Regardless of national origin, Yesler Terrace residents were alike in their extremely low incomes. Longtime affordable-housing activist John Fox cites a 2008 King County assessment that found the average household income at Yesler Terrace was 18 percent of the area’s median. The community served the poorest people in public housing.
Seattle’s supply of subsidized housing is a fraction of the demand. Qualifying renters in Seattle wait two to eight years for spots in Housing Authority buildings. Rent subsidy vouchers are issued by lottery; the most recent drawing, in 2017, saw 22,000 households put in to be on a waiting list for 3,500 vouchers.
In the last round, lottery participants were asked to describe their living situation.
“Some of the people were actually unsheltered — homeless, living on the streets — but a lot were in what you’d call really substandard situations,” says Kerry Coughlin, Housing Authority communications director and an executive board member. “Literally, in one case it was, ‘I’m living in a 9-foot-by-10-foot walk-in closet in a distant relative’s home, with my three children.’ …
“It’s amazing, once a family has stable housing how much they are able to accomplish. But when you’re living in that closet or in a car, or moving from shelter to shelter or relative to relative, it’s really hard for the kids to do well in school. It’s almost impossible for the parents to find work, because just survival is full-time work.”
The Community Hung on, As Buildings around Them Deteriorated
A Yesler Terrace revival had been on the Seattle Housing Authority to-do list for years before the redevelopment plan began to coalesce in 2006. Water flowed through building foundations. Rats nested in abandoned pipes, and wandered through walls. The buildings were out of compliance with building codes and could not accommodate residents with mobility challenges.
“The buildings were crumbing,” Coughlin says. “The buildings were molding. The infrastructure underneath was cracked and bad. It couldn’t be rehabbed anymore.”
A First Hill resident of 20 years, Jim Erickson is something of a civic busybody; his attitude is that, as a retiree, it doesn’t cost him anything to go to a meeting. He enthuses on the small fights — a new pocket park, a parking garage entrance kept off a walkable street — that subtly shape a city. In 2012, he secured a place on the Yesler Terrace advisory board meant to enable residents, neighbors like Erickson and organizations with a stake in the work to nudge the Yesler redevelopment.
“Pea patch” gardens grow at the foot of Hoa Mai Gardens, a 111-unit apartment complex owned by Seattle Housing Authority. Hoa Mai Gardens opened in the summer of 2017 as part of the Yesler Terrace redevelopment. (Photo by Levi Pulkkinen)
For years, committee members fought and fussed over building designs and amenities. The continuation of a resident council was a flashpoint. The finished product was a compromise, but one many involved take pride in.
“I think we made a difference. I really do,” says O’Donnell, a vocal member of the resident council who opposed the redevelopment and now lives in one of the new buildings. “We did not get what we wanted, which was another round of fix-up. … But realistically, the resources and the federal financing to do that aren’t there.
“The alternative to doing what they did would be to let the community deteriorate one building at a time and board it up.”
Erickson is particularly glad the new buildings were built to keep the interior air clean; Interstate 5 runs along Yesler Terrace’s southwestern edge, soiling the air with exhaust.
Residents nursed smaller, personal fears. Would the new homes have backyards, like Yesler row houses? (No.) Would the new buildings be secure? (Yes.) Would there be parking for the truck that delivers surplus vegetables once a week? (Yes.)
Residents also shared a big, looming concern — when their Yesler Terrace row house is knocked down, would they be shuffled to public housing removed from the city core? Five years into the rebuild, the answer to that question appears to be a matter of perspective.
The Housing Authority contends the 493 households living at Yesler Terrace when redevelopment began have the first right to homes at the new site. Initial rounds of displaced residents had to move off-site. Since those initial relocations, Coughlin says, residents have been able to move into newly built buildings at Yesler Terrace when time came to demolish their homes. Some residents took their housing vouchers and left the city. Others settled into other Seattle Housing Authority buildings. A handful bought homes elsewhere.
But of the renters living at Yesler in 2012, little more than half remain, according to Housing Authority figures. Only 20 percent of residents who moved out of Yesler Terrace when their homes were demolished have returned; many of those displaced residents had settled into other Housing Authority-owned homes and were not inclined to move again when space opened up in new Yesler buildings.
Fox, the housing activist who has been prodding Seattle Housing Authority since 1977, questions the offered rationale for the redevelopment. In his view, Yesler Terrace could have been rehabbed and built up modestly without selling to private developers. Fox argues additional public housing could have been built on the site while retaining the existing homes.
“We now have effectively a higher-density development serving primarily the affluent with a few affordable housing units scattered around,” says Fox, of Seattle Displacement Coalition. “It is part of Seattle’s brave new world of luxury high-rises.”
As planned, the finished development will include 561 units reserved for residents with extremely low incomes — the exact count offered at the old Yesler Terrace — as well as 1,240 units split between tenants at various lower-than-average income levels. Private developers are expected to open 3,200 market-rate units, and that rate is expected to be high.
Public Land Sold To Private Developers To Pay For Public Housing
Yesler’s location is among Seattle’s best. Residents with views will see mountains and water; some will have a sightline on the city’s sports stadia. Yesler Terrace sits on a nascent urban trail flowing through First Hill, known as “Pill Hill” by the medical set who populate its three large medical centers and countless clinics. A streetcar line that will soon sweep through downtown employment centers and already reaches the city’s nightlife districts stops at the center of Yesler Terrace.
In sales to developers, Seattle Housing Authority negotiated affordable housing requirements that exceeded the city rules, Coughlin says. Builders committed that 26.5 percent of the new units would be reserved for affordable “workforce” housing for 20 years. Households with earnings less than 80 percent of the area median household income will rent those units at reduced rates. A single person earning $56,200 a year would qualify; a family of four could earn up to $80,250.
At the new Yesler, public housing and private towers blend subtly. Loud sculptures brighten a courtyard faced by half-filled storefronts at the private developments. The buildings completed so far are vibrant, solid and, in the flavor of construction that has yet to see many seasons, sterile. Passing hands have not smoothed the handrails. New trees and shrubs have not pushed the limits of their planting strips. The terraced playground and splash park opened in August 2018 haven’t been broken in by neighborhood children. The place waits for the finishing touches of thousands of new residents.
The Seattle Housing Authority buildings include units built to accommodate in-home daycare centers; Coughlin says those townhouse-style apartments meet licensing requirements so residents can operate centers as businesses. “Pea patch” community gardens sprout outside the buildings that filled up before fall arrived. The community center, with its computer lab and basketball court, bustles.
Ai-Trinh Nguyen, a Yesler Terrace resident since 1999, says she appreciates the security of her new building, Hoa Mai Gardens, which she moved into in 2017. The old buildings, with their winding footpaths, blind corners and unsecured front doors, were easy picking for burglars. Now she can go on vacation without worrying about a break in.
Some residents relocated to the new Yesler Terrace units regret losing the individual, lovingly tended yards that came with the old row houses. (Photo by Elly Blue via Flickr)
Arriving in the new two-bedroom apartment which she shares with her husband, daughter and son, she was struck by the newness of it all. Her children, 17 and 22, loved it. She couldn’t sleep.
“I missed my old room, my old house,” Nguyen says.
She was provided a plot in the community garden, she says, but it does not match the yard she had outside her old backdoor. Her family, having left the three-bedroom home her children were raised in at the old Yesler Terrace, also lost a room; her son, a student, now sleeps on the living room couch in their new two-bedroom apartment.
O’Donnell said the loss of the backyards hit residents hardest. Some have moved inside the old row houses three times, she said, jumping ahead of the bulldozers to stay in a unit with a yard.
“They are going to be the least happy movers,” remarks O’Donnell, who, as a single mother with a recurring disability, raised her now-grown daughter at Yesler Terrace.
“There is no amenity in the world that the new construction can come up with that can replace having your own little yard with a fence around it,” she continues. “That is something very special. Ain’t no stupid pea patch going to replace that, I’m sorry.”
A showpiece of the redevelopment is the 154-foot hill climb, a stairway and looping wheelchair ramp rising from Little Saigon up First Hill to Yesler Terrace. Bright mosaics built into the concrete retaining walls adorn landings on the path.
“The whole design of that was just wonderful,” says Erickson, of the First Hill Improvement Association. “They had an artist who engaged the community in workshops and created mosaics that expressing the different cultures that were represented in the population. That connected two neighborhoods in a very safe and healthy way.”
Little Saigon Feels the Pinch
That connection, though, is proving a mixed blessing for Little Saigon, a once-neglected commercial district vitalized by Vietnamese immigrants who began arriving in the 1970s.
Then as now, buildings in the area were low-rent and generally low-quality. The new arrivals built businesses between the Seattle’s pan-Asian International District and the mouth of the Rainier Valley, and added a Vietnamese patch to the multi-ethnic quilt extending through southeast Seattle into the suburbs. What the neighborhood offered in affordable commercial space it lacked in housing opportunity. Yesler Terrace saw an influx of Vietnamese refugees, but most settled outside the neighborhood.
Friends of Little Saigon’s Pham recalls driving with her grandmother into Little Saigon every weekend. They stocked up on Vietnamese goods, checked in with friends, visited the doctor.
“It was really a hub for the Vietnamese community,” Pham says.
“Being from a war-torn country, having place has a big significance for our community,” continues Pham, who emigrated as a child in 1990. “There’s still this trauma that gets passed on from generation to generation, so we’ve learned that, even for the younger generation, people want a place to call their home.
“That’s what we’re trying to build in Little Saigon.”
Pham says some Vietnamese Yesler Terrace residents moved during the redevelopment have not returned to the neighborhood.
“We still see some folks coming back, but it wasn’t as many as we had hoped,” Pham says. “We were hoping more community members would come back, but I know it’s harder when people have settled elsewhere for people to come back to the community.”
More concerning is the steady march of demolition and reconstruction through Little Saigon. As Pham tells it, almost every block has a lot that has been redeveloped or sold to a developer. Less robust businesses have closed. Owners who remain wonder if they can survive relocation, or even a temporary displacement.
The First Hill Streetcar, in operation since 2016, rolls through Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood, which has seen intense development pressure in recent years. A planned expansion of the line will complete a trolley loop through the city’s core neighborhoods. (Photo by Gordon Werner via Flickr)
The trouble boils down to ownership. Most Vietnamese entrepreneurs built their businesses in leased space. There isn’t much they can do if their rents rise or their walls are knocked down.
“Even though a business has been around for a long time and become an institution, because of the value of these properties, some owners would rather sell,” Pham says. “They don’t take into consideration the history that has been built.”
Up Next: The International District?
Similar concerns abound in the International District as well, though a historic district designation for the center of Chinatown affords it some protection from development. It also benefits from a city-chartered stewardship organization, the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.
“Down here, we have not felt that impact yet, but we will,” says Maiko Winkler-Chin, the organization’s executive director. “There’s no place else to develop downtown.”