, the City of Seattle walked, leaving LIHI holding the bag for more than $20,000 in renovation expenses, less than 10 percent of the amount spent in the “clean-up” that left so many homeless.
While LIHI says they may try to find the renovation funding elsewhere, the loss of trust in the City will not be so easy to repair.
“We knew we were taking a risk, but thought we could act on good faith,” said Michael Agrellas, an organizer for HOP. “It’s just too bad the City lacks the leadership and integrity to make good on its promises.”
While the media gave City officials a good deal of credit for putting this deal through, that’s not how the game was played. The only time the City ever really left the sidelines was to drop the ball, and that was after the crowd went home.
A Promise Kept
The camp, which became known as “The Jungle,” ran along the greenbelt near I-5 for a mile and a half, and was home to well over 100 people who, for one reason or another, opted out of Seattle’s homeless shelter system.
Last March, after a fire and complaints from neighbors brought new attention to the long-standing encampment, City officials began discussing the removal of encampment residents and a clean-up of the area. In late-June the first protests of the removal began, heating up what had been a mostly quiet process.
For three weeks, a near-frenzied media fed on the dramatic tale of impoverished resourcefulness versus law and order. As the tragedy unfolded in its inevitable way, it was clear few winners would emerge.
Protesters took the position that the Jungle should be left just where it was, with the addition of fire extinguishers, sani-cans, and dumpsters to meet the City’s legitimate concerns. City officials, on the other hand, never budged a millimeter from their basic statement: The Jungle is an illegal fire and health hazard and will be destroyed July 18th.
On that Monday, the bulldozers moved in as promised. The 11 protesters that blocked the machinery’s path were simply arrested and carried away, allowing the City to proceed.
Barbara Osinski, a lawyer who represents low-income tenants for the Legal Action Center, a program of Catholic Community Services, said she “couldn’t stay away.” Drawn to the scene by the frank injustice of the removal, she wanted to see what she could do.
Osinski was on the lookout for Jungle residents who might need legal representation, or even be interested in more traditional housing, complete with plumbing, electricity, and a mailbox in front.
One group of Jungle residents Osinski found felt a bit blind-sided by the whole process. “It was incredible,” said Osinski, “No one from the City, the press, or the Homestead had asked these people what they wanted. They remembered one visit, months before, from a Community Service Officer. That was it.”
The four had been living in the Jungle for three years, and had developed quite a site in the process. “A number of people I talked to,” she said, “said their main goal was to have permanent housing, and no one had helped them with that.”
Osinski thought she might be able to help. Of the six people Osinski spoke to that Monday, five are now housed, due in large part to her efforts.
HUD Weighs IN
She returned to her office and picked up the phone. Of all the agencies in Seattle, someone had to be able to house these folks. Her search soon led her to Karen Dawson at DHHS, who told Osinski they had “looked at all the options” and come up empty.
“I told her that ‘This is appalling,’ and was put on 5-minute hold,” said Osinski. Dawson had another call from HUD. She came back to report that HUD was willing to put up two houses.
The Jungle had come to the attention of Bob Santos, Director of the Seattle-based Regional Office of the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.
Under the new leadership of HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, helping the homeless is this long-dormant federal agency’s number one goal. Santos, who had seen the Jungle in the paper for weeks, mobilized his staff to respond. They got lucky, and two days later housing was made available.
In reviewing their stock, HUD found two available properties that had been acquired through FHA foreclosure, a house in Tukwila and a duplex in Rainier Valley. According to a representative for Regional Director Santos, HUD has made at least 40 other properties available to non-profit group’s on the same terms that were offered here: $1 a year, with an option to buy.
“The City was not encouraging,” said Osinski. “They had no experience in managing this type of property and were not about to get into that position.”
Osinski went to work to find a lessee for HUD, who had a list of 5 groups they were willing to work with. None were interested. LIHI wasn’t on the list, but had the experience and contacts to pull it off. Osinski thought she might have a match.
According to Osinski, the City recommended LIHI to HUD, and Santos brought all the necessary Department heads together the following day. Almost immediately, papers were signed leasing the properties to LIHI. The Homestead Organizing Project would work with LIHI to renovate and manage the properties. Dawson was pretty sure the city could swing the renovation funds, but, according to Osinski, was not in a position to make promises.
Within two days, the utilities were turned on and the keys turned over. Six people had housing who didn’t before, and once renovations are completed, there will be room for four more.
But no one knows exactly when these renovations will occur. Despite City official Karen Dawson’s assurances to LIHI, prior to the signing of the lease, that $20,000 was available from City relocation funds and other sources to cover renovation and site management expenses, once the deal was done, the City had a change of heart.
While the house was basically ready for occupancy, one side of the duplex has a bad roof and a good deal of water damage inside as a result. In addition to fixing the roof, work needs to be done on the floor and walls. There will also be additional costs to replace deadbolts, repair windows, and give the place a fresh coat of paint.
Homestead works on a sweat equity basis, with new tenants pitching in to do much of the work themselves. They also have access to a number of skilled volunteers, and receive donated supplies.
Since Homestead projects are self-managed, on-site staff expenses are minimal, paying only for a facilitator who can help run meetings and mediate conflicts among tenants. Clearly, HOP is a group that knows how to stretch a buck.
But at this point no one knows where the buck will come from. Dawson’s deal was apparently vetoed by Seattle Dept. of Housing and Human Services housing boss Earl Richardson, who had been on vacation when the agreement went through.
DHHS spokesperson Laura Paskin spoke to Richardson, who put the problem back onto HUD. “This is an interesting situation,” said Paskin, “in that HUD is the primary owner of this property. Like any homeowner, HUD is responsible for the renovation and maintenance of their own property. While there are certain rehabilitation programs, it’s all HUD money, so it doesn’t make sense for them to apply for their own funding.”
Paskin described the hoops LIHI would normally need to negotiate for funding. “We have certain funds available based on the Housing Levy of 1987,” said Paskin, “but normal procedure is that people apply based on our funding cycles. Funding development for housing has to go through the submission process.” The next cycle is in October.
“If the housing wasn’t previously subsidized,” said Paskin, “or is in a geographically prohibited area, we may have our hands tied.” Paskin was unable to say whether this case merited special consideration.
As things are now, LIHI has several options. They and Homestead could attempt to raise the money themselves, or they could simply not develop the damaged half of the duplex.
In a worst case scenario, the properties would revert back to HUD. The best solution, of course, would be for Richardson, or his superiors, to grease whatever wheels need oiling to make renovation money available in time for winter.
We all love a happy ending, and this fact is hardly lost on the media. And the story of everyone pulling together after the Jungle to as least make something right was irresistible. In an odd way, the media made it happen.
“We did in five days what usually takes five months. The media really drove this,” said Agrellas. “We had media actually bringing their cameras into our meetings. Everyone wanted to see something good come out of this.”
Yet, in the tradition of never letting facts get in the way of a good story, the news dramatically overplayed the City’s role in creating this housing. The media script needed the City to make things right, whether they actually did or not.