Further evidence of extreme financial distress in Delridge

UPDATE: I have added a link to the source  for the information used in this blog entry.

I have just learned that a Delridge neighbor has received information about the number of portable Section 8 vouchers in Delridge. It appears that there are currently 302 tenant-based vouchers in the census tract of the proposed DESC Delridge project. Just to put that in a frame of reference — there are 1,977 total households in the census tract, so the portable voucher households make up 15% of all households in this area of Delridge. And none of these extremely low-income households are even counted in the Office of Housing siting policy.

This means that in addition to the 20% of extremely low-income subsidized housing units that are allowed by the siting policy, there are an additional 15% of subsidized extremely low-income households in the census tract that are not included in this count. This is in addition to what appears to be a significant number of extremely low-income households that are not receiving subsidy.

If you are not aware of Section 8, it is a subsidy program for households earning below 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI). It can be applied to a specific apartment unit (which is one of the types of subsidized housing counted in the siting policy) or it can be used by a specific household (which is not counted in the siting policy). Note that the zip code 98106 has the 4th highest percentage of portable vouchers in the city. Here’s a list published by the Seattle Housing Authority.

When do we start to question whether there are simply too many extremely low-income households in one concentrated area of Seattle? Is this really the best way to build supportive housing? Maybe it’s the cheapest, but is it the best?

Please see my open letter to the Washington State Housing Finance Commission regarding the fundamental policy disconnect that is leading to concentrated pockets of poverty within the city of Seattle.

Census data confirms that Delridge has more extremely poor households than any DESC neighborhood site yet

The Office of Housing has not yet answered my questions about the choices to site this project here. I am looking for any evidence of due diligence on the part of the developers, the Office of Housing, or other public funders to ensure that this location is an appropriate place to put $14.5 million of precious public housing money. Have the extreme poverty and lack of neighborhood amenities been carefully considered? Maybe, but I have yet to see evidence of it.

So, I decided to look at other DESC neighborhood-based projects.  I also looked at a Compass Alliance project in Ballard, as it is another large supportive housing project under construction. It turns out that the census tract containing Delridge does indeed have a higher percentage of extremely poor households (earning less than $20,000) than any of these other projects.

And seeing this made my heart sink. With the exception of the Ballard project, all of these projects are in extremely economically stressed neighborhoods, although Delridge is the worst so far – and appears to be part of a trend with DESC projects to choose sites in increasingly impoverished and isolated areas. Perhaps this is why the Office of Housing is mum about the census data for Delridge. Because this is happening in all the poorest areas of our city. We, Seattle, beacon of social justice, are concentrating these projects in the most economically stressed neighborhoods of our city. But this area of Delridge does have the dubious honor of being the worst neighborhood site yet.

I would like to contrast the proposed Delridge project with the Ballard project, which is an exemplary example of how this should be done. It is a larger project (80 units), located 3 blocks from the center of Ballard, where the percentage of extremely poor households is less than half what we have in this area of Delridge. Walkable proximity to every amenity you can imagine, in addition to multiple bus routes serving the area, make this a location that truly meets the vision of the Consolidated Plan:

One goal is to ensure that housing for Seattle’s lowest‐income and most vulnerable populations is available throughout the City, including in our most amenity‐rich neighborhoods in terms of transit, schools, parks and retail.

Another aspect of the Ballard project that I would like to draw your attention to is the amount of care taken in analyzing the site and considering the impact on the surrounding neighborhood. I have not spent an extensive amount of time researching this project (yet), but here is a link to a 27 page analysis of the site with some early design concepts. We certainly have not seen anything like that for this site. Apparently only people who live in Ballard or other wealthy neighborhoods deserve to have that type of care and thought put into ensuring the site and design are appropriate. I have also learned from my research that the project started construction four years after the site was purchased (and I have no idea how much time was spent on the project prior to the purchase). This is an example of taking the time to do it right – a far cry from the DESC Delridge project, which includes purchasing the site 4 months after public notification, with construction starting less than a year after the site purchase. Delridge deserves better. Any neighborhood deserves better.

I understand that homelessness is a crisis in our city, and I can even understand the rush to get vulnerable people into housing as quickly as possible. And I further understand that it is much easier to build this type of project in stressed neighborhoods. There is more available land, land prices are lower, and there will be less effective neighborhood resistance to the project because many of the residents are just too stressed with daily life to get involved.

Maybe the city has even decided that it is an “acceptable loss” because the stakes are so high. And maybe it is. I can understand that there are multiple viewpoints on this topic. But I question the integrity of establishing a Consolidated Plan goal for dispersed very-low income housing throughout the city, without a reliable metric for determining appropriate sites. The current siting policy only takes into account the ratio of subsidized housing units to total number of housing units, which does not count the number of extremely poor households in an area that are not in subsidized housing.

But, worse than that, it has come to light that the Delridge DESC site does not even currently meet the requirements of the siting policy. A waiver has been issued based on planned future housing by the Seattle Housing Authority. I reiterate my questions to the Office of Housing about the due diligence behind this decision:

  1. Did the Office of Housing do any research into the demographics of the neighborhood – or any other analysis of the surrounding area? Is there other reliable information that disproves the information from the census research?
  2. How often is a waiver of a siting policy granted to a project? Is this a rare thing, or standard practice?

But wait, there’s more. Setting aside the impact on the neighborhood, consider the needs of the highly stressed residents who would be living in the DESC facility. In addition to the extreme poverty of the area surrounding the Delridge site, which is in itself a reason that this location is a poor choice, there are few amenities within walking distance and the neighborhood struggles with geographic isolation due to the steep hills on either side of Delridge Way. We have heard that this site is similar to others that DESC claims are good locations, so I thought I should probably check that assertion out as well. I have also examined those sites and discovered a marked difference in the level of access to basic amenities.

Background Data

Is the Office of Housing really KNOWINGLY concentrating extreme poverty in one area of Delridge? New documents show this may be true

It appears that this project DOES NOT meet the siting policy as Rick Hooper stated at the Delridge community forum. (Did the Office of Housing describe this truthfully at the public forum? I need to check the film footage.) A waiver has been granted, based on the potential construction of additional first-time homebuyer units by the Seattle Housing Authority. Did you get that? There may be some houses built in the future that would mean that this project complies, but at the moment it DOES NOT meet the siting policy.

This does not even factor in the census data that indicates that the Office of Housing is NOT COUNTING significant numbers of extremely low-income households in their assessment of this site. To recap the highlights of census data:

  • 31.6% of households earn below $20,000
  • Over 50% of the households earning less than $20,000 are paying more than 35% of their income for rent, and thus do not appear to be in subsidized housing

I welcome data that shows this website is wrong, but I suspect that it doesn’t exist. The lack of a real answer from the Office of Housing makes me suspect that the data cannot be disproved. They are hoping that we all just give up and resign ourselves to the concentration of extreme poverty in one small area of an otherwise fairly wealthy city.

I understand that the City of Seattle desperately needs more housing for homeless people. But I find it hard to believe that this particular project is the best use of $14.5 million of taxpayer money for housing people. We have a responsibility to hold our public agents accountable for their decisions. Good intentions do not make this a good project.

Questions for the Office of Housing:

  1. Can you provide further demographic information to disprove the apparent concentration of extreme poverty in this one area of Delridge?
  2. Why have you provided “up to $4.45 million” for this project, when only $1.3 million was requested?
  3. How common is it to waive the requirements of the siting policy? Has it been done before, and if so, how many times? Has it been done for other DESC projects?
  4. It appears that the Office of Housing has also approved a bridge loan of $769,000 for purchase of the site by December 1, 2011. Can the Office of Housing provide a copy of the bridge loan documents that are currently being prepared?

For any concerned citizens reading this post, note that time is of the essence. The property is being purchased THIS MONTH. Now is the time to raise questions, before any more money is spent on a poorly conceived project. Sometimes mistakes are made, but it’s easier and cheaper to fix mistakes earlier rather than later. We need to save our valuable public money for a project that makes sense.

If you want to read the information for yourself, the Delridge Community Forum website has posted the funding application that contains the waiver letter. You can find it in the Part 3 of the DESC Application for State Funding, pages 137-146. Also an email from the Seattle Housing Authority on page 156 that describes the possibility of additional homes being built in the future.

Did the Office of Housing answer my question? I don’t think so…

The Office of Housing has reiterated their policy in response to the last post and the post about it on the West Seattle Blog, without really addressing the underlying question that I asked, which perhaps I need to ask more clearly:

Does this area of Delridge contain more than 20% of households earning below 30% of the area median income? If so, I don’t think it meets the INTENT of the Comprehensive Plan. The intent of the Plan, as I understand it, is to avoid concentrating extremely low-income people in one place.

I’ll say it again – I’m not a demographer. I welcome fact checking of my research. I went into the Delridge Forum with an open mind, leaning towards support of the project. I spoke in favor of the project at my small group discussion. After hearing anecdotal stories from residents who live closer to the area than I do, I decided to check the census data for my own peace of mind. I really didn’t expect to find the level of poverty that I did.

Honestly, I live far enough from the site that this project won’t really have much of a direct impact on my daily life. But I care enough about my neighborhood and I care enough about social justice that I wanted to share what I learned. I have a deep belief that it’s just not right to put all the poor people in one place. Our community and our world is a better place if wealth and amenities are distributed.

I believe that DESC, the Office of Housing, and all of the other public agencies involved in this are sincerely trying to do the right thing. They are good people, working hard to create housing for the vulnerable and less fortunate of us. It is a hard job, both to develop affordable housing and to decide how to best spend precious public taxpayer dollars. I honestly believe that everyone working on this has good intentions.

Unfortunately, there is no agency to speak for our neighborhood. Usually organizations developing affordable housing are familiar with and working in the best interest of the neighborhood. They do market studies, rent surveys, and census research to make sure that the project makes sense. That doesn’t even apply here. I don’t know if any of that type of background neighborhood-specific research was done.

DESC doesn’t care about our neighborhood. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that their heart and passions are with the people they serve.  All of the public funders are working to meet goals for ending homelessness, which is a good thing. It sounds like every DESC project meets significant neighborhood resistance, so I can imagine that it is hard to tell truth from NIMBYism.

Who speaks for the neighborhood? Who checks the facts? And are there better sources of economic information than what I researched? The Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA) might once have played that role, but that organization is sorely stretched at the moment just trying to weather the bad economy. I spent 10 hours trying to get to the truth in the census data. I welcome others to check it or tell me if it’s wrong.

Although funding decisions are being made, it’s not too late to change the project. It could be built in an area with less economic distress. It could be moved – the land hasn’t been purchased yet. The concept could be changed to be more responsive to the neighborhood. It could be smaller. It could be part of a mixed-income project. It could bring a positive community amenity to the site, such as a grocery store. I can picture a cool project that combines the DESC units with a FareStart restaurant and café. It could respond to the community in any number of ways that would be better for our neighborhood and better for the residents. Is there even any organization that could facilitate that? The Office of Economic Development? The Office of Housing? DNDA?

What doesn’t make sense to me is to bring 75 severely stressed people into an already stressed community without any sort of plan for mitigating the stress. For anyone not familiar with the site, I encourage you to walk around, to see the beer-laden convenience stores across the street, to see the boarded up school building, to see the empty storefronts and dilapidated houses. I encourage the decision makers and those who write this off as NIMBYism to actually visit the site if you haven’t. It’s clearly not the “amenity-rich” environment that the writers of the Consolidated Plan described in the Siting Policies:

One goal is to ensure that housing for Seattle’s lowest-income and most vulnerable populations is available throughout the City, including in our most amenity-rich neighborhoods in terms of transit, schools, parks and retail.

I believe that it is our duty as citizens to raise questions and to hold our public agents accountable. Good intentions do not necessarily mean that this project is well conceived. It appears to me from my census research that this project will serve to further concentrate extreme poverty in this one area. Can we fix this?

DESC project for Delridge does not appear to meet the intent of the Seattle Office of Housing siting policies

75 DESC units brings the total of extremely low-income units to over 25%? This certainly appears to be in excess of the Office of Housing limit of 20%.

I believe that the DESC project proposed for Delridge does not meet the intent of the guidelines for siting affordable housing, as published in the Seattle Office of Housing Policies. It appears that there may be a significant number of extremely low-income households in this area that are not being served by subsidized housing, and thus are not counted by the Office of Housing’s siting policies. I am posting this information to a blog because I think it is the fastest and clearest way to get this information out – I am not a demographer, but what I have discovered from the census data seems compelling.

Frankly, I am stunned by the results of my census research. Living in this neighborhood I did not realize the extent of economic distress. Some key points of information from my research into census tract 107 containing the proposed DESC site:

It should be noted that this census tract includes High Point, as well as a couple of large affordable housing units that I am aware of on Delridge Way, so the Office of Housing is certainly aware of those existing units and others that I may not be aware of. However, I found something more alarming in my research:

  • Over 50% of the households earning less than $20,000 are paying more than 35% of their income for rent – I believe many of these households may not be in subsidized housing or they would not be paying so much for their rent. (Subsidized affordable housing aims to keep rents below 35% of a person’s income.)
  • What does this mean? This means that there may be a significant number of extremely low-income households in this area that are not being served by subsidized housing, and thus are not counted by the Office of Housing’s siting policies.

I believe the intent of the Office of Housing is to ensure that neighborhoods throughout the city all contain a mix of low income and higher income housing. As the Office of Housing Policies state:

Geographic dispersion of very‐low income housing throughout the city is encouraged. Mixed‐income housing (housing serving low‐income households with incomes above 50% of median income) is encouraged in underdeveloped areas in the city where higher percentages of low‐income residents or housing exist.

I think Delridge counts as an underdeveloped area where higher percentages of low-income residents exist. Too many households in economic crisis is not good for our neighborhood — and it is not a good way to support the extremely vulnerable chronically homeless population that is proposed for this project.