Rich House, Poor House

NewHolly, Southeast Seattle's experimental public-housing development, proves attractive to middle-class and low-income families alike.

One weekend last January, Monica Hall went to an open house at NewHolly, the mixed income redevelopment in Southeast Seattle sprung from the public-housing project Holly Park. The 38-year-old radio advertising salesperson found herself attracted to one of a new group of town houses for sale by Polygon Northwest, which had bought land from the Seattle Housing Authority. "I had to act fast," she says. Polygon was putting 10 houses on the market the following Saturday, and in a cunning marketing move by the builder, buyers were to be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis that required the buyer or a family member to camp out on the property until the sale doors opened.

On Thursday, the first two families arrived. Friday morning, Hall's real- estate agent, keeping close watch on the situation, told Hall to get down there. Nine families ended up spending the night together, supplied by Polygon with pizza, doughnuts, and an office where the buyers could lay out sleeping bags. In the end, 40 potential buyers showed up. The demand was so great that Polygon, which has continued building town homes, has raised prices several times in just the six months since. Originally selling for $266,000 to $310,000, the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom homes now sell for $309,000 to $383,000.

Those are the cheap homes at NewHolly. On the verge of completing the 118-acre, 1,451-unit redevelopment after more than a decade of planning and building, Housing Authority officials recently showed off impeccably designed four-bedroom houses selling for around $450,000.

And so answers one long-standing question about the national public-policy experiment that NewHolly represents. The experiment is known as HOPE VI, a federal program that has doled out grants to local housing authorities willing to tear down ugly, ghettoized public-housing projects and rebuild them with diverse communities where public- housing residents would mix with, and hopefully be inspired by, working, middle-class homeowners. Critics like the Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox lamented that all the money and energy was going into what they saw as gentrification rather than the creation of additional, desperately needed housing for the poor. But even taking HOPE VI projects on their own terms, nobody was sure whether they would work. Would upper-income folks really want to buy into developments that were in part public housing? Would inspiration and harmony, or resentment and fear, brew between the classes at such projects?

There aren't many places in the country where you can get the answer to those questions, nor will there be. NewHolly is one of the first HOPE VI redevelopments to be built. Although others are in the pipeline, including nearby Rainier Vista and West Seattle's High Point housing projects, the HOPE VI program is being phased out by the Bush administration.

What NewHolly has revealed is that the presence of public-housing residents doesn't matter a damn to home buyers in Seattle's crazy real-estate bubble. "If we were in Detroit or Cleveland, we wouldn't be able to do this," says Al Levine, the Housing Authority's deputy executive director. "Additionally, we were in a unique situation: We were able to raise the density." While housing authorities elsewhere have been tearing down big apartment blocks and replacing them with units on a more livable scale, Seattle's has been able to build up from the spread-out World War II matchbox houses that comprised its housing projects while still creating attractive single-family homes and town houses. That increased density has eased building costs.

Even so, the costs are considerable and funded only in small part by federal grants. The Housing Authority has had to scramble to find the rest of the money from private and local governmental sources. It has managed to do so at its first, showpiece redevelopment, NewHolly. The task is not proving so easy, however, for Rainier Vista, now in the middle of construction.

NewHolly construction began on the top of Beacon Hill and worked down to Martin Luther King Way in the heart of the Rainier Valley. Some residents have now lived in the new community for years. "In the beginning, there were some problems," concedes Joy Bryngelson, a Housing Authority employee who organizes community events there. The biggest, she says, was over the notion of private space. Kids from the old Holly Park weren't used to private, gated yards and so tromped right through them, much to the chagrin of their owners. It took lots of community meetings, but she says the issue was finally sorted out. In general, residents seem to have positive things to say about NewHolly. Class differences seem to be a nonissue.

One of the first to move in was architect Jeremy Rene, who with his wife bought a home there in 1999. "Generally, it's OK," Rene says. "It's not problem-free." A couple months ago, his garage was broken into, something he thinks could have happened in any neighborhood. And he says there have been some issues over whose responsibility it is to maintain communal areas like parks—the Housing Authority's or that of the homeowners association. But he likes the fact that a new management company hired by the homeowners association is being "more active in making people toe the line" on regulations laid down by the association over how people should maintain their homes. It "protects equity," he says. But he's also made a connection he wouldn't have made in a generic planned community. A young Somalian woman in NewHolly's public housing baby-sits his 17-month-old son.

In all, Rene likes NewHolly well enough to trade up to one of its new $400,000-plus homes, which he will soon move into.

Tamara Harris likes NewHolly, too, although she is slightly in awe of her status as a homeowner. A few years back, she was making $10 an hour working at Union Gospel Mission and walking up to NewHolly on her lunch break to admire the homes. "The places were so expensive," she says. "I thought, 'Oh boy.'" This is probably the biggest failing of NewHolly, which was supposed to have affordable houses that even public-housing residents could eventually buy. Housing Authority officials say that 25 percent of its homes are "affordable," but that's affordable to lower-middle-class folks making 80 percent of the area's median income (and even then it's a stretch), not public-housing residents who earn less than 30 percent of the median. Still, Harris, currently a temporary laborer for the city of Seattle, was able to afford a house through Habitat for Humanity, which has built 43 truly affordable homes on-site.

NewHolly's public housing, mostly town homes, is unquestionably better than what it replaced. Although there have been gripes about expensive utility bills and the loss of green space and trees, several residents interviewed seemed content. Somalian mother Hodan Mahamed compares her two-story duplex with her old unit in Yesler Park, an old-style public-housing complex run by the Housing Authority. "Oh my God. It's not even close," she exclaims. Her old home had mice, and drug users hung out on the playground. Her current one, she says, is "brand-new" and a safe environment for her two daughters. She spent a year on a waiting list to get it.

That's not bad. The wait for NewHolly's public-housing units currently stretches up to five years, proving it is as popular among low-income residents as among home buyers.

Will the Housing Authority be as successful with its other HOPE VI projects? The Displacement Coalition's Fox believes the agency has started to cut corners at Rainier Vista by building denser apartment units for public housing. He worries that apartment buildings are subject to deterioration and the kind of unsafe environment that plague traditional public housing. In the first phase of the redevelopment now being built on the west side of Martin Luther King Way, you can see two apartment buildings that will have 75 units between them.

Housing Authority officials say the increased density is appropriate to a site that is to be a light-rail transit hub. But the added density also saves money, and money at Rainier Vista is a problem. The agency recently lost out on its bid for a $30 million grant for a community center and doesn't know what it will do instead. Unexpected infrastructure costs, delays, and an agreement to build more affordable housing than at NewHolly have additionally put the Housing Authority in a financial quandary. "We may have to look at funding sources we haven't used before," says the Housing Authority's Al Levine. When asked what those are, he says, "I don't know. I don't have the answers yet."

Meanwhile, residents of the burgeoning community are settling in. Victoria Tupua, her husband, and their four kids recently moved into a Rainier Vista rental home slated to be affordable. They pay a little more than $1,000 a month rent for a four-bedroom town house, which is far from cheap but which she believes is a good deal. She had searched for housing all over the region, including in supposedly affordable south King County. Even looking at places in the $1,200 range, what she saw at the size her family needed were "serious dumps." And her current home? She considers her just-built house in a convenient location close to her job as a patient services coordinator at Harborview Medical Center. "There's no comparison."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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