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Monday, July 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reborn housing project reaches beyond the poor

Seattle Times staff reporter

Frustrated in trying to find a bigger home for his family of four, Michael Aycock came across an ad for new houses on Beacon Hill, jumped in his car and drove there from West Seattle to check them out. Never mind it was 11 at night.

He knew next to nothing about the neighborhood, but the moment he saw the development where the houses were to be built, he figured his search was over. His wife, Jennifer Martinez, visited the next day but needed some convincing because the cheapest house at the time was listed at $424,800 — four times what they had paid for their tiny Delridge house a mere nine years ago.

Eventually, though, she fell in love with the house, too.

Where else in Seattle could they get a newly constructed 2,500-square-foot, three-level house with four bedrooms, 2 ½ bathrooms, a downstairs bonus room, walk-in closets, bamboo wood floors, slate-tile entryway, island kitchen, gas fireplace, two-car garage, and a deck with views of the Cascades, Mount Rainier and a sliver of Lake Washington?

Nowhere other than here, the site of the former Holly Park public-housing project.

Where Seattle's poorest residents lived for five decades in subsidized one-story apartments, 22 houses are being sold in the $450,000 range, with the most expensive listed at $462,800.

They represent the high end at NewHolly, a mixed-income neighborhood of 1,450 homes that has risen from a $350 million makeover of the old Holly Park public-housing project. While the 22 make up only 1.5 percent of all the homes within NewHolly's 118 acres, they represent 18 percent of those for sale within NewHolly's distinct Othello Station subdivision, which is separated from the rest of the development by a busy arterial.

The transformation of housing projects exclusively for poor people into neighborhoods open to all is taking place at four locations in King County. The goal has been to erase the stigma of public housing by mixing it with market-rate housing, although few may have anticipated when the work began 10 years ago that the market would inch toward a half-million dollars.

Another rebirth

In 1995, the Seattle Housing Authority began tearing down Holly Park's 871 apartments, replacing them with the 1,450 homes to be sold and rented to people of various income levels.

The redevelopment signaled another rebirth for Holly Park, which was built in the 1940s to house defense workers and war veterans and was converted into rental housing for poor people in the 1950s.

Officials of the housing authority, the municipal corporation that manages public housing in Seattle, say the 22 pricey homes in Othello Station benefit NewHolly overall by further expanding its socioeconomic diversity. The housing authority also earns a higher percentage of proceeds from home sales when the prices are higher, revenue that officials say is helping pay for NewHolly.

"What we wanted was a range of price points," said Virginia Felton, housing-authority communications director, noting that houses sold in earlier phases of NewHolly typically sold for about $225,000. "These more expensive houses help us create a true mixed-income community."

But a low-income-housing advocate, who thinks Holly Park never should have been replaced, said the prices reflect a project gone awry.

"NewHolly is indeed proving out to be a gentrification project for Southeast Seattle," said John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. "To now see houses selling there for $450,000 when there is a desperate need in this community for more low-income housing is just appalling."

Fox said the housing authority's promise that NewHolly's for-sale homes would be affordable to low-income people, including former Holly Park residents, has been broken.

The housing authority had pledged to set aside 100 of NewHolly's 425 for-sale homes to buyers with moderate incomes — those earning less than 80 percent of the area's median income, or $58,000 for a family of four. It technically has fulfilled that obligation, with 43 of the 100 houses being built through Habitat for Humanity.

Of the 1,450 homes, 582 are market-rate homes, 580 are rentals for poor people and 288 are for people with moderate incomes.

Aycock, a sales associate for an import-rug retailer, and Martinez, an office manager for a landscape-architecture firm, aren't involved in those battles. To them, the house is simply a good deal for their family.

"The market was unreal," Aycock said. "In order to get what we wanted, we thought we were going to have to move to Kent or Shoreline."

More space, diversity

The house not only gives them more space but meets the couple's desire to raise their daughters in an ethnically and economically diverse environment.

Aycock and Martinez began moving in last weekend, their 8-year-old Dylan jumping with joy on her mattress, loving the idea of not having to share a bedroom with her little sister for the first time. Their old house had about 800 square feet, not counting the utilitarian basement. With two girls, a Siberian husky and a cat, the family felt squeezed.

"Everyone was on top of everybody else all the time," Martinez said. "I've told them, 'I love you all, but I think I'll love you more when we can spread out.'"

Martinez and Aycock are the first to buy and the first to occupy within the row of 22 houses, which are in various stages of construction.

More than a third have been sold, said Darryl Smith, a real-estate agent with Windermere Real Estate, who shows the model home to prospective buyers. Smith said Martinez and Aycock are typical of those interested in the homes.

"They are able to stay in the city and upgrade to a great new home," said Smith, adding that Othello Station also features such selling points as new streets, underground utilities, a large park, proxmity to the light-rail stop of the same name and neighborhood covenants and restrictions that should guarantee spiffiness for years to come.

At Othello Station, the housing authority sold lots to homebuilders, rather than developing the market-rate houses itself, as it had in earlier phases of NewHolly. Bennett Homes, a Bellevue builder that had concentrated exclusively on higher-end houses on the Eastside, successfully bid and is developing the 22 lots with joint-venture partner, Sherman Homes.

Paul Glosniak, president of Bennett Homes, said developing high-end houses at a former public-housing project may appear risky to some, "but we just knew people need houses like this in Seattle, near where they work and next to mass transit."

Glosniak said the last of the 22 houses will be finished in about a year. Bennett also will build 28 townhouses in another section of NewHolly that Glosniak expects will list for more than $400,000.

Bennett also is going to build 17 single-family houses at Rainier Vista, another housing-authority redevelopment in Southeast Seattle, that Glosniak said likely will list for almost a half-million dollars. In addition to NewHolly and Rainier Vista, redevelopments of former public-housing projects are taking place at High Point in West Seattle and Greenbridge (formerly Park Lake Homes) in White Center.

Within Othello Station, only a few vestiges remain of the old housing project. The street of high-end homes is around the corner from South Holly Park Drive and the Holly Park Medical & Dental Clinic, which serves mainly Asian immigrants.

Martinez, who grew up in Kent, and Aycock, a transplant, knew little about their new neighborhood's past before buying into it. It was only after she viewed the Othello Station Web site (www.othellostation.com) that Martinez realized it used to be a public-housing project.

From their new deck, the family looks out upon more modest single-family houses, as well as multiplex apartments, some subsidized and occupied by poor people. Othello Station's 15 Habitat for Humanity homes also are nearby.

Everyone is supposed to blend in.

"If it works the way it is supposed to work, then everyone gets to live in this nice neighborhood, regardless of income, and it levels the playing field," Martinez said. "I hope it does just that."

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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