Theme: Spirituality & Community
The U.S. Housing Act of 1937 (also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act) was the first big step by the federal government to enter the public housing arena. In order to gain political support and build alliances, President Roosevelt gave a nod to threads of conservative add-ons included in the act while being very intentional about getting the government involved in providing public housing for low-income Americans. Cities that would commit to constructing public housing were eligible for low-interest loans equal to 90% of project costs, with up to 60 years for repayment.
Seattle Housing Authority
Jesse Epstein, a Seattle attorney who was working at the Bureau of Governmental Research in 1935, was tracking federal programs where he paid close attention to the potential benefits the Housing Act could generate across the state. Epstein convinced city officials that building low-income housing was a critical need that would also stimulate the local economy and revitalize blighted areas of the city. His work set the stage for the creation of the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA). In 1939, the SHA was awarded a $3 million loan under the Housing Act to demolish dilapidated buildings in the Yesler neighborhood and replace them with low-income family housing. Epstein told his staff in 1940, “We have an opportunity to prove that Negroes and whites can live side by side in harmony…but it’s going to require skill and patience to make it work.” Non-discrimination became a leading principal of the SHA.
Yesler Terrace Housing
Yesler Terrace is known as the first racially integrated public housing project in the United States, and it set a nationwide tone for the future of public housing. The logistics and undertaking of the housing began shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, as Seattle was experiencing a significant migration of African Americans to the city. Eligibility for the available 690 units was strict, in that only family households headed by U.S. citizens with no more than $1,200 annual income could apply. Displaced residents of the Yesler neighborhood were given first preference for the new units.
In 1941, residents began moving in, with 178 additional units under construction solely for defense workers and military families. Sorely, wartime internment of Japanese American citizens was also underway in Seattle, ensuring that no one of Japanese descent would be among the first residents of Yesler Terrace. By 1949, 14% of Yesler Terrace residents were African American. By the turn of the 21st century, close to 80% of residents were non-white, and nearly one in five was classified as disabled.
Through the years, cycles of ignoring and improving housing conditions were dependent on funding. In 2006, a Citizens’ Review Committee convened to plan the revitalization of Yesler Terrace. The committee was led by former mayor Norman Rice, Seattle’s first (and, to date, only) elected African American mayor. The guiding principles included social equity, economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, and one-for-one replacement housing. As late as 2010, there was community pushback from opponents who wanted to kill the plan by having Yesler Terrace designated as a city landmark. The nomination was defeated, although the Steam Plant Building did receive landmark status.
Six years of debate ensued between 2006 and 2012, until finally a unanimous plan to redevelop Yesler Terrace was approved. The “new” Yesler Terrace would be much denser and more vertical to include a greater variety of mixed uses. Close to $30 million in federal funds were allocated to the project, and the majority of the remaining cost was financed through the sale of select prime land within Yesler Terrace’s boundaries. In 2013, the SHA announced that Vulcan, a development firm owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (1953-2018), would be the primary private developer for the project. Controversy immediately arose over the displacement of residents who were predominantly people of color, elderly, and disabled. Yesler Terrace residents, along with surrounding Black and Asian community members, demanded input on the project, insisting that developers address all concerns affecting access and livability for current and future residents.
Today, the original low-income family units have been replaced, and the SHA has created an additional 1,100 affordable housing units at Yesler Terrace. The core values of the new development are consistent with Epstein’s original vision, and the SHA has remained steadfast in its commitment to providing adequate housing for those most in need.
Steam Plant Building at Yesler Terrace
The Steam Plant Building was given landmark status by the City of Seattle in 2010. The original 7,500-square-foot building was built in 1941 to provide hot water heat to the neighborhood until its decommission in 1989. In years following, it was used as a storage facility. It is now preserved as a reminder of the Yesler neighborhood’s history. As part of its adaptive reuse, the Steam Plant Building now houses Yesler Head Start, the SHA Employment Opportunity Program, and Catholic Community Services Youth Tutoring. In 2014, the building was rededicated as the Epstein Opportunity Center.