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SEATTLE – Over the last 20 years the Seattle Housing Authority has learned a lot about breaking ground, building new communities.  It started in Holly Park in 1995 when the Authority won $47 million in HUD HOPE VI funds to demolish and replace a dilapidated, deteriorating public housing complex. Re-named New Holly, it was the first new neighborhood the Authority had developed in 50 years.

Others soon followed.   High Point, Westwood, Rainier Vista, Lake City Court.  All told  the Authority won $135  million in HOPE VI funds which, in turn, leveraged  $450 million in other investments, related to housing and infrastructure, replaced 2,218 units of dilapidated public housing and sparked construction of more than 2,000 units of mixed-income housing.

The Authority is at it again.  This time on 30 acres at Yesler Terrace, a public housing community just east of downtown, one of Seattle’s “most diverse but economically challenged neighborhoods.”  It is home to about 1,200 residents who, on average, live on less than $26,000 a year or 30 percent of area median income. 

Built 70 years ago, its 561 units “are at the end of their useful life.”  Water, sewer and other key services are “failing.”  Time, decided the Authority, for a new community that’s “healthier and more sustainable, and has enhanced education, employment and health care services.”  Thanks to its success with HOPE VI, Seattle was one of the first authorities to win a HUD Choice Neighborhoods grant – for $30 million – to do precisely that.

artist rendering of developmentWork started last fall with demolition of the low-income units and work begun on the units that will replace the demolished units. The Authority partners hope to build another 100 units affordable to households at less than 30 percent of area median, 280 units for those between 30 and 60 percent, up to 850 units of new workforce units for those at 80 percent or less of area median.

That’s only half the story.  The original model for public housing that was first developed in the 1930’was for big, densely-populated, unadorned complexes.  Pretty quickly, those communities became economically homogeneous and socially-isolated from the cities around them.  By the 1960’s, most were places people didn’t want to call home.

That hasn’t happened at the Authority’s HOPE VI communities and won’t at Yesler Terrace.  Why?  It starts with the housing mix.  Yes, Yesler Terrace will have some 1,800 units of housing affordable to those at 80 percent or less of median.  But there also will be at least as many privately-owned, market-rate units.  A mix of incomes in a community promotes a mix of opportunities for those who live there.

Choice Neighborhoods, after all, isn’t just about bricks-and-mortar.  It’s also about connectivity, about making sure Yesler Terrace and its residents aren’t cut off from, but an integral part of the larger city. A mix of subsidized and market-rate units is is key.

But there are other elements, expanding the revitalization to include the quantity and quality of schools, health care and transportation available to Yesler Terrace residents. Which is why the Seattle Housing Authority has enlisted partners like nearby Seattle University, Neighborhood House, Catholic Community Services and the College Success Foundation to develop cradle-to-college educational programs.  Why it’s partnered with the City and Neighborcare Health to open health care clinics in the areal Why the City is building a streetcar line up the hill to connect Yesler Terrace to the light-rail system.

It is also why the Authority wants Yesler Terrace residents to share in the economic activity the revitalization generates.   In early January, it reached a “groundbreaking” agreement with the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Construction Alliance II, Seattle/King County Building and Construction Trades Council that, said Authority Executive Director Andrew Lofton, offers “an exciting new range of opportunities for high-quality training and skilled, living wage careers” to make sure residents “are a fundamental part of the transformation of Yesler Terrace."

The agreement specifies that area residents a “preference in hiring” for Authority projects at Yesler Terrace and sets goals for the share of the work to be performed by minorities, women and minority- and women-owned firms.  And residents who successfully complete pre-apprenticeship training will receive preference for entering union apprenticeships.

The agreement, explained Lee Newgent of the Trades Council, “takes obstacles and replaces them with opportunities.  "The workforce of tomorrow requires vision today."

So, too, the communities of tomorrow like the one Yesler Terrace will become.  On a recent tour with U.S. Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Adam Smith, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was impressed by the vision he saw.  “This is as innovative, as comprehensive, as collaborative an effort as I have seen,” he said. “Not just anywhere in the country, but anywhere in the world.”