A valuable housing resource for Seattle's low-income families is threatened by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and our city council seems poised to let it happen without a peep.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a combination of federal and local housing levy dollars, the city of Seattle oversaw the construction and acquisition of over 700 units of "scattered site" public housing. Mayor Charles Royer had a lot to do with initiating this program and securing those federal dollars.
Scattered site units include single-family homes, duplexes and a few larger units, the vast majority located north of the Ship Canal. The program was specifically designed to expand opportunities in wealthier, largely white areas of the city where such opportunities were largely denied.
In 1978, the City Council passed a resolution handing over program responsibility to the Seattle Housing Authority, with a stated purpose: "To eliminate sub-standard...housing, to prevent over-concentration of low-income persons in any neighborhood and to realize, as soon as feasible, the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for all...citizens."
With each resolution, the city imposed conditions including site selection criteria, limits on numbers of units per site, and design requirements to blend into the existing neighborhoods. Site selection was subject to several criteria and required the concurrence of the Department of Community Development (ancestor of our current Department of Planning and Development).
Now, SHA wants to sell off up to 200 units of scattered site public housing. The agency claims this housing is getting too expensive to operate. By selling these assets, they hope to realize a $40 million return, then take $20 million to replace these family units with cheaper, more densely built small units. This will leave an additional $20 million they say they need to meet their obligation to replace the housing destroyed by the current makeover of Holly Park and Rainier Vista: plans that will turn these formally low-income units into densely concentrated, mixed-income communities with far fewer units of public housing.
Why is scattered-site public housing, once considered so desirable, now deemed too expensive to maintain?
The answer to this question hinges on who primarily occupies this type of housing-families with children, and people with disabilities needing accommodation. There are more larger units (with more than two bedrooms) in scattered site housing than in the rest of SHA's housing stock. Children make up a little over 28 percent of the total of SHA public housing residents, but they make up 46 percent of the population of scattered site housing.
Selling off scattered-site units still leaves SHA with the dilemma of replacing those units with others suitable for families and people with disabilities, housing that would be expensive to acquire, build or maintain anywhere in the city. What will happen to these residents if their homes are sold off? Will SHA be able to find or build replacement units at lesser cost than maintaining current sites? Is SHA's focus on saving money going to cause the agency to underserve poor families with children and people with disabilities?
These are questions that our elected officials should be asking. But they appear to be asleep at the wheel. City Council has the authority, in fact the duty, to scrutinize the sales of scattered site housing, built with our levy money for the public good, before SHA liquidates these assets.
As with any property acquired, constructed or rehabilitated by the city or SHA with the proceeds of housing levies, the scattered site housing should only be sold if that sale would result in increasing the supply of housing for very low-income households, and even then the approval of the city would be required. Permission is needed from the Department of Housing and Urban Development-a foregone conclusion from today's privatization ideologues in our federal government. But before giving its stamp of approval, the City Council should take a hard look at who is served and who is harmed.
The city has the authority to grant or withhold approval to SHA based on legislation passed in 1939 and 1940. The problem is that the city refuses to exercise its defined and legally enforceable authority over SHA. Time and again we hear the mayor and councilmembers say in regards to SHA, "Our hands are tied....they're an independent entity...we have no authority over them." Over the last decade this approach has cost us over a thousand public housing units and threatened our senior housing, built with our tax dollars, with conversion to expensive units that low income seniors could not afford.
The failure on the part of the city to enforce these agreements places much of what's left of our public housing and very low income housing in jeopardy. We need leadership from the Council and in particular, Tom Rasmussen, chair of the Housing Committee. Are you listening, Mr. Rasmussen?
John V. Fox & Carolee Colter are members of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Reach them c/o email@example.com.