Yusuf Cabdi has dedicated his free time for the last five years to redeveloping Seattle's oldest and most central public housing project, Yesler Terrace. As a board member of the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), the public corporation that provides low-income housing assistance for Seattle's neediest, the 40-year-old East African activist sat through countless meetings and talked to hundreds of Yesler Terrace residents and neighbors.
Cabdi's goal, he explains, has been to ensure that the 1,200 current residents could be relocated when their homes are razed and have the first right of return when new apartments are built on-site.
The housing project has been home to some of the city's poorest individuals and families since it was built in the early 1940s (the residents currently make less than $13,650 annually or $19,500 for a family of four). But now that plumbing and sidewalks have decayed, the wood-framed town houses are set to be replaced with roughly a dozen towers, some up to 25 stories high.
With the final public hearing now complete, the Seattle City Council is prepared to vote in September to authorize the $290-million development deal. The scale is unprecedented: constructing a new 30-acre neighborhood in First Hill, featuring 5,000 new housing units with both low-income and market-rate housing.
Cabdi expected to be celebrating his hard work this summer. Instead, last week, he resigned.
"I no longer feel that SHA is living up to its mission of providing housing to the most needy families in our city," Cabdi wrote in a resignation letter.
Cabdi worries that SHA isn't planning to rebuild enough low-income housing at Yesler Terrace. As the city's population is rising and Yesler Terrace's population grows nearly tenfold with all the new construction, the number of low-income housing units on-site will decrease slightly (140 low-income units will be shuffled off-site but nearby). And by focusing on new housing for all income brackets, he says, SHA is accommodating those who typically make $60,000 to $90,000 a year while sacrificing the needs of a growing low-income population.
Cabdi warns that SHA's plan could result in "shipping poor people to South Seattle."
He isn't the only low-income housing advocate raising the alarm about the project.
More than 80 people testified on the final Yesler Terrace redevelopment plan at a City Hall hearing on August 8. Critics pointed out that the housing authority has not committed to replacing its 561 extremely-low-income units on-site (a modest number when considering more than 3,000 new market-rate units are planned). Nor has SHA made concrete plans to relocate Yesler Terrace residents once they're evicted from their homes.
"As of this moment, no such measure of accountability exists except the word of the Seattle Housing Authority that they will offer counseling and help to the tenants," Cabdi says.
Still more people are worried that SHA will make money off its private development deals on the site. This concern stems from SHA's plan to sell prime parts of Yesler Terrace to private developers for an estimated $140 million in order to fund the lion's share of its low-income housing.
"This [project] uses city funds to subsidize a megaproject that will be dominated by luxury condos," testified David Bloom, speaking on behalf of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. "It leaves less public housing on-site and a conspicuous loss of trees. It's a blueprint of gentrification of that area." Critics like Bloom argue that the plan would give the choicest views and locations to private developers. Meanwhile, 2,000 units of workforce and low-income housing will be pushed to the outskirts of the property—if they're built at all. "This is a 20-year process," Cabdi says. "SHA assumes they're going to make money, but that's only if they don't undersell [the land]."
But Michelle Ackermann, a spokeswoman for SHA, says the deals are sound. "We are comfortable with our economic and financial model that has been honed over the past four years by Heartland, a leading local real estate economics firm," says Ackermann, adding that an economist hired by the city concurred that "there were no fatal flaws with [our] analysis."
And city council members are raising concerns of their own, introducing 16 amendments to the Yesler Terrace legislation, many of which are being opposed by SHA. For instance, SHA is opposing an amendment that would require at least 94 of the 281 apartments for displaced residents during construction to be two-, three-, and four-bedroom units (to accommodate families).
Another amendment would limit the number of mid-to-low-income apartments (affordable to those making 60 to 80 percent of the average median income in King County) that could be located east of Boren Avenue—an area that's not part of the original Yesler Terrace site—to no more than 20 units. The legislation already states that no more than 140 extremely-low-income units (30 percent of the median income) can be located off-site.
"We don't want to create a concentration of low-income housing east of Boren," says Council Member Nick Licata, but SHA argues that the original Yesler Terrace site is an "artificial barrier" and that the housing authority needs to have the flexibility to build low-income housing where it makes the most sense (i.e., with shit views).
Finally, another amendment would force SHA to invest any excess funds from the Yesler Terrace land sale back into the project. "These are public funds," stresses Licata, who introduced it. "We do not want to see the revenue generated from Yesler Terrace being used in other locations."
But these amendments will restrict SHA's ability to create a "truly mixed-income neighborhood," according to Ackermann.
In his resignation letter, Cabdi called for the city council to appoint a third-party tenant advocacy group, such as the Tenants Union of Washington State, to ensure that tenants' rights are protected during the relocation and rebuild.
The council is expected to vote on the bulk of these amendments on August 19 and could pass the full legislation package as early as September.