It's been six years since bulldozers started tearing down the low-income duplexes at the old Rainier Vista housing development.
It was 481 subsidized apartments in all, reserved for Seattle's poorest citizens: those with disability checks or earnings of less than 30 percent of the area's median income, or $17,100 for one person.
Under a city agreement passed as an ordinance in 2001, the Seattle Housing Authority was obligated to replace all 481 of the low-income units, including 310 regular units, 100 units for the elderly and disabled, and 71 to go elsewhere.
But now the housing authority says it can't afford to keep its on-site commitment. Not only has it run out of federal money to finish a quarter of the project ("Rainier Vista: Unfulfilled," Feb. 4-10), the housing authority plans to go back to the city sometime this year and ask it to amend the ordinance so it can put 46 more of the low-income replacement units offsite in the future.
If the council approves the idea, say Friends of Rainier Vista and the Seattle Displacement Coalition, two groups that settled a lawsuit over the project and its unit numbers in 2002, they will take the Seattle Housing Authority back to court.
The change "would be tantamount to going back to war with us," says the Displacement Coalition's John Fox. "If they move the units offsite, they're not replacement housing at all because they're robbing Peter to pay Paul by tapping limited resources."
Such resources, he says, should be used to build more new low-income rentals in Seattle, instead of just replacing what the housing authority tore down at Rainier Vista.
The housing authority finished the first half of the project in 2005. Like similar redevelopments at its Holly Park and High Point housing complexes, it utilized a federal HOPE VI revitalization grant to create a new community of subsidized rentals and private homes where the poor wouldn't be isolated.
The ordinance, or memorandum of agreement, passed by the City Council in 2001 limits the total number of public and private units at the site to 1,010, half of which the housing authority completed in 2005 on the west side of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South between South Lilac and South Alaska in Rainier Valley.
At that site, the housing authority says it has built 242 of the very low-income replacement units and that other builders have completed 59 of the 71 units owed offsite.
The agency plans to break ground this year on an 83-unit low-income building across the street, where the second phase of the project, or Rainier Vista East, should have been completed last spring. While the housing authority has no money to start building infrastructure at the north end of that site, public documents show it still has sufficient resources lined up to build the housing itself -- 118 units estimated to cost $35 million.
To make the project pencil out, however, the housing authority needs more revenue to borrow against. So the 46 low-income units are going and, in their place, says development director Stephanie Van Dyke, the agency now plans to build 49 higher-income "workforce" rental units affordable to those making 50 to 60 percent of median income, or $28,500 to $34,200.
Van Dyke says the agency plans to present this proposal -- swapping the low-income for higher-income units -- to the Rainier Vista Citizen Review Committee in March and believes the City Council will pass it as well.
"My anticipation is that when people understand that it's a key part of successful completion of [Rainier Vista], they'll understand the reasons for it," Van Dyke says.
"It seems to me that their ambitions are bigger than their stomach," says Carolee Colter, a former Rainier Vista neighbor and plaintiff in the 2002 lawsuit.
One of the lawsuit's results, she adds, is that it gave the Friends of Rainier Vista and the Displacement Coalition the right to enforce the city's memorandum of agreement -- and the groups, she says, still has a legal fund to do so.
"They agreed to build 310 units of public housing," she says, "and they have to build it."