Community & Editorial
City council vote approving Yesler Terrace redevelopment highlights leadership vacuum
We were extremely disappointed, but hardly surprised, when the city council approved the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) plan for a $300 million redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, one the nation’s oldest public housing developments. With their 9-0 vote, on Sept. 4, our councilmembers gave their unqualified support to SHA, while ignoring the concerns of hundreds of community leaders and a dozen grassroots organizations who called on the city council to reexamine the project.
The council’s unanimous decision caused us to reflect on the lack of leadership in our city.
For years councilmembers sat through forums and Democratic district meetings and received letters and emails urging them to guarantee no net loss of public housing at Yesler Terrace, currently home to 561 low-income units spread over almost 30 acres.
The redevelopment plan calls for the housing project, which offers sweeping views of Elliott Bay, to be replaced by a highrise development of almost 5,000 units containing a mixture of low-income, senior and market-rate housing and commercial spaces. SHA estimates it will take 15 to 20 years for the revamped Yesler Terrace to be complete.
Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-43rd Dist., wrote a letter to the council opposing the use of state trust fund dollars for the redevelopment, saying the money is earmarked instead to expand our stock of low-income housing and acquire privately owned, low-income units. How did council respond? It committed hours of staff time calling across the state to “uncover” other cities’ use of state trust funds for replacement housing, just to refute Chopp.
Mind you, the council spent no staff time examining SHA’s budget. If it had, it would have found tens of millions of dollars in budget surpluses over the past decade. These excess funds were not used to increase low-income housing production, which is SHA’s mission. Instead the money fueled SHA’s move into market-rate and higher-end redevelopment. And the council didn’t investigate alternative plans to bring project costs down and provide savings that could have been used for more low-income units on site.
The Displacement Coalition and Low Income Housing Institute pushed the council to ensure excess revenues from office and luxury housing built on site would be funneled toward more public housing production. We also asked the council to cap housing levy money going to the project at
$7.5 million. But all we got were promises to review SHA’s budget and ensure any future requests for city funding go through normal channels.
Councilmembers don’t have the guts to say no to SHA and its food chain of development interests. In 15 years, we’ve never seen a serious council review of SHA’s budget, nor has the council ever turned down an SHA request.
Councilmember Nick Licata defended the agreement, saying SHA is committed to fully replacing and even adding more low-income units on site. But he and his council colleagues know SHA is only on the hook for 30 percent of the redevelopment costs of the 561 replacement units serving tenants eligible for public housing. More than 100 of these will be built off-site, draining millions more of our limited housing dollars to pay for units not on Yesler Terrace property.
Licata and other councilmembers even chose to echo SHA’s claim that there will be an extra 1,200 low-income units added to the mix. But these additional units will serve households earning up to 80 percent of median income, meaning monthly rents for studios will run as high as $1,140, while monthly rents for a three-bedroom could cost up to $1,700. Anyone who implies these are low income or affordable isn’t coming clean. Public housing serves households earning at or below 30 percent of median income. For these households, studios would cost $460 a month and a three bedroom up to $690.
We need change on our city council. That will only come when we pass an initiative to elect officeholders by district rather than at large, or when we somehow restructure city government.
We need leaders on the council who, rather than simply accepting the status quo and eking out small, almost unnoticeable changes, will call the Yesler Terrace agreement for what it is: an egregious sellout to development interests. Otherwise, all we’ve got are councilmembers who make it harder for us to change the lives of low-income people.
With the leadership we have now, we will never dig ourselves out of the hole the Yesler Terrace redevelopment plan will leave.
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