Yesler Terrace approved; How well do Seattle's mixed-income communities work?

Sep 4, 2012

Update: The Seattle City Council unanimously approved the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace.

“By building a mixed-use community at Yesler Terrace we can improve the quality of life for very low income families and create new affordable housing opportunities,” said Mayor Mike McGinn in a press release. 

McGinn's press releases states: The approved legislation lays the foundation for a new mixed-income urban neighborhood and provides specific guarantees to current residents of Yesler Terrace:

  • All current residents will receive relocation counseling in their own languages, and the costs of any moves – on-site or off-site – will be paid.
  • All 561 current units will be replaced within the immediate neighborhood, with strict controls on the location and timing of replacement.
  • More than 1,100 new units of housing for low-and modest-wage workers will be built and, if funding allows, an additional 100 units of extremely low-income housing will be added.
  • All current residents are guaranteed the right to return to new units at Yesler Terrace.
  • Community services will enhance social justice through increased access to educational and economic opportunities for low-income people throughout the neighborhood, along with health care, good nutrition, and other essential services.

Yesler Terrace Redevelopment Visualization from Seattle Housing Authority on Vimeo.

Previous version of this story:

With another big mixed-income housing project up for a vote in Seattle, how well these planned neighborhoods break down barriers between the middle-class and poor remains an open question.

Five neighborhoods in Seattle currently court middle-class homeowners to move into redeveloped public housing projects. Some residents in those communities say the mix isn’t really happening.

Kathy Smith has lived in public housing in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood for 30 years. She’s seen it change from grungy and rundown, full of drug dealers, to an immaculate development of brightly colored apartments and houses.

But one thing has stayed the same. Even though her apartment is now just 300 feet from private homeowners, it’s like they’re miles away.

"They don’t really associate much with the poorer end of it," Smith said. "All the buyers know where the poor people live and all the poor people know where the buyers are."

Replacing Yesler Terrace

The Seattle City Council is scheduled to vote this afternoon on whether to tear down the public housing project Yesler Terrace, near downtown. Under the plan, it would then be redeveloped into another mixed-income community.

The council will likely approve the unprecedented plan to bulldoze Yesler Terrace, according to the Seattle Times. To finance the rebuilding of Yesler's 71-year-old apartments, the Seattle Housing Authority will sell some of the project's 30 acres on First Hill to private developers.

They'd pay at least $145 million, the authority is betting, to build office and market-rate condo and apartment towers at Yesler Terrace, a short walk from downtown with stunning views of Elliott Bay. Residents will be moved out, in phases, during construction, and there won't be a net loss of low-income homes, the Times reports.

Deep challenges ... 

The redevelopment of Rainier Vista began nine years ago – part of a federal initiative called HOPE VI to get rid of decrepit public housing. Another aim was to reduce the concentration of poverty and help poor people become more self-sufficient. 

This type of redevelopment has been going on all across the country – a recent article in Salon assesses Chicago's experiment with mixed-income communities.

For many of the theoretical effects of mixed-income neighborhoods to occur, residents of extremely different incomes must connect on a deeper level than hellos in the hallways, Salon said.

And that doesn’t seem to be happening. Researchers at the University of Chicago documented and analyzed the interactions of residents in two of Chicago’s new mixed-income developments. Far from job networking, most of the encounters between residents were paper-thin.

“In general, at both sites [studied], residents report low to modest levels of interaction, and the interaction they describe is overwhelmingly casual,” concluded the researchers.

Smith, from the Columbia City project,  says in some ways she really likes her new apartment – it’s bigger, it’s nicer. She grows tomatillos and squash in a shared garden. Having homeowners nearby means better policing and less crime. But she hasn’t made friends with any of them.

"'Cause everybody knows. The housing folks say you won’t know the difference between homeowners and low income, but everybody does," Smith said.

Helping the poor?

Seattle Housing Authority executive director Andrew Lofton says that's just one person's opinion.

"I think you’ll find a number of people who feel there is some integration going on in the mixed-income communities," Lofton said.

Lofton says the tendency for people to gravitate to folks who are just like them is strong, but they’re working to counteract it. They’ve hired staff to help poor people and middle-class folks become friends. The community builders – as they’re called – are a little like camp counselors who organize potlucks and movie nights and help residents resolve thorny issues.

Does rubbing elbows  with middle-class folks help poor people become better off financially? No, according to Rachel Garshick Kleit, a professor who spent years studying Seattle’s mixed-income neighborhoods.

"We think, okay, if we all live together in diverse society in economically and racially integrated neighborhoods we would all get along and learn from each other – or rather, the notion from mixed-income housing is not that we’ll all learn from each other, but that the poor folks would learn from the wealthier folks," Kleit said.

And that’s the fallacy, Kleit said.

The expectation was that poor people would see their richer neighbors, budgeting, going to work, not just hanging out on their porches, she said. But it was based on a false assumption that public housing residents weren’t working. A lot of them do work – they just don’t make a lot of money.

And she says, people have to have something more in common than just living next door to each other to become friends, such as having kids or going to the same church.

Setting up community mixers 

That’s why these neighborhoods have events to bring people together. In West Seattle, in the redeveloped High Point community, dozens of people crowded a recent health fair.

Homes in the High Point mixed-income community in West Seattle are designed to foster interaction with low fences and front porches
Homes in the High Point mixed-income community in West Seattle are designed to foster interaction with low fences and front porches
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

Vietnamese mingle with Africans, a group of elderly dancers performs. People get samples of smoothies and spring rolls. High school senior Ellis Simani heads over to the fair. His family’s been renting in subsidized housing here for five years, just down the street from homeowners. I asked him whether he thinks this kind of experiment works.

"Define 'works.' I don’t know, for me, working would mean a lot more interaction between each other," Simani said.

For example, he says at a recent neighborhood party he saw people separate – homeowners with homeowners, renters with renters.

That’s not the experience of public housing resident Madilyn Flowers, however.

"I like to interact with different people and it’s very important that you bring that in your household, let your grandkids interact with different cultures so they can learn more," Flowers said.

Designing interaction 

Down the street from the health fair, I found John Harrison and Helen Biersack relaxing in their yard. It was easy to talk to them because their picket fence is low – one of the many features of the neighborhood designed to get people to interact.

They say they like that. They bought their townhome here because they want to live near people who aren’t exactly like them. And they’re happy that Harrison’s 8-year-old son plays with kids all throughout the neighborhood.

"He sees things in a kid way – he’s like, 'Why am I the only white kid on the block?' But it’s good for him. He asks questions about why people dress different. It’s stuff that if you just grow up in suburban America you’re not exposed to, and you should be," Harrison said.

Seattle Housing Authority folks say it will be the connections those kids forge that will show whether the experiment really is working in the long run – whether barriers between people of different incomes can really be broken, by living near one another.