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Wednesday, June 9, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Housing project's fate tests community values

Seattle Times staff reporter

What is the future of Yesler Terrace?


What: Community Forum on Yesler Terrace

When: Thursday 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Where: Bailey Gatzert Elementary, 1301 E. Yesler Way

Sponsors: Yesler Terrace Community Council, Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, Seattle Displacement Coalition and several other organizations

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From the sofa inside his ground-floor studio apartment at the Yesler Terrace public-housing project, Paul Johnson spends his evenings eyeing the lights of Safeco Field through his window and watching an old movie on television. Some days, he sits at the work bench on his patio overlooking SoDo, carving wood in the style of his Alaskan Tlingit heritage.

Low-income people such as Johnson have lived at Yesler Terrace since 1939. They've had views and the convenience of living near downtown and bus routes. They lived in the neighborhood when no one else would, when the community was crime-ridden and people with money thought twice before driving their cars along that stretch of Yesler Way.

Yesler Terrace is safer now. And while that delights longtime residents, it also scares them. They realize that outsiders would love to live in the neighborhood. The valuable land where Yesler Terrace sits is about to become a litmus test for Seattle's values. Debate has begun on the future redevelopment of the housing project. The outcome will determine to what degree low-income people will be allowed to continue to live there, and thus whether Seattle's priorities push its poorest citizens farther from the central city.

The underlying question is sensitive: Do poor people have the same right to great views and a prime location as those who can afford them?

"If we are expected to open up our neighborhood and let rich people live here, then we ought to be able to move into Bill Gates' neighborhood," said Johnson, 70.

At 65 years old, Yesler Terrace is Seattle's oldest public-housing project. The 21-acre, 582-unit community, home to many immigrants, sits on a hill connecting downtown and the Central Area, and is within walking distance of the Chinatown-International District and First Hill.

The Seattle Housing Authority, a nonprofit quasi-government agency, owns and manages Yesler Terrace, one of its four major public-housing projects. The agency is in the process of redeveloping the other three — NewHolly (formerly Holly Park) on south Beacon Hill, Rainier Vista in Rainier Valley and High Point in West Seattle — transforming each into a new neighborhood that mixes low-income and middle-income housing, including some single-family houses sold at market rate.

Housing Authority officials say the structures of Yesler Terrace are aging and redevelopment is inevitable. They also are quick to add that the formal planning for redevelopment won't begin for at least another year and relocation of residents would not start until about four years after that.

But advocates for the poor already have staked their positions. They say a redeveloped Yesler Terrace must have at least the same number of homes dedicated to very poor families as it does now (582), and that the needs of current residents must take precedence over any others.

Anything short of that, said John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, "is a declaration of war."

Tom Tierney, housing-authority director, said the agency is not ready to make such commitments, calling the advocates' hard-line stance premature, irresponsible and destructive to the community discussion that will help to determine Yesler Terrace's future. Tierney said the discussion will be open to the entire community, not just residents and their advocates.

"We shouldn't be starting this conversation off presuming that low-income people are going to get screwed here," Tierney said. "Our goal is not to provide upper-income people with fancy views nor to take views away from low-income people."

Yesler Terrace's fate ultimately may rest on the financial situation facing the Seattle Housing Authority. Tierney said federal housing cuts have put more pressure on local housing authorities to find other revenues to pay for low-income housing programs.

"If we are going to sustain low-income housing at Yesler Terrace for the long run, there are going to have to be changes made there," he said.

Money to pay for those improvements could be raised by selling some of the acreage to private developers, who undoubtedly would want to situate homes to make the most of the westerly view of downtown, Elliott Bay and SoDo.

The sense of ownership of Yesler Terrace may be greatest with Audry Breaux, who has lived there more than 30 years. The 73-year-old, three-time cancer survivor considers her view the best in all of Seattle — so good, she was able to videotape the Kingdome implosion from her patio. She said she deserves her view more than someone with money who suddenly wants to live close to downtown.

"They want to bring these people back in," she said. "Well, you know what? We never asked them to leave. If you moved out, stay out."

Breaux said low-income people also should remain at Yesler Terrace because transportation, health care and other social services they need are convenient to the central city.

"I can drop down the hill and walk to downtown," Breaux says. "I can run up to Harborview or Virginia Mason or Swedish and I have access to five bus routes."

Fox of the Displacement Coalition points to the housing authority's record at NewHolly, Rainier Vista and High Point in doubting that the agency would keep the same number of poor families at Yesler Terrace after it is redeveloped.

By his count, more than half of the nearly 2,100 units of family public-housing at the three projects before redevelopment are not being replaced on-site. His numbers are disputed by the housing authority, which defines public housing more broadly. But even by its count, only about two-thirds of the 2,100 units are being replaced on-site.

The advocates and the housing authority seem to agree on one thing — with proper design and planning, everyone's desires can be met.

Esther Horton's desire is to keep her home — and her view. The 49-year-old has lived at Yesler Terrace 14 years.

"Historically, we've been here," she said. "Just like Pike Place Market, we're a part of Seattle worth preserving."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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