In-depth History

Seattle Housing Authority

The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) was established in 1939 during the waning days of the Great Depression. It was inspired by New Deal legislation and brought to life largely through the tireless efforts of Jesse Epstein (1910-1989), a young Seattle attorney who believed that providing its citizens safe, clean, and affordable housing was, or should be, the responsibility of an enlightened society. America entered World War II shortly before the authority’s first project, Yesler Terrace, was completed, and for the duration of the war and beyond, SHA’s main task was to build and manage housing for defense workers, military families, and veterans. In the early 1950s, public and Congressional sentiment turned against subsidized housing, bringing on long years of consolidation and retrenchment. Four SHA projects built for defense-industry workers and military families were converted to low-income housing, but no new construction would be possible for more than a decade. Part 1 of this two-part essay follows the work of the agency from its earliest days through the 1950s.

The Housing Act of 1937

Until the Great Depression, inadequate housing and most other problems afflicting the poor were rarely the subject of federal lawmaking. Such things were considered a local responsibility, but cities, towns, and even states often had neither the will nor the money to accomplish a great deal, relying instead on well-intentioned but inadequate private charities. A stubborn barrier to federal action was conservative opposition to anything that smacked of interference with private enterprise, and even the rigors of the Depression did not fully narrow the philosophical divide.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) and his advisers desperately wanted to bring federal power to bear against the country’s social ills, but were forced to proceed with political caution. Several New Deal proposals from the mid-1930s had faced stiff opposition in Congress and the courts. The federal government’s first major effort in the housing field, the National Housing Act of 1934 that established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), primarily eased the credit market by pledging federal funds to guarantee loans used to purchase single-family homes. It was helpful to many working-class families, but did virtually nothing to address the housing needs of the poor.

This changed with passage of the Housing Act of 1937 (also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act), which inaugurated the first direct federal public-housing assistance to local governments. To gain political support, including the co-sponsorship of conservative Alabama Representative Henry Steagall (1873-1943), the act paid lip service to “the reduction of unemployment and the stimulation of business activity” (Housing Act of 1937). Its primary goal and intended effect, however, was to get the federal government deeply involved in providing public housing for low-income Americans. The law established in the Interior Department a United States Housing Authority, which was subsequently funded with $500 million. Cities committed to building public housing were eligible for low-interest loans equal to 90 percent of project costs, with up to 60 years allowed for repayment.

The Right Man at the Right Time

A young Seattle attorney, Jesse Epstein, was paying close attention when Congress passed the Housing Act of 1937. Born in Russia and raised in Great Falls, Montana, Epstein moved to Seattle in 1927 to attend the University of Washington, where he earned a degree in political science and graduated from law school in 1935. He went to work that year for the university’s Bureau of Governmental Research, affiliated with the Association of Washington Cities. One of his assignments was to keep track of federal programs that could be of benefit to local governments across the state, and he was quick to see the potential of the 1937 Housing Act. Epstein soon won the crucial support of a somewhat wary Seattle mayor, Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966), persuading him that building low-income housing was not only a valid goal in itself, but would also boost employment, stimulate the local economy, and clear blighted areas of the city. The city council followed up with an ordinance that created a Local Advisory Housing Commission, with Epstein as chairman and $25,000 to work with.

The federal law required the involvement of a “local public-housing agency,” something Seattle did not have and could not establish without authorization from the state legislature. To set the stage, on April 20, 1938, the city council unanimously adopted a resolution declaring its intent to create a Seattle Housing Authority once the state legislature granted the necessary powers, and expressing the hope that the federal government would earmark money for Seattle in the meantime.

Epstein turned his attention to Olympia, helped draft the necessary legislation, then lobbied to get it passed. Opposition came mostly on philosophical grounds, fueled by a belief in some quarters that direct government involvement in housing (and in many other New Deal activities) was evidence of creeping socialism. Epstein spoke around the state, persuading many doubters that having government finance the building of low-income housing would not endanger free enterprise, but would in fact create new and lucrative opportunities for the private sector.

The legislature met only every second year at that time, and Epstein and his allies had to wait until 1939 for passage of the state Housing Authorities Law and Housing Cooperation Law. Together, these two statutes authorized the creation of local housing authorities and granted municipalities the powers necessary to help them along. Both acts were signed by Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) on February 24, 1939, and just three weeks later, on March 13, the Seattle City Council created the Seattle Housing Authority. One week after that, Mayor Langlie appointed an unpaid board of commissioners to direct the new agency. They were: George W. Coplen, a builder and developer; Charles W. Doyle (1874-1958), secretary of the Seattle Central Labor Council; Metta Henderson (1892-1976), from the Seattle Federation of Women’s Clubs; Kenneth J. Morford (1897-1961), a mortgage broker; and, as chairman, Epstein.

Within a month, the authority had completed an application for funds under the Wagner-Steagall Act to be used to raze a neighborhood of dilapidated buildings near downtown Seattle and replace them with housing for low-income families. When a $3 million loan was announced two months later, Epstein stepped down as chairman of the SHA board and was appointed the agency’s executive director. The Seattle Housing Authority was about to get off to a rather stellar start, and it doesn’t trivialize the countless contributions of many others to say that it was largely Epstein’s doing.

Yesler Terrace

For its first project, the Seattle Housing Authority selected a 24-block area totaling 43.5 acres just east of downtown on what was then called Yesler Hill, at the southern end of First Hill. It was home to about 1,000 people living in 471 separate dwelling units, of which only 22 were owner-occupied. The area had been nicknamed Profanity Hill for the curses of those forced to climb the steep slope to reach the original King County Court House at 8th Avenue and Terrace. By the 1930s the neighborhood was far past its prime; the courthouse was gone, the few remaining fine old Victorian homes were chopped up into boarding houses, and most of the later-built duplexes and row houses were left unmaintained and unimproved by absentee landlords. By 1940, most residents were low-income, the exception being a relatively prosperous community of Japanese, many of whom operated businesses in the neighborhood. The future site of Yesler Terrace may have been one of Seattle’s most dilapidated areas, but it was by no means alone. A 1940 city-wide housing survey, financed with a grant from the federal Works Progress Administration, found that nearly 30 percent of all houses and apartments in the city were sub-standard.

There was much to recommend the Yesler site besides the opportunity to clear an area that was considered a civic embarrassment. It was close to King County’s public hospital and several schools, within easy walking distance of downtown, and blessed with magnificent views that it was hoped would help give new and returning residents “pride of place” (Sale, 165). The downside was that 1,000 or so people would have to relocate, some temporarily, most permanently. As the city began buying up the properties to be razed, Irene Burns Miller (1902-1983), the project’s tenant-relocations supervisor, started knocking on doors. She later recalled:

“Relocation of tenants … on ‘Profanity Hill’ … was particularly interesting because of the colorful conglomeration of various nationalities, mixed marriages, and houses of prostitution. The 1,021 persons living on the site … were made up of 161 white families, 66 Negro families, five Chinese, 127 Japanese … and single persons including 20 Filipinos and a smattering of Indians, Greeks, and Eskimos” (Miller typescript, 1).

Existing low-income residents were given priority in the new development, but only households headed by U.S. citizens and able to meet strict financial-need requirements (no more than $1,200 annual income) were eligible to return. And Yesler Terrace was specifically for families; unmarried men and women would be excluded. By the end of September 1940 almost all who had to move out had done so. In the meantime, Jesse Epstein had made two decisions that would set Yesler Terrace apart from most other low-income housing developments then going up across the country. One was based on justice, the other on aesthetics. First, he insisted that Yesler Terrace be integrated and that eligibility standards be applied without regard to race. To avoid debate and controversy, the issue was never formally proposed to or approved by the housing-authority board, although both the board and Mayor Langlie supported the decision, as would future mayors. Many sources claim that Yesler Terrace was the first integrated public-housing development in America. While documentary support for this is lacking, it is a fact that many other such projects around the nation were strictly segregated. The federal government was silent on the issue at the time, neither requiring nor forbidding integration.

Epstein’s other decision was to reject the U.S. Housing Authority’s sample plans, which were intended to expedite the design process and limit construction costs but suffered from a bland sameness. He instead retained a hand-picked team of five local architects — William Aitken (1889-1971), William J. Bain (1896-1985), John T. Jacobsen (1903-1998), J. Lister Holmes (1891-1986), and George W. Stoddard (1896-1967) — to plan the project and the dwellings within it. Some details of their first designs brought bids higher than the federal government would allow. The plans were tweaked, new bids solicited, and on February 28, 1941, the SHA signed a contract with the J. C. Boespflug Construction Company of Montana to build a total of 690 dwelling units at a price of $2,176,000. Construction began in April 1941 and was completed in little more than a year. Victor Steinbrueck, noted Seattle architect and preservationist, later described what the tenants found when they moved in:

“Each family unit has its own private sitting-out area and yard and is afforded a view by the terrace site planning and flat shed roofs. The design and color of the well-arranged buildings … make this good contemporary architecture. Only in such a public project has it been possible to provide play areas and community social and recreational facilities giving a most complete environment” (Seattle Cityscape, 159).

But the families who moved into this new housing included few of those who had earlier had been forced to leave the neighborhood. Some, particularly among the Japanese, were not sufficiently poor to qualify, and the wartime internment that began in Seattle in April 1942 ensured that no one of Japanese descent would be among the first residents of Yesler Terrace. Others were disqualified for other reasons, or did not apply, and of the families of all races that were moved out, only 25 returned.

War …

By 1940, with Europe and Asia wracked by war and the threat to America growing, the United States had become, in President Roosevelt’s words, “the arsenal of democracy” (“Fireside Chat”). U.S. industries were producing vast amounts of military arms and equipment, both to supply Great Britain and others fighting the Axis powers and to build up America’s own depleted inventories. In June 1940 Congress amended the Housing Act of 1937 to divert money allocated for low-income housing, but not yet spent, to build accommodations for tens of thousands of defense workers and military families. Three months later, President Roosevelt approved construction of 150 dwelling units for military families in Seattle near the Sand Point Naval Air Station on Lake Washington, using surplus low-income housing funds. The Seattle Housing Authority managed the construction, which was completed in April 1941. The development was located near middle-class residential neighborhoods, and the city council, worried that the housing might be converted to low-income use after the war, stipulated that needed municipal services would be provided only as long as the development was used for national defense.

The shift in focus from the New Deal’s aspirations of social progress to the necessities of war was further emphasized in October 1940 when Congress passed the Lanham Act, which completed the redirection of money for low-income housing to housing for defense. The program was funded initially with $150 million, with local authorities often relied upon to build and manage the projects. Seattle was a major center for defense industries — Boeing, Issacson Steel, and Todd Shipyards, to mention just three — and the city was laboring under a severe housing shortage. Just one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, The Seattle Times (which consistently opposed expenditures for low-income housing) described the need:

“Auto and trailer camps, jammed to overflowing and with their ‘no vacancy’ signs out; newcomers actually sleeping in automobile garages, not knowing where to look for better shelter; dark, windowless attics of old houses, crammed with ten or twenty defense workers’ cots, or as many as they will hold” (“City Housing Shortage … “).

Steps were already well underway to relieve the crisis. On July 4, 1941, Epstein announced that the Seattle Housing Authority had been selected to build and manage a $1,750,000 housing development for defense workers on city-owned land at the north end of Rainier Valley. He appointed Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971) and architect/engineer A. M. Young (1884-1954) to design the project, called Rainier Vista. There were to be 500 housing units spread among 231 one-story buildings on 90 acres. Construction began in September 1941 and was completed in less than a year.

About a mile and a half south, on the eastern slope of Beacon Hill, a second defense-housing development, considerably larger, was soon underway. This project, Holly Park, opened 300 housing units in September 1942, and when completed nearly a year later covered 108 acres with 339 one- and two-story duplexes and four-plexes accommodating 900 living units.

For these projects the housing planners adopted the “garden city” concept, pioneered in Great Britain decades earlier to alleviate the stultifying bleakness of housing built for workers drawn to cities by the Industrial Revolution. Rainier Vista and Holly Park had curving streets, cul-de-sacs, and housing units grouped in clusters separated by large, open areas. Even the names were evocative of a sylvan suburbia. The layout seemed a refreshing break from the grid-lined geometric sameness of most city neighborhoods, and it looked good on paper. It even looked good on the ground at first, but in later years would contribute to a number of negative and unexpected sociological consequences.

By the time the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the SHA was building housing at a furious pace. In addition to Rainier Vista and Holly Park, in January 1942 a 178-unit expansion of Yesler Terrace was funded. In West Seattle, the authority was busy building High Point, another huge housing project for war workers, planned for 950 units, the largest SHA development yet. The paint was not yet dry when an adjacent 37 acres was condemned for an additional 350 units. Additions were being made to other developments as well, and by the end of 1942 the Seattle Housing Authority had completed or was nearing completion of 3,768 housing units (all but the original 690 in Yesler Terrace reserved for defense-industry workers and military families):

Yesler Terrace, 868 units (690 low-income, 178 defense-worker housing)
Holly Park, 900 units
High Point, 700 units
High Point Addition, 250 units
High Point Extension, 350 units
Rainier Vista, 500 units
Sand Point, 200 units

It was not nearly enough. In 1943, 9,573 families applied for SHA housing, up 23 percent from the previous year. The housing authority responded as best it could, building temporary accommodations that included 700 units at the Duwamish Bend Development, a 122-unit expansion at Rainier Vista, a 100-unit addition at Holly Park; a new 40-unit development on Minor Avenue; 450 units at Delridge (in West Seattle); and 416 units in a project called Stadium Homes near Sick’s Stadium. By the end of the war in 1945, the Seattle Housing Authority was managing more than 8,400 units of housing, most of them meant to be temporary.

… and Peace

In January 1945, with peace in sight, the federal government restricted new applications for housing built with Lanham Act funds to veterans and active-duty military personnel. The waiting list for SHA-managed projects grew to more than 3,000 by March, and an expected exodus of defense workers at war’s end did not materialize — many had decided to make Seattle their permanent home.

Jesse Epstein, who started it all, did move on. He went to work for the U. S. Housing Authority in 1945, and two years later was named director of the West Coast Region, comprising nine states and two territories. In 1948 Epstein was caught up in the Red-hunting fervor of the time, accused of having once attended a Communist Party meeting. He was cleared, but soon left government service, accepted a fellowship at Harvard University, and later returned to Seattle to practice law.

Epstein had told his staff in 1940, “We have an opportunity to prove that Negroes and whites can live side by side in harmony … but it’s going to require skill and patience to make it work” (“The Radical Roots … “). He was about three decades ahead of most of society, but he was dead right on the principle, and non-discrimination was a guiding tenet of the SHA from the beginning. In part because Epstein did not think the question should even be open to public debate, his dedication to racial equality went largely unpublicized and mostly unlauded for many years.

Epstein was replaced at the Seattle Housing Authority by his assistant director, Charles W. Ross (1903-1982), who would serve for the next 23 years and guide the organization through some of its most difficult years and its renaissance in the 1960s. Ross was soon confronted with a crisis caused by the return of servicemen mustering out after the war. In November 1946, approximately 38,000 veterans were living in Seattle, many in ratty rooming houses, trailers, and makeshift accommodations. The housing authority continued to utilize supposedly temporary war housing, even moving some structures to Seattle from Port Orchard. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill) began gaining traction, and its home-loan guarantees for veterans brought some additional relief.

War had thrown things considerably off course. The Seattle Housing Authority, created to provide housing for low-income residents, had been transformed into an agency that served primarily veterans, military families, and defense workers, most of whom were solidly middle-class. Of the thousands of housing units in place in the late 1940s, only the original 690 at Yesler Terrace were reserved for low-income families. This is not what anyone would have predicted in 1938, and getting back to the original mission would take time and effort. And there was another festering problem. Epstein’s integration mandate seemed impossible to achieve on the ground. By 1949, more than 90 percent of those living in High Point, the largest SHA development, were white. Yesler Terrace was the most diverse; 14 percent of its residents were African American and 6 percent classified as “other.” But most minorities had ended up living in the war housing that was intended to be temporary and built that way, including Delridge (40 percent black) and Stadium Homes (30 percent).

Backlash

A new federal Housing Act passed in 1949 authorized substantial loans for slum clearance and low-income housing and facilitated the transfer of wartime housing to local authorities. But the political winds were beginning to blow in the other direction. In September 1949, the SHA proposed construction of more than 1,200 units of low-income housing, to be clustered in small groups at scattered sites throughout the city. It also recommended that the 1,400 units in Rainier Vista and Holly Park revert to city ownership, together with High Point, the latter of which would be sold on the open market. When the city council approved the new construction a year later, opponents gathered enough signatures to put the question to a vote of the people. This was part of a national campaign, spearheaded by the National Association of Home Builders and supported by the Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations, to roll back public housing.

The tone of the campaign can be seen in the opposing sides’ advertising in The Seattle Times on consecutive days in March 1950, just before the election day. Opponents of public housing asked, “Can you afford to pay somebody else’s rent?” (March 12, p. 26). Supporters pleaded, “Seattle needs decent low-rent housing. Children deserve a better break” (March 13, p. 12). Opponents again raised the specter of socialism, this time with greater success. In the March 14, 1950, election the measure to build new housing was trounced, losing by a margin of 57,732 to 33,529. It was a bitter defeat, and Seattle would build no new low-income housing for more than a decade.

In 1953, the Seattle Housing Authority took over ownership of most of the federal housing properties in the city, including Rainier Vista, Holly Park, and High Point, paying nothing in return. New income limits were imposed, and low-income tenants began displacing the many middle-class families that had been housed during and after World War II. The 1949 Housing Act also authorized money for renovation and remodeling, and this did not require voter approval. A number of two-bedroom units were combined to accommodate larger families, and most of the temporary housing was demolished or sold off. By the end of 1953, the number of SHA-managed units had decreased dramatically, from more than 8,400 to less than 3,600, and would drop further with the sale of the Sand Point housing development to the University of Washington in 1956. That same year, in a move that seemed Dickensian, the federal government ordered that local housing authorities could no longer provide staff to provide recreational and social services for tenants, something SHA had been doing since the early 1940s.

All in all, the 1950s were years of consolidation and retrenchment for the Seattle Housing Authority, which had to scramble to cope with decreased funding and increased restrictions on its permissible activities. To get around the ban on providing staff for recreational and social services, it turned to private agencies, providing space (which was permitted) in return for services to such organizations as Neighborhood House, the Atlantic Street Center, and Seattle Day Nursery. SHA had been doing its best for more than 20 years despite having been diverted by the exigencies of war and hampered by the vagaries of public opinion and legislative whim. As the 1960s approached, great societal changes were just over the horizon, though as yet largely unseen. Soon the Seattle Housing Authority would be faced with new challenges, and new opportunities.

The 1960s brought a renaissance of sorts for the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), which had been established in 1939 and endured bleak years during the 1950s. In the Sixties different forms of federal funding became available, and the SHA began to provide assistance to the low-income elderly and disabled, expanding beyond its exclusive focus on the poor. The 1970s saw the beginning of a major shift in public-housing philosophy, in Seattle and around the country. The traditional practice of concentrating low-income families in a few large projects fell from favor, replaced in Seattle by the dispersal of subsidized housing among scattered sites throughout the city. When federal aid shrank in the 1980s, Seattle citizens twice voted to increase their taxes to pay for housing for low-income families and the elderly and disabled, and would do so three more times in later years. In the mid-1990s, helped again by federal money, the SHA began rebuilding several of its earlier projects, reconfiguring them as mixed-income neighborhoods and further diminishing the isolation of the poor. The Seattle Housing Authority faced challenges and controversies over the decades, but worked tirelessly and with significant success to provide safe, decent, and affordable housing to tens of thousands of low-income, elderly, and disabled city residents. Part 2 of this two-part essay summarizes the work of the housing authority from the 1960s through its 75th anniversary in 2014.

Expanding the Scope

Before the mid-1950s, few among the city’s low-income elderly or disabled were being helped by SHA programs, yet their needs often were greater than those of the merely poor. Change first came with the federal Housing Act of 1956, which required public-housing programs supported by federal funding to give preference to the low-income elderly. By 1961 the Seattle Housing Authority had among its tenants “550 single [elder] persons and 237 elderly families” (115,000 Senior Citizens), and in 1962 opened its first senior-citizens’ center, at its Holly Park project on Beacon Hill.

A long drought of federal funding ended in late December of that year when the U.S. Public Housing Administration agreed to lend the authority up to 95 percent of the nearly $4.5 million construction cost of Jefferson Terrace, a First Hill high-rise for the low-income elderly. Designed by Seattle architect Paul Kirk (1914-1995), the 17-story, 300-unit building was the city’s first new construction built specifically for low-income tenants since Yesler Terrace had opened 20 years earlier.

Most of the land at the site on 8th Avenue at Jefferson Street was already owned by the housing authority, and officials hoped to start construction almost immediately. This proved naively optimistic. Nearby landowners filed suit, claiming the building would block their views and lower their property values. When they lost the first suit, they filed a second, and others jumped in with suits of their own. While these were wending their glacial way through the courts, opponents contested every step of the zoning and permitting process in city hall hearings and court appeals.

Ground was finally broken in August 1965, almost two years before the last legal challenge was dismissed by the Washington State Supreme Court. On July 16, 1967, Harry Bannister (1897-1974), a 70-year-old veteran of both of the century’s world wars, became the first tenant to move into Jefferson Terrace. It was a notable milestone in the city’s efforts to help its less fortunate, but during the long and litigious years preceding completion, the waiting list of low-income elderly seeking housing assistance had increased by more than a thousand.

In 1963 a start was made on addressing the housing problems of people with disabilities, another group that had been mostly left out of earlier efforts. The Seattle Housing Authority obtained city council approval for a 17-story, 150-unit apartment development in the Rainier Valley, designed to accommodate the special needs of men and women with a range of handicaps. Called Center Park, it was built on the former site of Stadium Homes, a temporary wartime housing project for defense workers. The land was owned by the Seattle Parks Department, which sold it to the SHA in 1966.

When Center Park was dedicated in October 1969, it was the first subsidized housing development in the country to be built specifically for the disabled. But it wasn’t all that the housing authority had to show off that month. Three more high-rise facilities, these for the low-income elderly, were also opened — Denny Terrace, Ballard House, and Center West. They joined four similar apartment buildings for the elderly — Cal-Mor Circle, Harvard Court, High Point Court, and Olive Ridge — that had been dedicated the previous May. Together, the seven high-rise buildings provided a total of 732 housing units.

Turnkey

All those apartment buildings for the elderly were built using the Turnkey funding model created by the federal government in 1966 and first used in Seattle in 1968. Turnkey was in part an answer to the conservative argument that government-built housing harmed private enterprise, but it proved to have substantial benefits for local housing authorities. Private developers contracted with the SHA to find and purchase suitable sites, built housing to a specified design at a set cost, and would “turn the key” over when it was completed. The developer then received the agreed price in cash, which the housing authority recouped through the sale of bonds. The authority’s bond obligations were guaranteed by the federal government, which also provided loan guarantees to contractors for interim construction financing. This program freed the SHA from much of the nuts-and-bolts of property development and enhanced its ability to have several projects underway at the same time.

Other alternatives were also being explored in the 1960s, some of doubtless benefit, others well-intentioned but problematic. The federal Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 authorized local housing authorities to rent privately owned housing at market prices, then make it available to low-income tenants at lower rates. This worked well and helped disperse some low-income families away from the large projects. But the next year, Massachusetts Republican Senator Edward Brooke sponsored an amendment to the Housing Act that capped rent for families living in public housing at 25 percent of household income (soon raised to 30 percent). The intent was to ensure that rent did not consume all of a family’s resources, but the income-based “cap” ended up a de facto minimum, so that working families climbing the economic ladder began to leave public housing when their rent rose to a level comparable to what was available on the open market. This may have seemed a laudable goal, but at the same time the philosophy of public housing was moving toward increased economic diversity, providing subsidized housing not only to the very poorest, but also to families and individuals with a range of incomes (albeit all at the lower end of the scale). The Brooke amendment led to the opposite outcome: Fully employed wage earners moved up and out, further isolating those left behind.

A Rethinking 

By 1972, the Turnkey program had helped the Seattle Housing Authority build a flurry of new projects, including 22 high-rises for the elderly and 141 townhouses in four dispersed “villages” for low-income families. When the program started in 1966, SHA managed approximately 2,500 living units; by 1972 that number had increased to nearly 7,500. But when it came up for renewal, Congress balked at extending the Turnkey program. The spectacular failure of low-income housing projects in several large cities — the worst of which had become vertical ghettos plagued by crime, drugs, and despair — soured many on the efficacy of public housing entirely, or at least on the models that had been predominant for decades.

Seattle’s experience was not nearly as bad as many other cities, but increasing segregation was troubling nonetheless. At the Holly Park development alone, more than 40 percent of the white population had moved away during the 1960s, and 48 percent of the tenants remaining in 1970 were black. Rainier Vista saw a similar change — the number of whites shrank by about 30 percent, the number of African Americans tripled, and the Asian population almost doubled. The racial and economic demographic in the valley changed further with the Boeing meltdown of the early 1970s, when almost two-thirds of its employees were let go. Many of them lived in the Rainier Valley, although not in public housing, and when these families moved away, their houses and apartments stood empty for lack of takers.

Concentrating low-income housing in confined geographical areas had been shown to contribute to a host of problems, but solutions were hard to come by. Many started taking a hard look at some of the basic premises that had guided previous efforts. The Turnkey model accomplished much, but it encouraged developers to buy land where it was inexpensive. Since existing low-income housing tended to pull down property values, new projects often were sited near older ones, driving values down further and drawing additional low-income use — a potentially endless downward cycle. In 1971, a study commissioned by the Rainier Chamber of Commerce found that the Southeast District (one of 12 in the city) had nearly as much low-income housing as the other 11 districts combined. It was undeniable that this was, in the study’s words, “not in keeping with any rational urban planning strategy” (Hoole, 7)

Even the “garden city” housing model, so promising when adopted for Rainier Vista and Holly Park in the early 1940s, carried the seeds of its own demise. For one thing, the housing had been built during the exigencies of war, with a useful-life expectancy of a mere 40 years. By 1970 these developments were three-fourths of the way there and much the worse for wear, victims of poor design, hasty construction, and challenging maintenance. The Seattle Housing Authority began a renovation push in the early 1970s, but in mid-1973 President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) declared a moratorium on housing and community-development assistance, bringing those efforts largely to a halt.

In addition to the physical deterioration, SHA officials and others concluded that the seemingly benevolent plan of curved streets, cul de sacs, and open spaces between clusters of homes had facilitated the formation of gang “turfs.” This was the very opposite of the sort of community cohesiveness that many had hoped would flow from a design that in large measure sought to mimic an idealized suburbia.

As is often the case, it was the courts that finally forced remedial action. In 1966, Dorothy Gautreaux, an African American in Chicago, sued the Chicago Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that they had intentionally concentrated low-income housing in black areas of Chicago, violating both the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court decision in Gautreaux’s favor was affirmed by the federal Court of Appeals in 1971 and would change forever the way federal and local governments dealt with low-income housing. (In 1976, the Court of Appeals decision was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. Remarkably, the Gautreaux litigation continued for decades, although the fundamental holding of the case remained valid.)

Section 8, Another New Approach 

In 1974, in response to the Gautreaux decision and the unavoidable facts on the ground, Congress amended Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937. The 1968 law that had permitted local housing authorities to rent units on the open market and sublet them to the low-income was abandoned and replaced by the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The poor received federal vouchers that, at least in theory, allowed them to find their own accommodations without being restricted to particular areas. Local housing authorities would further subsidize the rents paid to private landlords. The program was administered in Seattle by the SHA and immediately drew 893 applications for the 110 available vouchers.

Also in 1974, Congress lifted President Nixon’s moratorium and passed the Housing and Community Development Act, which provided block grants (money that was not tied to a specific program or project) to local housing authorities to spend at their discretion. The Seattle Housing Authority’s first block grant of $200,000 was used in large measure to help renovate downtown Seattle’s Morrison Hotel as housing for low-income single people and office space for several social-service agencies. (In 2002 the SHA turned the Morrison over to the Downtown Emergency Services Center.)

Battered Sites, Scattered Sites 

Although it was another period of reduced federal funding, in 1975 HUD started the Target Projects Program to provide local authorities assistance in modernizing and updating existing low-income housing. The Seattle Housing Authority received $4.5 million to renovate first Holly Park and High Point, to be followed by Rainier Vista and Yesler Terrace. Given the philosophical vagaries of national housing policy, the SHA also strove to create partnerships that were not dependent on federal largesse. These included the 1975 Neighborhood Housing Rehabilitation Program, with the City of Seattle; a pilot program with the Seattle Department of Community Development to study redevelopment of Yesler Terrace; and a 1977 agreement with the same agency to subsidize the renovation of homes owned by low-income people. On the supply side, also in 1977, the SHA and several Seattle banks negotiated a $3.2 million loan fund upon which the agency could draw.  

The complaints of Rainer Valley residents about the concentration of low-income housing there, together with the legal ripples of the Gautreaux decision, brought about the next major innovation in SHA methodology. A Democrat, Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), was elected president in 1976, and this led to a temporary loosening of federal purse strings. In September 1978, using $12 million from HUD and $1 million from the City of Seattle, the SHA kicked off the Scattered Site Family Housing Program and built or bought on the open market 269 living units in duplexes, triplexes, and small apartment buildings at scattered sites throughout the city. Tenants’ Section 8 vouchers were applied to rent, which was further subsidized by the SHA.

The need was great and growing. By the end of 1978, the Seattle Housing Authority was managing approximately 2,300 units of low-income housing for families, but had a waiting list of more than 1,500, and very little turnover. The booming condominium market consumed many of the most suitable sites for multi-family subsidized housing, and sites that remained available were prohibitively expensive. The most cost-effective approach — building concentrated low-income housing in specific areas, as had been done at Yesler Terrace, Rainier Vista, Holly Park, and High Point — had been shown to contribute to serious socio-economic problems and was largely discredited; the scattered-site model marked the agency’s full embrace of a deliberate departure from past practice. As an SHA official, Theresa Murphy, explained in 1978:

“The days when you could go out and get a large piece of property and put a lot of units on it for families are over. That is not acceptable any more — not for the community, or for HUD, or for the city” (“Little Money, Little Chance”).

One of the biggest problems in areas of concentrated low-income housing was crime. The SHA had been working on the problem since 1974, and in 1978 Congress passed the Public Housing Security Demonstration Act. In Seattle, Rainier Vista and Holly Park were selected as test sites, making federal funds available for (in an unfortunate use of military nomenclature) “target hardening,” including better locks, a switch to solid-core doors, strengthened windows, and a variety of other measures (Evaluation of the …, 8). But the problems seemed intractable, officials considered tenant cooperation to be spotty, and the efforts “did not measurably reduce crime rates or lessen tenant concern” (Evaluation of the …, 24).

It was a tough decade, and as the 1970s drew to a close, the Seattle Housing Authority faced numerous problems and challenges. Federal funding cutbacks would soon make things worse, but adversity would give Seattle’s citizens the opportunity to demonstrate a strong civic commitment to helping the less fortunate.

The Voters Step Up 

Republican President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), elected in 1980, brought with him to office a deep distrust of government social programs and an avuncular, Hollywood-honed ability to convince others that federal efforts to help the poor were at best nearly useless and at worst nearly evil. But in 1980, before Reagan took office, the Seattle Housing Authority received substantial federal money for its scattered-site program and authorized construction of 81 new housing units spread over 10 sites around the city. That would be just about it for federal aid for the next decade.

With the federal spigot down to a trickle, the housing authority turned to voters, something it had not had to do since 1950, and then with very disappointing results. But this was a different generation, and Seattle had become increasingly liberal during the 1960s and 1970s. A 1981 bond-issue measure primarily targeted the needs of the low-income elderly, partly because those needs were pressing and partly because such aid was less likely to trigger voter resentment than would subsidies for the working-age poor. Well-worn arguments about creeping socialism had largely lost their force, and voters, by a margin of just more than three to one (98,341 to 32,763), passed the $48.1 million bond issue, which funded 1,000 new units of housing. This paid for the Seattle Senior Housing Program, the first (and for many years to come, only) such program in the country funded almost entirely with local tax revenues. Sentiment had turned against the construction of high rises (thought to be too isolating for the elderly) and instead 24 small to medium-sized buildings were put up at scattered sites around the city.

In 1986, the Seattle Housing Authority turned to the electorate again, this time for a property-tax levy that would build low-income housing, although some of the money would be spent on the needs of the mentally ill and the addicted. The measure passed handily, leading an ecstatic Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) to gush, “This is an incredible town. Five years ago, they voted $50 million for housing, and this year they vote $50 million again” (“Housing, Museum Levies … “).

By Royer’s measure, Seattle would become even more incredible. In 1995, city voters again approved a property-tax levy for low-income housing, which they renewed in 2002 and 2009. It was estimated that the 1981 bond issue and the subsequent four tax levies financed the creation of more than 10,000 housing units over those years.

HOPE for Holly Park 

Demonstrating its penchant for devising clever acronyms at any cost, Congress in 1992 passed the Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere Act, or “HOPE VI.” It was in large part a response to a three-year federal study, begun in 1989, that found much of the public housing in America to be “severely distressed,” “unfit, unsafe, unlivable,” and a “national disgrace” (The Final Report … , 2). The law amounted to a frank acknowledgment that decades of public-housing efforts had been premised on faulty ideas, and, as the SHA later put it, had “isolated the poor in concentrated enclaves” (Annual Report, 1997).

By this time, Holly Park was considered the most degraded and degrading of the housing authority’s three major developments originally built to house defense workers and military families in the early 1940s. In January 1995, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $47.1 million HOPE VI grant for its redevelopment, and the planning process got underway in earnest.

As had become almost de rigueur in Seattle, the debate over what to do with Holly Park was prolonged, contentious, and seemingly impervious to outside prodding. By May 1997, with part of Holly Park vacated and demolition ready to begin, the city council was still debating whether to endorse the plan. The proposal for mixed-income housing brought charges that the Seattle Housing Authority had become little more than a real-estate developer, and that the needs of the truly poor were being sacrificed to a doomed attempt at gentrification. Many argued that, with 16,000 families on the SHA waiting list, all efforts should go to creating new housing, rather than tearing down and replacing what already existed. Chris Hornig, a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development deputy secretary, was clearly frustrated by the infamously slow way of making decisions: “It’s time. We respect the Seattle process, but Seattle has not moved as quickly as we think appropriate . . . and, in our view, has used up the time it had for planning” (“Holly Park Plans … “).

Less than a month later, on June 2, 1997, the city council finally voted to approve the Holly Park rebuild. The estimated total cost of NewHolly, as it was named, was $180 million, and the federal contribution was supplemented by $6.3 million from the City of Seattle and $110 million in private investment. The Seattle Housing Authority took the construction-management reins itself and provided guidelines to builders. NewHolly would take 10 years to complete, in three phases. During Phase 1, rental housing was built and the NewHolly branch of The Seattle Public Library opened. Phase 2 included a 318-unit Elder Village, and during Phase 3 market-rate housing was built and the rest of the project completed.

A primary goal for NewHolly was to end the day-to-day isolation of low-income people, and two years after its 2005 completion The Seattle Times said of it:

“Built on a foundation of lofty goals, NewHolly is a bold and risky experiment to create an ideal urban community — a multicultural haven where middle-class homeowners and poor people in public housing can live on equal ground. Sales literature promotes it as a return to the days when neighbors swapped stories on the porch and greeted each other with friendly waves as their children played catch in the park” (“A New Neighborhood … “).

The original Holly Park comprised 871 subsidized apartments for very-low-income renters. When NewHolly was complete, there were 1,390 living units, including 530 subsidized apartments for very-low-income renters, 338 subsidized apartments for lower-income families, 100 subsidized homes for first-time and lower-income buyers, and 422 homes and apartment for sale or rent at market rates. The “garden city” design with its curved streets and cul de sacs was abandoned, replaced by the common urban grid pattern that better blended NewHolly into surrounding neighborhoods. The socioeconomic swing within its boundaries was now huge; some Phase 3 houses sold for as much as $450,000, while the average rent in 2007 for a NewHolly public-housing tenant was $260 a month.

Rainier Vista and High Point 

HOPE VI became the primary federal mechanism in the new century for subsidized low-income housing. In August 1999, $35 million in HOPE VI aid was committed by the federal government for the redevelopment of Rainier Vista, supplemented by $14.4 million in economic-stimulus money prompted by the country’s deepening recession. Private investment came to $130 million, and other funding sources brought the total to $240 million. Relocation of tenants began in 2000, and in 2003, after another lengthy process, the city council approved the project.

Phase 1 of Rainier Vista was officially completed in 2006 with the opening of homes for sale, although some low-income families had moved into new rental units the previous year. In 2009 a Link light-rail station opened, giving residents easy access to downtown Seattle. Phase 2 development kicked off in August 2009 with a groundbreaking for Tamarack Place, an 83-unit apartment building for low-income, elderly, and disabled tenants, to be opened in January 2011. By 2014, 809 of the 965 living units planned for a remade Rainier Vista were complete.

High Point in West Seattle was the largest and last of the 1940s defense-housing projects to be remade, again helped by HOPE VI funding. In 2004, redevelopment began at an estimated total cost of more than $550 million. By 2009, all 716 existing units had been replaced with 425 new rental units (some of which were off-site). In 2014, construction was underway on homes to be sold on the open market. When complete, High Point was slated to have a total of 1,700 units, a mix of low-income and market-rate housing.

And the First Shall Be Last 

Yesler Terrace, the Seattle Housing Authority’s first, and until the 1960s only, purpose-built housing for low-income residents, was completed in 1941. It originally had 690 units, and an additional 178, built for defense workers in 1942, were later put to low-income use. In preference to “sample” plans drawn up by the federal government, the entire complex was designed by a team of local architects. Perhaps unique among the country’s first public-housing developments, Yesler Terrace had from the start aspired to follow a policy, although unwritten, that barred racial discrimination. Despite the interruption of war, it was one of the most successful such projects in the nation, and a model for others.

Time had taken its toll, however. Yesler Terrace’s low-rise row housing units, modeled after worker housing in Sweden, were designed to last for 60 years, the end of that expected useful life corresponding almost precisely to the end of the century in which they were built. In the early 1960s, the construction of Interstate 5 claimed 11 of the original 43 acres of the terraced site, causing the loss of 260 housing units. Between 1978 and 1982, and resuming in the early 1990s, the housing authority rehabilitated and modernized most of the remaining units before redeveloping Holly Park, Rainier Vista, and High Point. Over the years, and despite the goal of a racially integrated community, the minority population of even Yesler Terrace became disproportional to that of the city at large, a trend that had been evident as early as 1949, when 14 percent of its residents were African American. By late in the first decade of the twenty-first century, nearly 80 percent of Yesler Terrace residents were non-white, including sizeable numbers of first-generation immigrants, many from Africa and Asia. Approximately one in five residents were classified as disabled.

The Seattle Housing Authority turned its attention to Yesler Terrace in the first years of the new century. A familiar debate ensued; many advocates for low-income housing believed that the city should concentrate its efforts on adding to the stock of available units, rather than rebuilding those that existed. Eventually, all proposals to limit the authority’s ability to demolish the existing development were unsuccessful. As late as 2010, opponents tried to kill the project by having Yesler Terrace designated an official city landmark, an effort that was largely unsuccessful, although two buildings, the steam plant and a community building, did win landmark status.

Formal planning for Yesler Terrace’s rebirth began in April 2006. A Citizen’s Review Committee, headed by former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943), established four principles to guide the redevelopment: social equity, economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, and one-for-one replacement housing. The SHA agreed to replace all 561 existing low-income units, either on-site or nearby, and to add 100 units in partnership with non-profit developers.

Things proceeded in the manner normal for Seattle on issues of great public interest. After six years of hearings and debate, the city council on September 4, 2012, finally and unanimously approved a redevelopment plan for Yesler Terrace that would result in a much denser, more vertical (up to 300 feet) neighborhood with a much greater mix of uses:

  • Approximately 5,000 units of housing (1,800 subsidized for low-income tenants, the remainder for sale or rent at market rates).
  • Up to 900,000 square feet of office space.
  • Up to 60,000 square feet devoted to neighborhood services.
  • Up to 88,000 square feet of retail space.
  • Nearly 16 acres of parks and public open space.

HOPE VI funding, used in part to rebuild the city’s three other large low-income housing projects, was not available for Yesler Terrace, but nearly $30 million in federal funds were allocated under HUD Choice Neighborhoods Grants. Much of the remaining cost was to be financed through the sale of some of the prime land within Yesler Terrace’s boundaries, expected to raise approximately $145 million. In January 2013, the SHA announced that Vulcan, a real-estate-development firm owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (b. 1953), would be the primary private developer for the project. Work on the first phase began in September 2013.

Summing Up 

The Seattle Housing Authority’s accomplishments since its formation in 1939 could only be briefly summarized in this two-part essay. With generous dollops of federal funds, often supplemented by Seattle voters’ willingness to raise their own taxes, the authority has over the years built thousands of units of low-income housing and sponsored or participated in dozens of programs to benefit those who live in its facilities. It has been a leader in the rethinking of public housing and has not hesitated, when money was available, to abandon old models and try new approaches.

As it celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2014, the authority was providing housing for more than 29,000 people, which included 5,000 elderly, 9,000 children, and 8,000 men and women with disabilities. Fully 85 percent of the households it helped had incomes below 20 percent of Seattle’s median, and the average income per household in 2012 was just $13,266. If it is true that a society’s worth is best judged by how it treats its least fortunate, the Seattle Housing Authority has helped secure for its city a place in the top ranks.

By John Caldbick, March 27, 2014