IT'S A NOBLE PLAN: Raze the old housing project that isolated the poor and create a mixed-class community. But will the experiment work?
Upper Holly Park is eerily silent. Most of its residents have been moved out in preparation for a major change.
For half a century, Holly Park has been full of the sounds of people who needed a home and couldn't afford better, a place for people with limited options.
It opened in 1942 as temporary housing for Boeing workers because during World War II they had to be close to the plants. Working families lived there in the '50s and '60s when they couldn't quite make ends meet.
In the '70s and '80s, immigrants who needed shelter poured in. So did families on welfare.
It has been a home of last resort for old people without means and disabled people who needed any roof they could get.
It has been a refuge for drug dealers and a base for gangs.
But one thing it has never been: the choice of people who had the means to choose.
Now it will have to be that if it is to succeed as part of a national experiment to see whether government can create mixed-class communities free of the ills that pockets of poverty can nourish.
The Seattle Housing Authority intends it to be a place where very poor and low- to moderate-income families live in public housing intermixed with middle-income homeowners who either buy or rent at market rates.
The old Holly Park isolated the poor. The new Holly Park is supposed to make them part of the family.
Can it work? Some experts doubt the experiment can overcome powerful socioeconomic forces.
But on the eve of demolition, longtime Holly Park residents are hopeful that the new housing - and the new approach - will mean a new station in life for them.
"Your neighbor won't know what your financial status is unless you tell them," says Janet Harris, whose family has lived in Holly Park for nine years.
Buildings look like barracks
After three years of planning and tinkering, buildings start coming down next month. Demolition in upper Holly Park is to begin June 15 and construction of new housing is supposed to be completed by the fall of 1999. Demolition and construction in middle and lower Holly Park will follow, with the three-phase project scheduled for completion in the spring of 2004.
Altogether, 873 units will be replaced by 1,200 new apartments, duplexes and houses.
Lawrence Barquet is Janet Harris' husband. A light rain sprinkles his dreadlocks as he points out why it's a good thing the projects are being torn down. The ground underneath the grass is soggy much of the year because of leaky pipes. He says a field behind his apartment is a popular spot for ditching stolen cars because it's unlit. There are rats and roaches in the buildings, he says, and most of the basements are kept locked because of standing water several inches deep.
The buildings look like barracks - wood frames sitting on concrete foundations that show a foot above the ground. They are painted dirty, grayish shades of yellow, blue and green. The doors are gray and brown and off-white with bulky knobs no homeowner would ever want.
The windows are tiny and admit little light. Harris says her apartment is so dingy that just being inside makes her feel tired. Nothing about the place makes people feel good about themselves, they both say.
The philosophy behind the new Holly Park says that poor people can be housed in better environs, next to the working poor and people who have edged into the middle class.
Economic mix `essential'
So, the whole project hangs on the question of whether middle-class buyers will come at all. The private money is based on selling homes at market rates, and the development won't have the sought-after income mix if all the housing is rented or subsidized.
Holly Park, especially upper Holly, has pleasant topography and is close to jobs in Seattle and Renton, and the units will have more space than some private developments in Southeast Seattle, says Richard Morrill a University of Washington geography professor.
Morrill says none of that will attract people who went to the suburbs to get away from the mix of people they might find at Holly Park. But there are potential buyers, he says, who now rent in the Central Area or Southeast Seattle and among people who work in Renton or the Duwamish area - black professionals who work for Boeing, for instance.
On the other hand, the area's reputation and its lack of amenities work against it, Morrill says.
Problems with drugs and gangs that began to make the news in the late '80s marred the area's image. Community action, by residents and the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council and other groups working with the police, has made a significant improvement. And, the new development's layout, with straight streets, will make the neighborhood easier to police than its present warrenlike design.
Then there are the amenities people look for in a neighborhood, such as convenient and high-quality shopping and safe, productive schools.
Retailers reflect the area's income level. There is a nearby Safeway that most people agree could use some improvement, and not much else.
Morrill and others predict businesses will respond to the presence of higher-income potential customers that the new Holly Park hopes to attract.
The old Holly Park was a lead weight attached to the communities around it. The new Holly Park is supposed to be an uplifting pillar.
Brian Fairchild, a Southeast Seattle realtor, says there is "plenty of new construction around Holly Park, and it sells very well." What had been a slow market has recently picked up.
About 57 of the 149 for-sale homes in Phase I are expected to be priced at $113,900 to $140,200, which the housing authority says should make them affordable to unsubsidized buyers who earn between $34,000 and $42,000. The highest priced homes, with 2,000 square feet and two-car garages, could be priced as high as $180,000.
Fairchild says buyers will come if they are "given adequate assurance that their investment" would not be depreciated by housing-authority management of the rest of the project.
"They have to manage it properly," Fairchild said. "Don't allow problems to fester. Public housing is totally acceptable, but it's not a right. It's a privilege to live in there. But they are very reluctant to take any action against anyone who is a problem."
The housing authority says residents of the new neighborhood will help manage and enforce tougher rules for behavior and upkeep of property.
In a fact sheet for residents, the housing authority says, "There will be zero tolerance for illegal drugs, graffiti and illegal use of weapons. Leases of residents who engage in such behavior or illegal activity will be terminated."
Leases also can be terminated if yards and apartments are not well maintained. Adults who are not disabled will be required to work or participate in education and job-training programs.
Even so, UW's Morrill cautions that it will not be easy to make this experiment work. "Any social engineering that forces people together against the market is very unstable.
"People sort themselves by class. It's extremely difficult to maintain a mix and it's not just money. It's education, interests and occupation. Either the rich will go or the poor will go, but it won't stay mixed."
Noble plan, but can it work?
But many cities around the country are trying to make that happen. Where the projects have been done well it works, as at Boston's Harbor Point, and even some new developments in Chicago.
Critics of the Seattle plan say the idea is noble, but they question how it is being carried out and whether it takes away resources that could be used to reach more of the poorest.
There are more than 16,000 people on housing-authority waiting lists. That is more people than are housed in all of the high-rises, garden communities, town houses and scattered sites the housing authority owns.
In recent months, the Seattle Displacement Coalition has tried to stop the project, saying it is overpriced, deceptively funded and inefficient, and that it diverts dollars from more critical uses.
The coalition says Holly Park's buildings can be fixed up and that all of them should be used to house the neediest people. The housing authority says, however, that the federal grant was only for redevelopment and the private money is tied to having market-rate housing in the mix.
Doris Morgan, who heads the Holly Park Community Council, takes issue with housing advocates from elsewhere in the city who suggest that the government has duped residents into supporting its plan.
Residents generally support the project, but are not always pleased with the way it is handled.
Sethy Kan Chea, who lives with his wife and six children in an immaculate apartment, says no one has explained the options to him. "There was a meeting. I go to hear the owner talking."
When he was asked to write down what he wanted to do, he said stay. "They just tell you go. They don't care about you. I need more time."
Virginia Messenger and her three sons moved into an apartment in upper Holly a year ago. Last month, they moved into another apartment because the old apartment is in the section to be torn down first.
She had to move one of her sons to a different school because the move put her out of busing distance to his old school.
"I don't know where I'm going to end up," she says.
"I agree that the project can be refined and improved," says Seattle Housing Authority executive director Harry Thomas, who lived in Holly Park for part of his youth, "but we do need to move forward with phase I."
The buildings at Holly Park "served their purpose," he says. "Now we need to thank them and retire them."
Barquet and Harris this week are moving into a subsidized apartment in Renton. If the experiment works, a couple of years from now, a middle-class family from Renton or the Central Area will replace them in the new Holly Park.
------------------------------ What is Holly Park development ------------------------------
-- Holly Park sits on 102 acres in an area west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and east of Beacon Hill Avenue South, and between Graham and Myrtle streets south.
-- Nearly half of the 2,000 Holly Park residents are Asian, about a third are black, fewer than 10 percent are white and there are smaller numbers of Hispanics and Native Americans.
-- The 1995 median annual income in Seattle for a family of three was $46,300. The household median income for residents of Holly Park was $7,030.
-- The Holly Park redevelopment project is expected to cost $160 million to $180 million, the core of which is a $47 million federal grant. About $100 million is to come from home sales, private loans and the sale of low-income housing-tax credits. Seattle Housing Authority has asked the city for $15 million.
-- Four hundred of the families now living at Holly Park will have space in the new development. Others will be relocated to other housing projects, individual buildings and houses owned by the housing authority, or given vouchers to defray part of the cost of renting from private landlords.
-- There will be 360 rental units for families making up to 55 percent of Seattle's median income and 100 homes for sale to people who earn 50 to 80 percent of median income. Tax credits and other help will be available to those families.
-- Forty rentals and 300 for-sale homes will be available at market rates.