Dressing up the projects

Public housing has never looked better than it does today at Seattle's Holly Park. So why are so many tenants complaining?

Seattle's first new neighborhood in 50 years"—so proclaims a slick brochure heralding a sprawling real estate development on Beacon Hill. The brochure, now making the rounds among agents and homebuyers, is part of an attempt to pitch the development as the kind of "master planned" project normally found in the suburbs, designed to offer both new construction and instant community. Seemingly targeted at upscale families, the brochure is full of appealing images: a dad raising his daughter in the air, a tricycle framed by porch railings, a cup of coffee catching light filtered through Venetian blinds.

The brochure neglects to say only one thing: The development is, at its core, a public housing project. It is called Holly Park.

Of course, Holly Park has been around for decades. Run by the Seattle Housing Authority, it is an institution in South Seattle. Ever since World War II, its almost 900 matchbox homes have taken over a sizable segment of the slope from Martin Luther King Way to Beacon Avenue, providing shelter to some of the city's poorest.

But over the last three years, a complete transformation has begun, one that is a forerunner for a revolution in public housing at both the city and national level. Driven by a federal Housing and Urban Development program called HOPE VI that tempts local agencies into participating with million-dollar grants, the Seattle Housing Authority began bulldozing its Holly Park homes and building new, fancier homes. The Housing Authority is selling these homes, as well as renting them, and at prices that insure that the community will no longer be an exclusive preserve of the poor.

The theory behind HOPE IV is that traditional public housing complexes have turned into isolated ghettos that stigmatize their residents and make jobless poverty seem like the norm. In their place, HOPE VI seeks to create healthier "mixed-income communities" by building homes luxurious enough to attract people who can afford to live where they want, as well as those who can't. Helping people move up the economic ladder—and off public subsidies—is also newly emphasized through onsite job counseling and social services.

"This is a chance to make a clean start," enthuses Al Levine, who as the Seattle Housing Authority's asset manager is in charge of much of the city's HOPE VI planning. "This is a chance to house not only current but future residents in a style where they can have self-esteem, services, and role models."

The Seattle agency has, in fact, been one of the most enthusiastic champions of HOPE VI in the country, as well one of the most successful in winning federal grants. Last summer, it jubilantly announced that it had scored a $35 million HOPE VI grant to remake Rainier Vista (about a mile north of Holly Park on Martin Luther King Way), the maximum amount HUD offered this year. It has also won funds to redevelop Roxbury Village in West Seattle. Indeed, City Council housing committee chair Peter Steinbrueck calls the Seattle Housing Authority "the poster child for HOPE VI."

And that has gotten the Housing Authority into the same kind of controversy that has dogged every HOPE VI project, from Chicago to San Antonio, Baltimore to Cincinnati. For where proponents see rejuvenation, critics see gentrification, financed by taxpayers. They charge that the city will suffer a huge net loss of units for the poor to make way for the Housing Authority's new upscale clientele. "This is an enormous waste of limited public funds," argues the Displacement Coalition's John Fox, Seattle's archenemy of HOPE VI.

But the fierce, and much-publicized, debate over numbers of units has given discussions of HOPE VI a weirdly abstract feel, as if we had nothing concrete by which to judge what Steinbrueck calls "one big grand experiment." In fact, quite a lot of concrete has been poured at Holly Park, allowing for one of the first HOPE VI case studies in the country. More than a third of the 800 planned rental homes have been built and are occupied, in an area known as "new Holly." Meanwhile, the Housing Authority expects to finish building this month the first eight of the 400 houses to be sold.

A little time spent at new Holly reveals that it is both succeeding and failing in unexpected ways. Physically, it is a showpiece that subverts our notion of what public housing ought to look like. And yet, paradoxically, there is a significant level of discontent among its poorest residents. Some of the reasons may seem to have more to do with human nature, or the Housing Authority's clumsy style of communication, than with deep-seated problems. But they add up to a general sense of betrayed expectations that raises central questions about what HOPE VI can and can't deliver.

It is hard to grasp the scale of transformation taking place at Holly Park until you go there. My guide is the Housing Authority's Al Levine, a tall, bearded man with the manner of someone who has had to face a lot of criticism but can't quite figure out why. Levine is eager to start at a community and social service center called the New Holly Neighborhood Campus, which is scheduled to open next month.

Donning hard hats, we step into one of the campus' three buildings to find a pastiche of dark wood and terra-cotta colors. A community room is stunning, a vast space with an arched wooden roof, a wooden floor, and a wall of windows. A similar space for a classroom is to be used by a satellite of South Seattle Community College. Rooms are reserved for job-training and daycare programs, and for what Levine says will be the "biggest library in Southeast Seattle." Many of these functions will be open to the whole community, not just Holly Park residents.

"This is going to be a place in Southeast," Levine says. But as he muses over an idea to have a vendor set up an espresso stand, he recognizes that it may take a little convincing to bring outside people in. "We're so into this thing," he says. "Other people, they need to see this."

As we move to a street of rental homes containing a mix of units for public housing and higher-paying tenants—but all built to the same standard—it seems that by some measure the project is already a success. For this doesn't look anything like a public housing project. Two-story frame townhouses and duplexes boast front porches, sloping roofs, big windows, and a two-toned color scheme in tastefully muted hues. Unlike in many parts of town, sidewalks beckon people out of their houses. Architectural followers will recognize the hallmarks of trendy "new urbanism," which seeks to create a small-town, old-fashioned feel. Inside are features you might take for granted unless you've lived in public housing: carpets, closets, spacious dining areas, as many as five bedrooms, gleaming white kitchens with all the latest appliances. It seems strange to think of any of this as public housing, and yet you wonder, why shouldn't the poor live in style and comfort?

This accomplishment is almost a kind of revenge for Levine, who recalls initial skepticism of the most basic variety. "They didn't think we would build anything this nice," he says.

But such a total makeover is extremely expensive—especially given a decision to tear up the curving cul-de-sacs of current projects and replace them with crisscrossing streets that flow into surrounding neighborhoods. What the announcements of multimillion dollar Housing and Urban Development grants never say is that these funds represent only a fraction of total redevelopment costs. The new Holly Park, for instance, is slated to cost $139.5 million, far more than the $48 million contributed by the feds. The rest is made up by the city and other governmental sources, private institutions, and the Housing Authority itself.

In order to get city funds, the Housing Authority gave the City Council a written guarantee of "one-for-one replacement housing." But the Displacement Coalition's John Fox doesn't believe it. Already, he charges, the agency is trying to weasel out of its obligation on Holly Park by substituting some of the planned units for poor families with units for poor seniors, a population Fox feels is too narrow.

Nearly 40 percent of the units being torn down at Holly Park are supposed to be rebuilt someplace else. Yet the Housing Authority doesn't know where, nor does the agency know how it is going to pay for many of them. The dispute boils down to a matter of faith in the Housing Authority. Will it follow through on its commitment? Even if you give the Housing Authority the benefit of the doubt, the big picture is still troubling. "There so much unmet need," Steinbrueck bemoans. Roughly 14,000 people are listed on the Housing Authority's waiting list. With so much money going down the HOPE VI drain, Steinbrueck and others wonder how we'll ever expand, not just replace, housing stock for the poor.

At some point, though, you have to look at HOPE VI projects on their own terms. At Holly Park, Housing Authority types like Levine see things one way—residents often see them another.

An Ethiopian woman named Maymuna Omer stands at the doorway of her spanking new three-bedroom home in new Holly, for which she pays $147 a month. And what does she think of this incredible deal? "Old Holly," she says, smiling broadly. "I like old Holly."

"Really?" I ask, thinking back to the small, dark houses at old Holly I've seen— not terrible but not very nice either. "The fashion is very good," Omer concedes of her new home. "But the system is no good."

A visitor who speaks better English helps her explain that the problem is largely financial. She's always getting bills, not just for rent, but water, gas, electric, and other things she doesn't understand. She says it all adds up to about $400 a month—half of what she earns as a daycare worker. At old Holly, she paid just $116 a month.

I inevitably hear something similar whenever I ask residents how they like new Holly. While an apparently mundane matter, these utility bills have undermined the project among poor residents, who feel that their new digs, no matter how nice, are unaffordable.

Al Levine, however, tells me that residents are "confused." They still pay for rent and utilities according to the same formula as they did at old Holly: 30 percent of their income. But whereas they used to pay one flat fee (excluding a separate electricity bill), they now pay multiple utility bills and a rent bill from which the utilities payments have been deducted. The idea is to encourage conservation by making residents aware of their consumption.

But nobody seems to understand this oddly complicated policy, suggesting that the Housing Authority has a serious communication problem with its tenants. Moreover, tenants do have to pay additional money if they use more than a "utility allowance" set by the Housing Authority.

While utility bills seem to be the main source of discontent at new Holly, there are other issues. Several residents bring up the small yards, which they would trade in for the large communal lawns at old Holly. Another woman, who is nervous about giving her name, seethes about new Holly's many rules and regulations. A nine-page document forbids such things as piling stuff on the front porch, giving your walls a makeover, and driving over 15 miles per hour. "I feel like they're watching you all the time," says the woman, noting security guards who issue warnings for speeding.

In fact, in some half-dozen visits, the only people I meet who exhibit unbridled enthusiasm are three 14-year-old boys hanging out one day at a social service agency's "Family Center." "They're way better," Solomon Kamal says of new Holly's homes. "My room is huge." And now, he and his mom are moving to another house in new Holly with a living room so big "you can play football" there. He and friends Angasa Wanjal and Antonio Bailey also appreciate the nuances of architectural style and color, which vary by block. "It's more colorful," Bailey says. They have noticed less gang activity, too, in part because of those security guards.

The age of these boosters may not be coincidental. If money pressures are one adult reason for finding fault with new Holly, perhaps others lie in the expectations that HOPE VI has wrought.

"Self-sufficiency" is the buzzword used by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to sell HOPE VI. In tune with frustration over welfare dependency, the program helped save HUD from what could have been a fatal attack under the Bush administration. HOPE VI is supposed to offer the kind of intense social services necessary to get people off welfare and into jobs—high-paying ones, no less. As planned, those jobs in turn will allow once poor residents to buy their own homes. At Holly Park, the Housing Authority is building 100 "affordable" homes on top of 300 market-rate ones.

A high-paying job, a house, HOPE VI would seem to offer it all. It promises to work miracles, really, but of course it can't. Yet some residents and activists take that promise literally. Several activists I talk to want to know whether residents are making "livable" wages of at least $12 an hour, never mind that many residents were on welfare when the redevelopment began less than three years ago. Such unrealistic criticism has obscured the real progress many residents have made, which is particularly striking when you realize the demographic shift that the redevelopment brought about.

Back in early 1997, the then 871 households at Holly Park were asked to make a choice. They could leave, using federal vouchers to subsidize their rent in the private market. Or they could stay and agree to a host of new rules, regulations, and obligations. In addition to keeping up their homes and avoiding public nuisance behavior, residents had to pledge to get off welfare.

An interesting thing happened as half the households made an exodus: Those with the biggest obstacles to fulfilling such an obligation—immigrants with poor English skills—tended to stay, while native-born Americans tended to take off. It's thought that those fluent in English felt best capable of negotiating with landlords over federal vouchers, which are not always readily accepted. The population changed from about half to three-quarters immigrant, largely southeast Asian and East African.

The Housing Authority then contracted with the nonprofit Private Industry Council to provide intensive case management and job placement. Given the challenging population base, the employment record has been remarkably good: Of 356 able-bodied adults, 224 found new jobs at an average wage of $8 an hour. (Most of the remainder already had jobs.)

All the more surprising, then, that this summer, the Housing Authority decided it wasn't going to give any more money to PIC, scaling back what had been talked about as a five-year commitment. After laying off half its 8-person staff, PIC managed to get the Housing Authority to agree to fund a half-time case manager.

Why would the Housing Authority cut back on the key program aimed at fulfilling the goal of self-sufficiency, ostensibly the whole point of HOPE VI? "We determined that (PIC) did its job," says Sharon Im-Lee, a project coordinator for the Housing Authority. She argues it doesn't make sense to keep funding such an intensive service when there are so few unemployed adults remaining. "We can't afford it any more," she says, bringing up another important aspect of federal HOPE VI funding. "It's a one-shot deal." Yet social service programs touted as essential to the HOPE VI concept require ongoing funding. Even if almost everybody at Holly Park is working now, new families move in all the time.

Im-Lee responds that most do not have the "same scope of need" as the original Holly families. This seems an odd thing to say given that half of the redevelopment will be public housing that is supposed to offer the same kind of subsidies as the housing it replaced. It conveys a gentrification even among an already poor pool, though it's hard to say whether the Housing Authority may be actively weeding out the neediest cases or subtly sending the message that they're not welcome by cutting social services. Either way, it raises questions about where the poorest of the poor will go after HOPE VI claims even more developments.

Moreover, no matter how much progress residents have made in getting jobs, they still only make an average $8 an hour. If it's hard to support a family on that, it's harder still to buy a house—even an "affordable" one at Holly Park, which carries a price tag in the $200,000 range.

By affordable, the Housing Authority means that it will offer down payment assistance. "We'll make it work," the Housing Authority's Levine says firmly, having explained that the houses are targeted at folks who make as little as 30 percent of the median income (amounting last year in King County to an annual $17,700). Paul Fischburg, executive director of a nonprofit housing builder called the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, articulates a universal skepticism in the affordable housing field: "I don't see how it's possible."

Ann-Marie Lindboe, who supervises affordable housing programs for the Housing Authority, gets out her calculator. On a $200,000 house, the Housing Authority can get the mortgage loan down to $130,000. The difference includes a $25,000 discount from the Housing Authority, which really is turning the house over at cost; $5,000 in a resident's own savings; and down payment assistance from the city, HUD, and a private bank.

But this still leaves a buyer with a monthly mortgage and tax payment of about $1,000. By standard calculations, that's affordable to a family making $44,000 a year, or about 80 (not 30) percent of the median. "Not everyone is going to be able to afford this," Lindboe concedes. Still, she feels the affordable housing is meeting an unmet need for the people it targets. "Certainly, if they had to go out and buy elsewhere, they would not achieve that dream [of home ownership]."

When people make it to that income level, however, they apparently do have other choices, even in the current crazy market. Of the 36 Holly Park families who have bought or are ready to buy homes, two-thirds have found a house outside the development. Only five Holly Park families have committed to a house within the development, and four of those are taking advantage of an additional lease-to-own program because they are not considered financially stable by banks. Thus the Housing Authority may be pouring public resources into housing that is affordable only for those who don't want them, at least within the universe of Holly Park. Due to the unexpectedly low response, the Housing Authority has opened up the "affordable" houses to the surrounding community.

Of course, with the first wave of houses still receiving finishing touches, it's early days. One attraction that eventually may draw more interest is that the houses offer residents a chance to leave public housing but stay within the community (same goes for "affordable" and market-rate rental units). Holly Park, as residents have known it for years, exerts a surprisingly strong pull, at once affirming the HOPE VI variegated housing model and undermining its defining portrait of old-style public housing as monolithic pockets of despair. Several residents I meet at old Holly had stayed on long after their circumstances had improved, paying $600, $700, $800 (30 percent of their income) for their cramped quarters.

The typical ambivalence residents feel about old Holly, new Holly, and the affordable houses on offer is encapsulated by Sieu Duong, her husband Buc Nguyen, and their adult daughter Thao Nguyen. The Vietnamese family is one of new Holly's success stories. Sieu, who worked for 30 years as a nurse in her home country but couldn't find a decent job here because of her English, went through a program at new Holly to train residents to open daycares in their homes. She has now opened one in her new Holly rental home, helped out by her husband, a former policeman and soldier in Vietnam now on disability insurance. They love the work and the kids, pictures of whom are posted in a living room completely turned over to its daytime function as play-space.

Meanwhile, their 24-year-old daughter has finished school and started working as a dental assistant. Together, they have mustered the resources to buy, on a lease-to-own basis, an affordable house, having done all but sign on the dotted line.

I visit at night, when Thao will be home to translate. A petite woman with long black hair and bangs, she opens the door still wearing blue scrubs from work and leads me to a small table by the kitchen. "It's a good idea," Thao says as we begin talking about the redevelopment. "Make everything look new again. Very nice." But she immediately turning wistful. "I miss the old trees though." Casualties of the reconstruction, it seems.

A little later, she repeats the same back and forth momentum. Speaking for her parents, she says, "They like it, excited about it, hoping for something better." And then, "The old housing is good too. You kinda get used to old things, I guess."

Her mom, a quiet woman wearing a white cardigan and silky mustard pantsuit, now shakes her head. "I don't like it," she says of the old two-bedroom house, much smaller than their current three-bedroom one as well as the four-bedroom one they hope to buy. However, they're not entirely happy with their current home either, raising doubts about whether they will actually buy into new Holly.

"Floor not good," her husband says, stamping on it to produce a noisy reverberation. They all walk around the house pointing out other defects: loose floor tiles by the back door, a leaky bathroom sink, closet doors that fall out when you try to open them.

A Housing Authority supervisor later tells me that the agency has rushed to move people in as soon as possible, sometimes before all the minor and expected flaws to be eventually fixed by the contractor are addressed. It seems another miscommunication is to blame. But the Housing Authority may have a tough time shaking a sneaking suspicion among the poor that anything the government gives them will be second best.

The family has seen friends and relatives get what comparatively seem like awfully good deals outside of Holly. A little to the east in Columbia City, an aunt bought a 4-bedroom house—the regular old detached variety with a big yard—for $165,000. "Don't buy here," someone else came back to say after finding a sprawling $233,000 five-bedroom. New urbanism's stylistic push towards community-building closeness (and cost-efficient density) is not popular, it seems, among people striving for conventional signs of success.

Yet, despite all that, this family seems inclined to stay put. After five years, they have put down roots. "Many friends," Buc says. They also like being near a strip mall of Southeast Asian shops, a Vietnamese church, and English and computer classes Buc takes at the temporarily makeshift quarters of the New Holly Campus.

I wonder if they'll feel any stigma by staying here, a stigma they have felt in the past. "If we buy a house, we'll be proud," Thao says. "We're not living in public housing any more," Thao says. But might the name Holly Park still carry negative connotations? "We buy a house," Thao repeats, as if to say, end of discussion.

The question of stigma is being addressed on other fronts. With the introduction of market-rate houses, there are people whose job it is to sell Holly Park. The Housing Authority has contracted with Windermere's Mount Baker office to list and market the houses, now selling for between $190,000 and $250,000. Try to call this neighborhood a housing project before one of its agents and you will be politely corrected. "A master planned community is essentially what it is," says Darryl Smith, a Windermere up-and-comer who has had practice counteracting negative stereotypes as a leader of a revitalization effort in Columbia City.

When I ask Smith what he'll say to people who don't know about Holly Park's history, it's clear that the words "public housing" rarely cross his lips. Smith says that when potential buyers look at a map of the development and want to know what all the other stuff is besides the houses, he replies, "Those are rental units. They're in the price range of $700 to $1100" (a slight upping of the scale). "Mixed in is a small percentage of Seattle Housing Authority tenants" (an overwhelming majority, actually, although only half are considered public housing).

Few have had qualms, Smith says, although there have only been seven sales so far. He says that about half the buyers have been Asian, which makes sense given Beacon Hill's heavily Asian population. Others he describes as "urban pioneers" —gays, biracial couples, and others who might feel more comfortable in a diverse population; also "people priced out of Madrona, Capitol Hill, Madison Valley, even the Central Area, who are starting to take a real good look at Beacon Hill."

Jeremy Rene is one such buyer. He is white and his new bride Alicia is Asian-American, though he doesn't make a point of their biracial status when we meet for lunch one day at a funky Belltown pizza joint of his choosing. Instead, Rene, a 32-year-old architect, says he likes new Holly's "neo-traditional design, with garages off the alley so they're not facing the street."

"I thought it was a real good value for the money," he says. I ask whether the presence of public housing gave him pause. Rene shrugs. "It's just what I was used to," he says. Before he married he lived in a small house in Rainier Valley, the only place he could afford to buy. "Actually," he says, "I like the location of this house better than my other house. It's two blocks off Beacon Avenue so it's got a view of the Cascades, and it's convenient to a bus route to town."

Early signs indicate that the redevelopment's gamble on market-rate housing is paying off and is likely to continue to do so for at least as long as the market puts a squeeze on all but the rich.

Inspiring equal enthusiasm among Holly Park's poorest residents, those with both the most to gain and the most to lose, is the ongoing challenge of the Housing Authority—one that looms large as the agency seeks to move ahead with its next HOPE VI projects.

In a cluttered Wallingford office housed in a church that is a magnet for left-wing causes, the Displacement Coalition's John Fox asserts that the Housing Authority will try to present the plan for a HOPE VI redevelopment at Rainier Vista as a "fait accompli." But he sees many opportunities for political sabotage as the agency goes through about a year's worth of ground-clearing with various bureaucracies needed to issue permits or grant additional funding. "The battle has just begun," he cries.

"Seattle's first new neighborhood in 50 years" is bound to be a pivotal theater for combat.

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