Community & Editorial
A former Seattle Housing Authority board member explains why he resigned
After serving on the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) Board of Commissioners for five years, I recently resigned because I no longer feel sha follows its core mission to “produce housing [for] those who can least afford the market rent.”
Instead, the housing authority has turned into a market-rate housing developer that caters to the well off: The people who make $70,000 a year, or 80 percent of area median income (AMI), and do not need a housing subsidy. But that’s where the money is, and unfortunately, SHA has chosen to follow the money and not its mission. A sterling example of SHA’s misplaced focus is its $300 million planned redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, one of the nation’s oldest housing developments.
Each year, SHA receives close to $200 million in taxpayer money from the federal government. It also receives significant city and state funding to maintain and increase the housing stock for extremely low-income people in Seattle. But over the last eight years, sha has greatly reduced its low-income housing stock and continues to do so, though an accurate number of units is difficult to determine.
Why? Because SHA manipulates these numbers by citing Section 8 vouchers, which eligible low-income people use for rentals in the private market. SHA counts these vouchers as an increase in new units, when in reality the vouchers only represent existing rental units. Section 8 housing isn’t new, affordable housing.
And Section 8 vouchers, part of a federally funded program, are in jeopardy. As momentum builds in Washington, d.c., to create a federal deficit reduction plan, Section 8 could get slashed by the right-leaning Congress. If Congress reduces the program’s funding, many current voucher recipients will become homeless. It is increasingly important for sha to develop greater self-reliance and resilience in the face of dwindling federal resources.
The situation is getting worse despite the millions spent each year to prevent and reduce homelessness in Seattle. Money the housing authority could use to create housing for low-income people, those living at or below 30 percent of AMI, is being diverted instead to workforce and market-rate housing. As a result, Seattle has become less diverse, not only racially but economically, too. Low-wage earners have found themselves cut out of affordable housing.
And that brings me to SHA’s planned Yesler Terrace redevelopment, which is the greatest example of how the housing authority is moving away from its mission to provide housing to the most vulnerable. Right now, the development has 561 low-income units spread over roughly 30 acres. sha claims the redeveloped structure will be a high-density highrise that combines
661 low-income housing units, 290 units for moderately low-income people, 950 units of workforce housing and 1,200 – 3,200 market-rate units. Commercial spaces will also be part of the mix.
According to SHA, replacing those low-income housing units will take
15 to 20 years. Not all of those 661 units will be on site, however: One hundred low-income units will be moved further south.
The redevelopment is estimated to cost almost $300 million. SHA commissioners believe they can sell the property for $150 million, but at today’s market value, the property and structures could bring in close to
$200 million. SHA hopes federal dollars and local housing levy funds will make up the balance of redevelopment costs. But who can afford $150 million or
$200 million these days? Only big-time developers, most of whom have pitiful track records when it comes to addressing the needs of poor renters.
I hate to be pessimistic, but once redevelopment begins, I don’t believe many of the current residents will ever return to Yesler Terrace. If SHA rebuilds the promised low-income units, not all will house the communities of color and low-income families who live there now. The vibrant community that calls it home today will be displaced forever.
Recent events make the displacement seem like a done deal: The city council passed the Yesler Terrace redevelopment project on August 17, despite public comments to examine the plan’s disadvantages. But we can still act.
Now is the time for people who care about social justice to hold SHA accountable, to remind it to stick to its mission to assist those who need low-income housing. We must ensure that Yesler Terrace tenants will be relocated in a fair and respectful manner. If we don’t, many of our poor and low-income neighbors will suffer.
We must tell SHA that money doesn’t trump people.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.