IT'S BEEN A LONG, embarrassing year for the Seattle Housing Authority. Senior-citizen residents displeased with SHA management organized an advocacy group, sued the agency, and took their case to state lawmakers in Olympia (where they registered an unlikely victory). Asian- and African-American tenants of an SHA apartment complex in White Center grumbled about plans to demolish the project and put up a pricier one. SHA officials were chided by angry residents at a televised Seattle City Council hearing. And housing activists discovered that SHA's prized Holly Park redevelopment initiative—a $170 million project—was more than $5 million over budget. As if the nature of the project weren't troubling enough to residents and activists: Calling for the destruction of 892 World War IIera cracker boxes reserved for people earning less than one third of the average Seattle salary, it will replace them with 1,200 apartments and homes serving higher-income residents and costing up to $166,365 apiece.
Now, SHA officials stand accused of discriminating against 65 East African families who live and are trying to work and attend school at Holly Park, a Rainier Valley community that's home to more than 2,000 low-income residents. The charges are serious ones: denying the East Africans living-wage jobs, excluding them from educational and training programs, discouraging participation in the community's governance (and allegedly rigging an election), and tolerating a "climate of hostility and retaliation" that has spawned numerous attacks of racist graffiti. "This is not America. There is no democracy," says Efrem Seyoum, an Eritrean-born resident who was fired from his Holly Park van-driving job the day after April's irregularity-marred community council election, in which he narrowly lost the vote for council president to the long-time incumbent.
Aggrieved residents announced at a November 18 news conference—attended by a US Department of Justice official—that they were asking federal, state, and local investigators to determine whether SHA officials broke civil or criminal laws in their treatment of the East Africans, most of them recent arrivals from war- and hunger-ravaged Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. (Ironically, the effort has brought together Eritreans and Ethiopians, whose home countries are gripped in cross-border conflict.) The residents' complaint is co-sponsored by the Seattle Displacement Coalition and the Washington Alliance for Immigrant & Refugee Justice.
In addition to the discrimination complaint, the Displacement Coalition is asking that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development—which is underwriting one-fourth of the $170 million redevelopment project—compel SHA to offer Holly Park residents the opportunity to buy the place for themselves by forming or joining a nonprofit organization that could raise enough grant or loan money for the purchase. This "right of first refusal"—an obligation by the government to inform public-housing-project residents both of their purchase rights and of the various funding options available to them—was half-heartedly extended at best, says coalition director John Fox. Residents went along with SHA's demolish-and-rebuild plan, Fox contends, because they were kept ignorant of financial and technical assistance that could have provided a more palatable alternative.
INFORMATION GATHERED BY residents, Fox, and other activists paints an unflattering picture of SHA's management of Holly Park:
Federal funds earmarked for residents' educational and training programs have been funneled into bureaucratic operations.
Of the 167 families who have expressed an interest in buying a new home at Holly Park, fewer than 10 will be able to afford it.
East Africans largely have been relegated to training for low-paying service jobs while Asian-Americans have been placed in programs leading to higher paying, skilled positions.
SHA-hired consultants determined that the woman who runs the Holly Park community council, Doris Morgan, shouldn't also be running the nonprofit organization that oversees residents' employment, educational, and training programs. Even Morgan, in a letter to City Council member Nick Licata, has acknowledged that some Holly Park programs have been "disappointing" and "generally ineffective."
During April's community council election, an SHA poll watcher coached non-English-speaking Asians on how to vote, while East Africans were denied so much as access to an interpreter. Usually open all day, the polls this election were open for only three hours.
"Something is fishy around here," says Efrem Seyoum, who finally earned a seat on the community council after helping form an East African subcouncil (whose SHA-provided office space is a laundry closet). "We have no power. We are constantly being deceived."
Since multimillion-dollar funding applications from SHA currently sit before federal, state, and local officials, public relations snafus such as the East African and senior-citizen problems come at an inopportune time for the agency.
SHA spokesperson Leslie Demich defended the agency's performance at Holly Park, although she acknowledged that difficulties with major redevelopment projects are inevitable. "Some people will have issues that need to be resolved," she says. "We're trying to find out who's unhappy with what. We're listening to the complaints and want to get to the truth."
For background on SHA-related issues, see Seattle Weekly stories 'Home Front,' 2/5; 'Urban Removal,' 6/11; and 'Domestic Partners,' 6/25.