Urban Politics #325: The Yesler Terrace Redevelopment Project


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On September 4, the City Council approved four pieces of legislation giving the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) the green light to move ahead with its 30 acre, $300 million redevelopment of Yesler Terrace.  Of the $30 million in City funds that SHA will request, approximately $11 million are committed with this agreement.

BACKGROUND

SHA has been working with the City and the Yesler Terrace Citizen’s Review Committee since 2006.  The establishment of the Review Committee was the result of a 2002 settlement secured by the Seattle Displacement Coalition in their fight against the redevelopment of Rainier Vista.  The City Council review of Yesler Terrace began this year in February and the Council’s Special Committee on Yesler Terrace Council began meeting on May 21, 2012 and, after 12 meetings and two public hearings, finished its deliberations on August 16th.  I would have preferred more time to address several issues that I believe would have benefited from additional discussion.  I proposed a one week delay on the passage of the Cooperative Agreement, in particular to address the request of the Little Saigon community that we add language committing SHA to work with them. Councilmembers declined out of concern that additional delay could lessen the likelihood of receiving up to $20 million in Federal funds for the project.

The Displacement Coalition sent the Council a letter, signed by nearly 30 individuals and organizations, notifying the Council of their disappointment in the direction of the redevelopment.  I understand their sentiment; in some areas, I share it.  But I believe that one Yesler Terrace resident leader said it best when she testified that the plan approved by the Council is the least bad option when we consider that the 70 year old units do need repair and there is no federal funding available for a renovation option.

Yesler Terrace is one of the most diverse as well as the most economically challenged communities in Seattle. The average, Yesler Terrace household earns about $14,000 a year. It is the oldest publicly subsidized housing in Seattle.  Its 561 housing units, according to SHA, have water, sewer and other key systems that are failing.  The Council’s role in supporting a redevelopment like this should be to preserve the existing community as much as possible.  Of course some families may decide not to return to Yesler Terrace but if we do not have as a goal sustaining a community, then all we are doing is building buildings.

TWO POLICIES TO PURSUE

The primary two community preservation policies that still need to be strengthened are:

1.  More Family Units

The difficulty producing larger family-sized units is not unique to SHA.   Recently I spoke with a group of immigrant youth, not living in SHA housing, who told me that they were members of 6 person families living in 2 bedroom homes.  Still, there should be more guarantees that Yesler Terrace will remain a child-friendly environment.  Although the legislation passed by the Council requires the redevelopment to provide more affordable units for low and moderate families with children than exist now, I still want a commitment from SHA that they will limit the time away for today’s Yesler Terrace families to not more than a single school year, particulaly if the children will have to change schools.  We did receive a commitment that of the 281 replacement housing units that will be available at all times to returning Yesler Terrace residents during the redevelopment project, 94 of them will be 2, 3, and 4 bedroom units.  Hopefully this will increase the number of families that will be able to return sooner.

2.  Provide Staffing for Assisting the Low Income Community

Though I am pleased that SHA has dedicated staff to work with the resident community, I wish they had included staff focused on advocating specifically for the unique needs of a low-income tenant community in what is planned to be a dense mixed-use neighborhood including office buildings and retail spaces, with a population expected to be 5,000 families, over half of whom will be living in more costly market-rate housing.

AMENDMENTS TO THE COOPERATIVE AGREEMENT

I am, however, glad that I succeeded in having the Council adopt a number of amendments to SHA’s Cooperative Agreement with the City (I sponsored 12 of the 16 amendments.) So, what new commitments did we get?

  • Many asked that we reevaluate the plan’s intention to sell 40% of the public land, as necessary to fund the project.  The legislation requires SHA to explore the benefits as well as the negative impacts of leasing rather than sale and requires SHA to provide a report to the Council prior to the sale of any property.  This report will start the conversation about sale of land, not end it. I personally prefer the land be kept in the public domain, even if it is leased out for a many years to come. I hope that this report will show how that can be accomplished without hindering SHA’s ability to provide a quality redevelopment of YT.
  • SHA must use all proceeds from the sale, lease, or other disposition of property in the Yesler Terrace Redevelopment Area only for Yesler Terrace redevelopment activities. It came to my attention that the draft Cooperative Agreement made no mention of how the proceeds from the sale or lease of land, had to be applied to the Yesler Terrace project.  Consequently, I added language saying that if there are excess revenues, SHA is required to submit a proposal to the City Council for approval before expending them.  In the legislation, if capital and operating funding is available after SHA and development partners have completed all the Replacement Housing, SHA shall produce up to 100 units of extremely low income housing with a minimum term of affordability of 50 years.
  • The Cooperative Agreement now increases the number of trees to be planted by 10% and requires maintenance of the trees that are planted.  Urban planners agree that landscaping with trees demonstrably contributes to more cohesive social communities. It was unfortunate that more mature trees could have been retained but extensive road work required their removal. With this new commitment, we should see a greater canopy in this neighborhood in the future.
  • The legislation requires that the City and SHA work with the Friends of Little Saigon and other community members to explore the feasibility of developing a mixed-use project in Little Saigon that may include low-income housing, affordable commercial space, and a Vietnamese cultural center.
  • The legislation requires new limits on screening policies and an appeal process for Yesler Terrace residents seeking to return after redevelopment.  Returning residents will not be denied their right to return unless they are ineligible for federally subsidized housing.
  • I would have preferred legislation limiting the use of levy funds for the redevelopment of Terrace to the already $7.2 million in levy funds already committed. Instead, the legislation requires that if SHA requests future Housing Levy dollars for Yesler Terrace, they must compete for those funds through the regular, competitive Housing Levy process.
  • Each year of the redevelopment SHA will provide an annual report to the Council that will include the status of all housing production by affordability and bedroom count as well as the number of public units still on site, taken out of service, and brought back into service through replacement housing production.  The report will also include an update on properties leased or sold, including purchase price.
  • SHA must work with community organizations that assist women- and minority-owned businesses and economically disadvantaged individuals to obtain employment through Section 3 hiring, apprenticeship programs and equal opportunity programs.

GUARANTEEING THE RIGHT TO RETURN

Some feared that there would not be a guarantee of 100% replacement of the very low-income units on or offsite.  The legislation not only requires that all 561 current units will be replaced within the immediate neighborhood but it also controls the location and timing of replacement.  Of the 561 units being replaced, only 118 of those units are planned on property that is adjacent to Yesler Terrace, property that was actually once included within the Yesler Terrace boundaries.  Some critics were concerned that residents would not be granted a right to return to Yesler Terrace; however every Yesler Terrace resident has been given a certificate of return.  It’s true that it may take time for residents to be able to exercise that right because the construction of all 561 replacement units will happen over many years, but the legislation has granted residents that right should they choose to use it.  The focus has rightly been on the replacement of very low income units, but the plan is to build another 290 units of housing for low income residents earning up to 60% AMI and 950 units of 80% AMI housing.

SUMMARY

The scope and size of this project is unprecedented among other Federal Choice Neighborhood projects that the Federal government is currently funding.  Some have used the word “scary” to describe the project.  I don’t believe that I could have just voted “no” and let fear hold me back from working with other Councilmembers in seeking commitments from SHA to assure that this legislation promotes the principles of a culturally and economically diverse community while continuing to prioritize the provision of housing and services for those most in need. It is the Council’s duty to watchdog this legislation as it is implemented and to work with SHA and the community to assure that every requirement that is in this legislation is met.  In moving forward we cannot be slack in our diligence.

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Comment from Patricia Ann
Time September 10, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I really hope that the City Council keeps a watchful eve on SHA and moves quickly when action is needed. We lost a lot of low-income units through SHA’s HOPE VI developments and the City of Seattle did not hold SHA accountable for those losses. It seems to me that no one actually holds SHA accountable for anything.

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