Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Remaking Yesler Terrace on Seattle's First Hill

Tom Tierney
Seattle Housing Authority
The Seattle Housing Authority’s leader, Tom Tierney, is retiring this summer.  Tierney is one of many superb public servants who rose to leadership during the past 30 years, nourished by a string of Seattle mayors who offered a great deal of responsibility to smart, young people like him. 

Tierney came to the housing authority as Executive Director in March of 2004 and continued the agency’s ambitious program of rehabilitating and reprogramming many housing authority properties, recreating them as mixed income communities with both subsidized renters and home owners.

New Holly
Seattle Housing Authority
Seattle had particular success implementing this federal partnership, called HOPE VI, with its first project, NewHolly, a complete change out of the 1940s era Holly Park.  Federal officials liked what they saw and how it worked, and soon SHA was working on another HOPE VI project, then another.  Together they totaled over $1.3 billion in new construction, good news for those working in or affected by the home building industry during the recession.  Now, another HOPE VI project is before the city council, this one at Yesler Terrace, the re-make of the very first project of the Seattle Housing Authority. 

The authority was formed in 1939 to build housing for low income people but, as thousands of defense workers poured into the city, the authority mission changed to also build housing for those workers and their families.  In turn, the new citizens of Seattle build astounding numbers of ships and aircraft and change the face of our town. 
Old Yesler on the Left, New on the Right
The implementation of today’s Yesler Terrace plan, now pinballing through the permitting and public involvement processes, would be a terrific accomplishment for Tierney and his team.  However, driven by the value of the land for commercial and residential development, the uncertain future role of the federal government in housing, the way low income developers in town interact with the housing authority and the continued shock to civic confidence of the Great Recession, the project carries the risk of one of those long and potentially pointless Seattle conversations.

Houses on First Hill removed for Yesler Terrace
A survey in 1938 show that less than 60% had
flush toilets and 50% were heated by burning wood or coal.
University of Washington Libraries
Public housing in Seattle starts with the Roosevelt Administration’s efforts to stimulate the housing industry, increase housing quality and start money flowing – mortgage insurance – (FHA) and an agency to purchase home loans, Federal National Mortgage Association, (Fanny Mae).  But the big kick from Washington was the Housing Act of 1937, at the moment of Roosevelt’s greatest legislative strength, that truly started the modern era of public housing. The 1937 Housing Act would stimulate states to form housing authorities and would start a flow of federal dollars and federal requirements that are still functioning today.

But as the housing program was starting, America’s neutrality in the growing world conflict was harder to maintain.  We were already selling arms to our future allies and were preparing ourselves for the inevitable.  There was an urgent need to transport workers to places in the country that had the infrastructure to build the tools of war.    

B-17 Plant, 1943
University of Washington Libraries
It is still remarkable today to consider the volume of wartime activity in Washington state. According to historian Quintard Taylor, when the housing act passed, Boeing had 4,000 workers making military planes for the Army Air Corps and the Clipper Airships that flew the Pacific route.  At the same time, the Puget Sound shipyard industry was reviving.  After its total collapse following World War I, shipbuilders were, in 1941, furnishing vessels for the Coast Guard, Navy and Merchant Marine.  In just a few years there were 88 shipyards in Puget Sound and 29 in Seattle alone.  At their peak, 150,000 people were employed in Puget Sound making an assortment of vessels. 

After the war began in Europe, the British purchased Boeing’s B-17 bomber.  In June, 1941, 10,000 people worked at Boeing and 30,000 worked there six months later when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.  At its production peak, the company was producing a B-29 every five days and a B-17 every 24 hours.  In 1944, 50,000 people worked at the company and its sales were $600,000,000 annually.  All of Seattle manufacturing sold just $70,000,000 in 1939.

A number of federal agencies were furiously recruiting workers and would be reconstituted in early 1942 as the War Manpower Commission.  The 1940 census counted 1.75 million people in Washington state and just over a million in Oregon.  Ten years later, 650,000 more people lived in Washington and 450,000 more in Oregon.

These waves of people running the war machine needed places to live.  Preparing for war and supporting our allies soon meant that the federal government’s role in federal housing, spelled out in the 1937 Housing Act, had to change.  Congress passed the Lanham Act in October, 1940 that allowed the federal government to fund housing projects for defense industry workers through the newly formed local housing authorities. 

Jesse Epstein in 1980
Seattle Housing Authority
When the Lanham Act passed, Jesse Epstein was at his post as director of the Seattle Housing Authority with $3,000,000 in federal money already in hand. Epstein was a 29 year old lawyer whose parents had brought him from Russia when he was two and he thrived at the University of Washington and its law school.  Then he honed his administrative skills working for the Municipal Research Council, the idea factory for local government in Washington state.  He was already at work on two projects, one at Sand Point where he hoped to start construction in November and the other on Yesler’s Hill, which we now call First Hill, where he was almost ready to release a bid for land clearing that would be the first step in Yesler Terrace construction. 

UW Libraries Collection
What Depression?  That summer and fall of 1940 saw the conclusion of several large projects.  The first floating bridge over Lake Washington was dedicated in July, so was the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and so was the new airbase, McChord Field.  Asahel Curtis, the go to photographer for such events, was as busy as he could be. 

The people around Richland, Kennewick and Pasco were not seeing much activity where they were, but would soon enough.  Just 7,000 people lived in what was called Richland Village in 1940.  By 1943, 45,000 workers were trying to make Plutonium there.

While many people of all races were needed, they were not always welcome.  Governor Arthur Langlie, for example, urged the authorities at Hanford “to return most of the construction workmen back to their original centers of activity, particularly the negroes.”

Yesler Terrace, 1942
Seattle Housing Authority
In 1940, there were just 7,500 African Americans in Washington State, but that was changing rapidly and Epstein had to make a difficult call.  Most other authorities around the country had a simple solution, though inelegant – put black people in their projects and white people in theirs.  Quintard Taylor’s 1995 history of how the war changed the black community here describes a staff meeting in which Epstein set out his strategy: 

"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." Housing staffer Ray Adams commented that because of housing discrimination blacks had fewer options and thus would concentrate on public housing. He asked Epstein, "Will you set up a quota to keep Yesler Terrace from becoming a ghetto?" "Let's avoid the ugly word 'quota,' Ray," Epstein replied, "but we must limit the number of Negroes if we are to achieve integration. Keep in mind that we are determined on that. Coloreds and whites will live side by side; this in itself is revolutionary." Epstein's approach to the problem of interracial adjustment included limiting black occupancy to 20 percent and quickly moving neighboring black and white tenants who clashed to other housing units in the project.”

Seattle Housing Authority
Epstein’s strategy made him subject to criticism from both the ‘too many’ side and the ‘too few.’ But it worked. Yesler Terrace was the first integrated public housing project in the country.

Another area where Epstein went against the grain was in the design of Yesler Terrace. He hired several different architectural firms under the lead of engineer and architect J. Lister Holmes. Handling the landscape design was a very well-known landscape architect, Butler Sturtevant. They had just finished collaborating on a house in the wealthy Highlands section of town that featured an effective connection of the landscape to the house. Their work at Yesler Terrace was influenced by that collaboration.  They had a lot of land available to them and were not forced to pack the houses tightly together. Finally, both men had grown up with the Garden City movement that has, as part of its ethos, a generous use of open space. Modern looking, graceful and with lots of space between the buildings, it raised eyebrows among the bean counters who saw the project as perhaps looking too good. 

Yesler Terrace in 1942
University of Washington Libraries

The nearly 900 unit project would be dedicated on June of 1942, though residents had been moving into finished units for several months while construction continued around them.

Projects across the city were underway and all would be finished by the Fall – 500 units at Rainier Vista in the city’s largely Italian south end, nearly 800 units in West Seattle at High Point, another 800 units in a project unnamed in June, 1942, but which would become Holly Park. At Sandpoint, then a naval air station, Epstein would finish 150 units. All would be done by the Fall of 1942.

As the war ended, Epstein moved into another job working directly for the federal government first overseeing public housing in the northwest, then moving to San Francisco as the federal overseer of projects across the west.

The Yesler Project then would look quite different to us today. It spilled down the hill to the edge of today's downtown before more than 250 units were demolished for the construction of Interstate 5.

The new project put together by Tierney and his team will also look very different after its renovation and become a much more significant part of the city’s look and feel. Current plans call for 5,000 units of housing, about 1800 subsidized and the rest market rate. The subsidized housing would contain several tiers of low income – some earning less than 30% of median income, others below 60% of median and still others at 80% of median. There would be 900,000 square feet of office buildings, 65,000 square feet of services, 88,000 square feet of retail, 16 acres of parks and 5,100 parking spaces. There may be as many of 11 buildings with a mixture of structures --seven stories, seventeen stories and twenty-six stories.


The concept for the redevelopment rises out of many sources. First, Yesler Terrace land has become very valuable with its views and its proximity to downtown and with plenty of nearby jobs. The authority wants to use the value of the land to offset future cuts in federal funding it sees coming. The authority sees current subsidies slowly going away and believes that new revenue streams are a way to offset a continued federal retreat. The authority has shown it can make the mixed income idea work. The income streams derived from market rate housing developed over the last few years on other HOPE VI projects has provided an effective internal subsidy for maintenance and other future obligations of the authority.

Secondly, the site itself is urban, very different from the neighborhood character of SHA projects around the city. This calls for the creation of a new, urban neighborhood to match the world that has grown up adjacent to Yesler Terrace since its dedication seventy years ago this month.

The vision of Yesler Terrace articulated by the authority board ignites a number of political bonfires that must be tended. Seattle is blessed with a vigorous, private-non-profit housing development community and they have created thousands of affordable housing units. However, they have a complicated relationship with the Seattle Housing Authority – sometimes partners, sometimes competitors.

The low income housing market has many segments, but the basic segmentation starts with the very, very poor – 0% to 30% of median income. Another segment is made up of poor families as well, but families that have the capability of finding some housing, though likely sub-standard or otherwise inadequate. There is another group of those who earn close to median income but cannot find affordable housing close to the city center where they work. There are, as well, seniors and disabled. In the past, SHA would put its resources into just the lower part of the market segment and leave the other parts of the market to the non-profits or, frequently, partner with them. Today, with mixed income housing a major goal, the non-profits see SHA encroaching on their market segments. Plus, SHA is so big that when it has a big project like Yesler Terrace it soaks up much of the available money and tax credits. In addition, the Yesler project it is asking for $30,000,000 in City of Seattle housing bond funds to incorporate into the redevelopment. Those bonds are a traditional source of funding for private non-profit developers.

The City of Seattle has hired a downtown real estate expert to sort out the issues for the city council and Matthew Gardner has already said that he does not think the project can sell as much market rate housing and office space as it anticipates over the 20 years of development it foresees.

In addition, the council will also grapple with the idea of displacement of current residents by the new project. Where will they be housed in the meantime? How many will come back? These are difficult and meaningful issues but the authority has well-practiced experience given their experience with other HOPE VI projects.

When Jesse Epstein was building the original Yesler Terrace, he went right to the council and exercised his considerable personal skills face-to-face. Today, the council puts on its quasi-judicial robes in dealing with major institutional projects and can’t have the kind of conversations Jesse had in his day. Sometimes, in big projects, the council's quasi-judicial role can lead to misunderstandings.

Council member Nick Licata has a cautious message from the council: “I am in the category of ‘great vision,’let’s see how it works.” The council review will take place over many months.

There is a small group of people who will never accept anything different than fixing up the existing buildings without disturbing the people inside. They make noise, go to court and try to scare the tenants. They hearken back to the days when office buildings were displacing housing in the downtown and they had some success organizing as well as legislatively. The authority has shown it can deal with them and that most tenants who come back are extremely happy with the way HOPE VI works out. But not all will come back. Some will die, some will move to another city, some will like their temporary housing more than what is finished at Yesler.  Some call that displacement.  Its real name is life.

Jessie Epstein was at the housing authority for just five years, but kept a hand in Seattle affairs as regional administrator of the federal housing program and then as west coast administrator. In 1948, while working in San Francisco, he was accused of being a communist by Sarah Eldredge, a former communist and former Vice-Chair of the King County Democratic Party organization. A review by the federal loyalty board found, after its investigation, that there “is no doubt as to his loyalty.” Whatever the endorsement, he decided that his time in government service was over. He went to Harvard where he earned a masters degree in Public Administration and came back to Seattle to establish a law practice.

He put his considerable public energies elsewhere as President of The Mountaineers, the Seattle hiking and climbing club and he served on several boards, including the American Friends Service Committee. He also exercised an interest in Native American history and spoke about native issues throughout Puget Sound and volunteered at the Seattle Indian Center. He suffered a degenerative muscle disease and spent his last years in a wheelchair. He died in 1989.

Tom Tierney’s eight years at the housing authority were pretty special, just as his predecessor Harry Thomas. Two hundred acres of development concluded and a plan before the city council to remake Yesler Terrace. The Seattle Housing Authority now shelters 30,000 people in 31 low income projects across the city, 23 senior housing communities, the three mixed income communities, 20 specialized properties and 300 scattered site units in single and multi-family buildings.

Just about everybody in America lives in subsidized housing via tax deductions, investment tax credits, interest rates, direct subsidies to people who need them or through the energies of private non-profits. Ironically, the only people who don't have subsidies are those that don't have housing or live in places dangerous to them and their children and somehow forgotten by the system. So, this month, think of those events seventy years ago when busy and dedicated people opened a place on First Hill in Seattle that provided a home to people who didn't have one and for people who worked on the tools that ultimately kept us safe, all paid for by Americans who already had a home. Consider them, and pray for the rest.


  1. Bob, terrific history of how public housing came to be in Seattle! Always Exuding warmth and humanity, the Epsteins (Cecilia and Jesse) were legend in their time and close family friends. As a young (and starving)architect father worked as project architect for the Yesler Terrace project while it was under constrution.

    Let's not forget the horror of "Hooverville" south of Pioneer Square in the Duwamish flats as the precursor to Yesler Terrace. The depression era shanty's were mysteriously torched in 1941.From a HistoryLink essay:

    On April 10, 1941, Hooverville, the Depression-era shantytown built south of Seattle's Pioneer Square, burns down. As this town within a town became engulfed in flames, the smoke could be seen all over Seattle. After the fire, the Seattle Port Commission condemned all shacks and other abodes in the area.

    The shantytown started about 1931, at the beginning of the Great Depression, by out-of-work laborers. Several times the Port of Seattle and City of Seattle attempted to get rid of the shantytown, but it wasn’t until the fire, which occurred when the Great Depression was over, that they succeeded.

    Hooverville was bounded by S Charles Street and S Dearborn Street on the north, almost to S Connecticut Street (renamed Royal Brougham Way) on the south, Railroad Avenue S (renamed South Alaskan Way) on the east, and Elliott Bay on the west."

  2. A small matter, but I believe that Jesse Epstein's wife's name was Sylvia, not Cecilia. Mr. Steinbrueck may have been thinking of Cecilia Schultz, a Seattle theater impresario who was no doubt well acquainted with the Epsteins and moved in the same social circles.

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