Monday, September 17, 2007

Slow Down and Reconsider on Capehart Housing

If you're still wondering how the city could decide to buy 66 units of housing for $11 million and tear them down for green space without housing or homeless activists knowing anything about it, you might look to the media. And the Mayor's office.

Prior to the Post-Intelligencer article that came out earlier this month on the day of the hearing, there has been exactly one article on the subject in the last two years. This was the two paragraphs in the Seattle Times' local news round up on July 13, 2007.

City seeks 24 acres in Discovery Park

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed buying 24 acres in Discovery Park from the Navy for $11 million. The Capehart property is in the middle of the 534-acre park, and the city wants to tear down the barracks and two buildings to create open space.

Military personnel would be moved closer to the naval base in Everett. Twenty-six officer homes would be preserved by the Navy with a development partner and eventually sold. The purchase, which requires City Council approval, would be paid for with state and county grants, as well as proceeds from selling surplus city property.

If you're anything like me, you might wonder how 66 units of family housing comes to be described as a "barracks." Here's how Merriam-Webster defines the word:
Main Entry: 1bar·rack
Pronunciation: 'ber-&k, -ik; 'ba-r&k, -rik
Function: noun
Etymology: French baraque hut, from Catalan barraca
1 : a building or set of buildings used especially for lodging soldiers in garrison
2 a : a structure resembling a shed or barn that provides temporary housing b : housing characterized by extreme plainness or dreary uniformity -- usually used in plural in all senses
This, then, is a strange word choice. One perhaps meant to deceive. As a guy who was once in the military, I know the difference between family housing and a barracks. A barracks is a big ugly building where fifty guys sleep in a big room on iron bed frames and keep all their stuff in lockers. Family housing is where everyone gets a tiny lawn and kids ride their bikes in the street. There's a big difference.

But the word choice didn't come from the Seattle Times. It came from the Mayor's press office. This from their their July 11th press release:
The Navy decided to sell the property and relocate its military personnel closer to their Everett base. Over the next several years, the barracks and two other buildings on the Capehart property will be removed and converted to park space, consistent with the 1986 Discovery Park Master Plan.
Perhaps if the Seattle Times had done more with the press release than simply edit it down to a few paragraphs and call it "news," they too would have discerned the difference.

So here's how it happened. The Mayors office works quietly for several years with Friends of Discovery Park and their allies in the Magnolia neighborhood, and, when the deal is about to be closed, it gets passed off to council for approval. A press release is issued describing this as "a great day for anyone who loves this park" and minimizing the loss of housing. There is a hearing in the dead doldrums of summer when no one is around, and the deal heads for swift completion in a few weeks before anyone has a chance to think it through, much less know what's going on.

If this is all so on the up and up, then what's the huge hurry?

Council members' replies to critics have been thin and evasive. These are:

It's been the plan since at least 1986.
Well, so what? We didn't have an affordable housing crisis in 1986. Plans can change.

The housing is past its useful life.
It's occupied. It's only 40 years old. People will continue to live there until 2009. Condemning this property as unfit for habitation seems premature.

You can't put homeless people in such an isolated area.
Well, people are living there now, and nobody is saying this housing should be for homeless people. Affordable housing is for people of moderate incomes who are finding it harder and harder to pay Seattle rents. These people have cars, or at least bikes. They'll be OK.

No one is being displaced.
Yes, the personnel there will be moved elsewhere before the houses are torn down. But affordable housing is lost in Seattle to market forces every day. To pretend that this has nothing to do with that is to be willfully ignorant.

Housing is inappropriate to the land. It should be a park.
I'd say its inappropriate to tear down usable housing when we have an affordability crisis and people literally on the streets. Solve that, and you can have your green space. Until then, the housing should be used so long as it's usable.

Happily, the Seattle Post Intelligencer editorial board agrees, and ran this on September 11, 2007.

Capehart Homes: Worth rethinking


While the details of the $11.1 million deal between Seattle and the Navy are being figured out, there's lots of talk about what should become of 66 homes now used as military housing.

The plan is to demolish them, adding more green space to Magnolia's Discovery Park, which thrills some while others want the housing to be used for veterans. Readers have also written in, wondering why, given King County's fight to save the affordable Lora Lake units in Burien, can't the homes in Magnolia be preserved and used as low-income housing? Great question.

While the Lora Lake units already were being used as low-income housing, the military housing in Magnolia was not. Replacement homes are currently being built in Marysville for those military families, so no one is being tragically displaced.

Also, there's the issue of access to the basics.

The units in Discovery Park are nice, although the nearest bus stop is maybe three-quarters of a mile away. True, Lora Lake is hardly centrally located, but it's far less isolated. The closest drug store we could find to the Capehart homes was about 2.5 miles away, in Magnolia Village. That said, the leasing office was still open for business, the homes themselves, while dated, appeared to be in nice shape. So why not consider keeping them, at least for a while, perhaps as housing for low-income seniors, for example, who are more likely to have goods delivered to them?

These homes seem like a resource we shouldn't squander.

It's a sad day for low-income people when it seems the Seattle P-I's editorial board is taking a tougher stand for affordable housing than are their own advocates. By the overwhelming silence on this, you'd think the housing was already gone.

It's not.

The Parks Committee will hear this again on Wednesday, September 19th, at 2 pm. Then, more than likely, it will head like a speeding freight train to the full council for approval on Monday, September 24, at 6 pm. We should be turning out at both meetings in force with one message: slow down, reconsider, use this resource while we can.



Revel said...

So it's "Barracks" to "Parkland", huh? What a guise. Developers are smacking their lips over that "improvement" while The Vets Museum (and memorial) couldn't even afford to lease a closed-down military building out at Sand Point. Deeply ironic. Way-to-go, Seattle.

Donna Pierce said...

You know, the PI editorial was pretty wimpy, but I'm encouraged that they even chose to address the issue.

Mike said...

We second what Donna said.

Going to meeting Wednesday, however possible. Thanks for the flier.

Rev. Sandy Brown said...

Thanks for the info on this, Tim. No need to beat up on fellow advocates, however. As you say, it caught us all by surprise. I'll be there Wedn, too.

Tim Harris said...

Well that's good to hear Sandy, because it was starting to get pretty lonely out here on this limb all by myself listening to all of that deafening silence from the rest of the advocacy community. I'll be interested to see who else is there with us.

Anitra said...

Although the Council voted to tear the housing down, the actual destruction won't be until March. There is still time to reverse this. How about a lawsuit?