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Monday, June 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Job agency's dream stuck in hard reality

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A controversial plan to build housing for homeless Latino men in Belltown is in limbo because the city of Seattle is no longer willing to sell the desired land.

CASA Latina, an agency that helps Latinos get day-labor jobs, sought to build 40 units of low-income housing on the tiny, triangular site at Western Avenue and Battery Street that is home to its center. Some of the agency's neighbors have strongly opposed the project.

It now faces a new obstacle: The city, which owns the site, says it needs the land for a future overhaul of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

But Seattle Mayor Paul Schell said he supports CASA Latina's goals and will help the agency find a new home.

While the city's change of heart alters CASA Latina's long-term plans, the agency will stay put for now, possibly for several years. That news is likely to upset neighbors who say that in its two years at the site, CASA Latina has had little success in organizing workers or securing the area.

A rented trailer, cell phone and two Porta Potties make up the center where the nonprofit agency tries to bring order to chaos.

Every day, about 120 men - mostly Latino, mostly homeless, mostly here illegally - sign up for a lottery that determines which ones will get $8- to $10-an-hour jobs as construction workers, gardeners and other kinds of laborers. About 30 to 50 get jobs every day.

Then they wait. Contractors driving dinged-up trucks pull up to hire construction workers, landscapers, carpenters. A woman in a black Mercedes holding a white poodle arrives, looking for a couple of gardeners.

Laborers swarm the vehicles while a CASA Latina organizer struggles gamely to translate, bid up the price, keep the workers from jumping their place in line and juggle incoming calls from other employers.

Another group - 60 or more men - operate as free-lance laborers and don't play by the agency's rules. Some believe they can negotiate a better price on their own; others don't like the policy against drugs, alcohol or fighting on site.

Both groups spill out onto the sidewalks for several blocks. Some sign up for English classes offered in the tiny trailer, where they learn sentences like: "I would like you to pay me more money. This work is difficult and dangerous."

Officials with CASA Latina - CASA stands for Centro de Ayuda Solidaria a los Amigos - say workers are better paid, better organized and better neighbors since the agency arrived in 1998.

Executive director Hilary Stern noted the agency last year helped workers collect nearly $27,000 in back wages; placed about 150 workers in permanent jobs; set a minimum wage of $8 an hour for laborers hired through the center; and dispatched workers for more than 6,800 temporary jobs.

"From our point of view, with very little resources, it's working really well," she said.

But it's been an uneasy relationship with many neighboring business and condo owners.

Complaints are legion:

Visible drug-dealing. Public urination and defecation. An increase in petty crime. Verbal harassment, especially of women. Unsafe traffic conditions caused by vehicles stopping in the middle of the street to pick up workers. More homeless workers hanging out on the sidewalks by day or sleeping in doorways and parks by night.

"They haven't managed the block they're in. I suspect they won't be able to handle housing on top of that," said Mel Jackson, president of the Belltown Business Association, which opposed CASA Latina's housing proposal. Jackson is executive director of the Millionair Club, which runs its own center for day laborers about a block north of CASA Latina's site.

"Nonprofits should do what they do well rather than what they have no experience with," he said.

The relationship didn't start out rancorous.

Belltown business leaders invited CASA Latina to represent day laborers as they sought to deal with complaints about workers congregating in the neighborhood.

Eventually, the two groups agreed on a short-term plan to open a temporary day-laborer center on city-owned land.

Many of those leaders contributed money to CASA Latina and have spent several years searching for compromise.

"If there is a contention that seems to show community groups are trying to sanitize day laborers or Hispanics out of the area, that's a false impression," said Peter Erickson, a real-estate developer who has owned property in the neighborhood.

The original plan called for CASA Latina to organize workers, then find a permanent home elsewhere.

But Stern said the plan was to organize workers and let them decide their own future.

The workers and CASA Latina's board decided staying put worked best.

"The root of it is we have different long-term visions," she said.

The collaboration really fell apart one February day last year, when Schell did a walking tour of the neighborhood. When he stopped at CASA Latina, Stern sprang the news that her agency had entered a partnership with Plymouth Housing Group, a low-income-housing developer, to build a four- to six-story housing project on the site. Neighborhood leaders were blindsided by the idea.

"Trust was betrayed," said Craig Kolbitz, owner of the Belltown Pub and a former board member of the Belltown Business Association. "We are the people who made this all happen, and now we are being portrayed as the people against low-income housing."

Some opponents wanted to preserve one of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood's last remaining parcels of open space.

Others made a distinction between supporting the organization's work with day laborers and opposing the agency's plan to expand into housing.

Even supporters worry about whether it's taking on too much, too soon.

"I definitely think they're overdriving their headlights, and I'm worried what that's going to lead to," said Zander Batchelder, president of the Belltown Community Council, which voted to support the housing plan.

Up to 80 percent of Latino day laborers in Belltown are homeless. Some workers say the neighborhood's complaints would be resolved if CASA Latina could offer housing and had more space.

"Maybe more people would come inside if they had a bigger place," said Vicente Rodriguez, who notes only about 15 men fit inside the trailer for daily English classes. He lives in a one-bedroom South Park apartment with three other men.

Stern believes neighbors look at the clusters of "poor, brown, homeless men" and jump to conclusions about the cause of various neighborhood ills.

"It's the equivalent of racial profiling by the public," she said.

The city's decision last week to hold on to its property was prompted by ongoing study of the Alaskan Way Viaduct after the February earthquake.

Dick Lilly, Schell's spokesman, said whatever is decided about fixing the aging viaduct will likely involve that land.

Until then, Schell supports CASA Latina's presence and any upgrades that might be needed to make the agency's site work better.

Ultimately, the city's decision postpones, rather than settles, the question of what is next for CASA Latina. Stern said her organization remains committed to finding a home close to its current one.

Jolayne Houtz can be reached at 206-464-3122 or jhoutz@seattletimes.com.

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