SEATTLE HOUSING AUTHORITY officials call it "severely deteriorated" and "no longer an asset to the community." They complain of its "chronic physical and social problems" and "extreme safety hazards." And they say the place "has not stood the test of time—nor the angry residents." But for the families who call it home, White Center's Roxbury Village is better than nothing. And nothing is precisely what many will be left with if SHA officials carry out their plans to demolish this public housing complex this fall.
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As buildings go, Roxbury Village may not seem worth saving, though it was built just 27 years ago and praised then for its experimental design. Its 15 two-story townhouses, some with boarded-up windows, are painted battleship gray. Chest-high chain-link fences separate knee-deep yards. Not all of the garbage makes it into the cans. But as homes go, its 60 units are all that separates many of its residents—most of them African and Asian immigrants who earn less than $10,000 a year—from moving back in with families, crashing on couches, or worse. "There is a lot of fear," said a resident who, wary of "retaliation" from the Housing Authority, requested anonymity. "Where will we go from here?" His story is a typical one in Roxbury Village. He and his wife support several children by working modest-paying jobs within walking distance of the complex, which sits off SW Roxbury Street in the heart of White Center. Their kids walk to school and play in neighboring Roxhill Park. Moving—which they must do by August—could jeopardize the stability they've achieved since arriving from Africa about 10 years ago.
The family has had its problems with SHA management, such as the time it took three phone calls and two weeks for maintenance workers to fix a fan in their poorly ventilated bathroom—a job that ultimately took 15 minutes to complete. Overall, though, the man says he and his family are comfortable at Roxbury and are working hard to make the best of it.
Meanwhile, SHA officials give a completely different spin. Their letters to City Council members and Roxbury residents make the place sound like a Skid Row flophouse. In March, SHA director Harry Thomas wrote to City Council member Nick Licata that rotting wooden frames, inadequate ventilation, leaky walls, substandard drainage, unsafe wiring, broken water lines, and "indefensible spaces" where hoodlums could hide from police all make it "simply too much for the residents to stay on any longer."
TWO YEARS AGO Thomas and his staff hosted a series of meetings for the ostensible purpose of letting residents help decide whether SHA should renovate Roxbury, raze it and start from scratch, or, under a federally mandated "right of first refusal," give tenants the opportunity to buy the complex and run it themselves. They discussed a variety of options, but meeting minutes indicate they steered the debate toward razing and rebuilding. When tenants asked, for example, whether funds would be available to help them buy the property, they received discouraging answers. Staffers failed to tell them, for instance, about the various nonprofit organizations that preserve low-income housing projects by cobbling together public and private funding sources.
"They just plain bullshitted residents," says John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. "Those meetings were charades." Indeed, a September 1996 meeting at which residents raised many of their concerns was held three weeks after SHA officials asked the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for a $2 million grant to demolish the complex.
Fox argues that tearing down Roxbury Village is foolish, particularly in the midst of a low-income-housing crisis intensified by welfare reform, deep cuts in HUD's budget, and a flattening of state housing dollars: "As in the case of Holly Park, we're using limited public resources to implement a net loss in the low-income housing stock. It's a waste." Fox argues that SHA could save about $3 million by refurbishing the complex.
Instead, the Housing Authority plans to raze it, build a "mixed-income" development with as few as 14 low-income units, and build another 46 units somewhere else in the city. But it doesn't have the money for those replacement units. And under loosened federal rules—including an obscure provision signed into law by President Clinton in 1995—it isn't required to build them. As at Roxbury, so across the nation: Some 100,000 low-income units are expected to be leveled within the next two years.
SHA has given Section 8 vouchers to families who have left Roxbury Village, and has enough left for the remaining families who have to move out by August. It's a shaky solution, though; many buildings that accept Section 8 vouchers have lengthy waiting lists, and discrimination against low-income immigrant families with children is commonplace. SHA itself has a queue that's 17,000 names long.
Related Links and information:
Seattle housing stats
Housing crisis numbers, including contact info. for the Tenants Union
Subscribe to Eat the State, an edgy local politics mag.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition