"Tonight’s Magnolia is not the Magnolia I moved to," Janis Traven told the waning crowd just past the two and a half hour mark of the meeting. Traven, a 30 year resident of the affluent Seattle neighborhood and member of the Magnolia Community Council, had just heard a long list of speakers say they support a proposal to build affordable housing at Fort Lawton near Discovery Park. She was there with the same message.
"You are awesome," Traven told the remaining crowd. "I’m hearing people say 'yes in my back yard.'"
The meeting was a rare sight in Seattle: A Magnolia church packed with people overwhelmingly in support of a housing project. The public meeting went for three hours with only a handful of anti-homeless slights.
The city's proposal for Fort Lawton would bring around 240 new units of housing to a currently vacant decommissioned Army base. Those units would be a mix of apartments for homeless seniors, Habitat for Humanity row houses and town homes, and rent-restricted row houses for people making 60 percent of area median income ($57,600 for a family of four) or less. In total, about 600 people could live at the site, according to the city's draft environmental impact statement. A neighborhood lawsuit killed an earlier attempt at a similar project. When the city announced its intention to try again last summer, opponents responded by email and during a public meeting with comments like, "No housing, especially for homeless!?!"
Tuesday's standing-room only hearing struck the opposite tone. Activists from local urbanist groups like Seattle Tech for Housing, socialist groups including the Democratic Socialists of America, and housing organizations like Real Change, the Housing Development Consortium, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness urged the city to move ahead with the project.
Some Magnolia residents grumbled from the back of the room at the start of the meeting, annoyed that supporters from across the city had signed up ahead of them to testify. One unnamed neighborhood resident told KING 5 he was worried about "criminals, drug addicts, [and] sex offenders." Someone called the fire department about the packed room. When firefighters arrived, the room was not at capacity, according to a fire department spokesperson.
In testimony to the city, several opponents raised concerns about a lack of bus access to the site and the need for more schools or park land. But the overwhelming majority of those who testified supported the project.
"I have heard the same complaints repeatedly," said Anitra Freeman, who has experienced homelessness and advocated for shelter and housing projects. "There are people who do not want homeless people in their neighborhood, and they do not want low income housing in their neighborhood, and they want Seattle to solve the homelessness and housing crisis. But when the city and the hosts carry on, hold firm, and do that project, the same people stop being afraid. So, hold firm. Do this. It’s a start."
"Fort Lawton is an opportunity to act on faith," said Erica West, a community organizer for the Church Council of Greater Seattle, "to work toward the thing that’s hoped for, and create something we long to see: an answer to this crisis, an answer to the prioritization of the wealth over the neighbors who are most in need, and a resounding answer to the questions that are the center of this. Who do we value? Who do we love? Who actually gets a home in Seattle?"
Some residents and activists called for the city to expand the proposal beyond 200 units. "This is a chickenshit proposal," one Magnolia resident said. "Two hundred? I mean, come on."
Ethan Phelps-Goodman from Seattle Tech for Housing called on the city to "consider a new option, an option that will address the magnitude of the crisis that we face."
Seattle City Council members Kshama Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, and Sally Bagshaw attended part of the meeting. Sawant's office handed out a statement in which she called the project "a positive development" but blamed "the city's political establishment" for a decade of delays in the project and the relatively small number of units now planned for the site.
"Today affordable housing activists and advocates should support this [Environmental Impact Statement] because we cannot afford any more delays to build every possible unit of affordable housing," Sawant's statement said. "Once this is approved, however, we must hold politicians accountable for such an inadequate response to the opportunity to build affordable housing and fight to expand these affordable housing opportunities in the future."
Despite the response at the public hearing, the Fort Lawton proposal remains far from a sure thing. The city's Office of Housing will consider all comments received by email and at the hearing before releasing its final environmental impact statement in the spring. And if the comments from earlier in the process are any indication, opponents won't be afraid to speak their minds in writing. After the city releases the final environmental impact statement, opponents could appeal, as they did in 2008. That effort eventually killed the earlier plan for this site.
The Office of Housing will continue taking public comment by email and mail through 5 pm on January 29. You can submit comments by email to OH_Comments@seattle.gov or by mail to: Lindsay Masters, Office of Housing, PO Box 94725, Seattle, WA 98124.
Watch video of the full hearing here.