IF THE SEATTLE HOUSING AUTHORITY had to rely on the warm feelings of its elderly tenants, its senior-housing program would probably go broke by the end of the month. Some residents of one SHA senior building, already aggravated at SHA management of the once-prosperous program, are now fuming over its plan to recruit private investment to keep it afloat. Judging by their rhetoric, Round 2 is shaping up to be even nastier than Round 1.
"They thought we were just a bunch of old crocks—that they could just pat us on the head," grouses Virginia Myers, who chairs a senior advocacy group formed to scrutinize and, in some cases, challenge SHA decisions. Last fall the group sued SHA after it learned that $6.4 million earmarked for 23 senior-citizen buildings had been shifted to the century-old Morrison Hotel, a downtown shelter for the homeless and disabled. (See "Home Front," SW, 2/5.)
Though they lost that round, senior tenants are preparing for the next one. This time, they criticize an SHA plan to raise about $1 million in renovation and maintenance funds for the 39-unit Ravenna School Apartments by selling federal income-tax credits to private and, perhaps, for-profit investors—essentially venture capitalists looking for tax write-offs. Though it's not yet a done deal, SHA has applied for the right to sell the tax credits through the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, an agency also entangled in the NordstromPacific Place scandal. Criticized by some state and local officials for issuing a low-interest loan to developers of the Pacific Place parking garage, the Housing Commission has also been accused of managing its tax-credit program poorly.
To qualify for the tax credits, SHA were required under tax law to create a limited partnership. This means the Ravenna School, an 87-year-old building renovated through a voter-approved bond issue, could effectively come under the control of a private entity. "It's very threatening," says Myers, a Ravenna School resident. "To me it looks like the first step toward breaking up the program." Under the terms of the 1981 bond issue, SHA is barred from selling or "otherwise dispos[ing] of" any senior-citizen buildings without the City Council's official blessing. So far, no such blessing has been given.
SHA officials, trying to defuse yet another controversy, have promised Ravenna tenants that if the tax-credit initiative goes through, their rents will not increase and the building will not be managed differently because SHA would maintain legal control over the limited partnership. "Whatever happens to the Ravenna School will be seamless," says Doris Koo, SHA's development director. "Nothing unusual will happen there." SHA's tax-credit application to the Housing Commission, however, states that rents could nearly double under the plan, from the current average of $225 a month for a one-bedroom apartment to about $440.
As in past skirmishes with the agency, Myers and other tenant activists aren't taking SHA officials' word at face value. They plan to speak at a special gathering Peter Steinbrueck, who chairs the City Council's Housing & Human Services Committee, has scheduled for next Thursday to hear SHA executive director Harry Thomas' plans for dealing with shrinking federal housing outlays. Also expected to speak is John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a long-time SHA critic. Fox has asked Steinbrueck not only to review SHA's tax-credit proposal, but also "to undertake a more general investigation into SHA and its management and operation practices."
The meeting will be held in the City Council chambers at the Municipal Building, July 2, from noon to 1:30pm. It is open to the public.