By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
At 9 am last Thursday morning, city Office of Housing director Rick Hooper stood in front of TV cameras in North Seattle, next to Mayor McGinn, formally announcing the city’s $27 million investment in new low-income-housing development.
Ten hours later, he faced a tougher crowd on the other end of the city: Fifteen Delridge-area residents gathered in a living room, ready to hear his answers to pointed questions about the only West Seattle project on the newly unveiled funding list.
The city’s decision to put “up to $4.45 million” into Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC)’s 5444 Delridge project was old news to them, and many others who live near the proposed site. But far beyond the project’s estimated $14.5 million cost, many questions have emerged, and many people have voiced frustration while seeking answers.
Among them, Betsy Hoffmeister, who coordinated and hosted the gathering at her home. She invited Hooper in hopes more information might help defuse the tension that has built between project supporters and opponents over the 4 1/2 months since the DESC plan came to light.
Thursday night, after more than 3 1/2 hours, a possible path forward seemed to emerge. But its future seemed to rest as much with who was not in the room, as with who was.
“This has been a difficult conversation for our community,” Betsy said, opening the evening – which again, we want to be clear, was not sponsored by anything or anyone official. (Monday note: In response to a commenter question, Betsy explains her background/motivation here.)
Fifteen of those she had invited, including Delridge community leaders past and present, and area residents who had participated in discussions on the North Delridge e-mail list, showed up. As each took her/his turn at opening remarks/introductions around the room, there were supporters, opponents, people describing themselves as “on the fence,” people saying they were “leaning” one way or the other.
Most voiced a particular question or concern while taking a turn, but one of the recurring themes was: Why hasn’t DESC reached out more to the community while planning this project?
Before we jump into the meeting narrative, here’s how the situation has played out so far:
HOW THE COMMUNITY FOUND OUT: First word to the community came at the North Delridge Neighborhood Council‘s regular monthly meeting in mid-June. DESC leadership had contacted council leadership (among others) to inform them of the planned 75-apartment building on property they had “under contract” in the area. (Documents obtained by community members indicate that contract was signed at least two months earlier.) Information was shared with those on hand at the meeting, including word that DESC planned a community meeting later that month at Delridge Library. We reported on the NDNC meeting here, and contacted DESC for more details the next day, publishing this followup.
1ST AND ONLY DESC-ORGANIZED MEETING: On June 27, DESC executive director Bill Hobson faced an overflow crowd in the library’s relatively small meeting room (here’s our report). Some people who wanted to attend were turned away because there was no room.
COMMUNITY TOUR: A small group of community members toured two DESC projects elsewhere in the city on September 10th. The tour was announced on the North Delridge e-mail list, but did not completely fill up. We went along and wrote about it here; three participants’ reports are published on the Delridge Community Forum site.
COMMUNITY DISCUSSIONS: The DESC project has been discussed at meetings of the NDNC and the Delridge Neighborhoods District Council (which includes representatives of area organizations including NDNC) since then, but the only meeting devoted solely to the project since the June 27th meeting was an October 11th gathering arranged by community volunteers who obtained a city grant under the name Delridge Community Forum. Their intent was to convene a meeting to get more information about the project and get questions answered. Here’s our coverage; an estimated 150 people attended, as did DESC executives and Housing director Hooper.
Almost exactly one month later, there he was, in Betsy (and Jerry) Hoffmeister’s living room. (Note: We know their last names, but not those of everyone who was there, so we are identifying speakers by first names.)
Angela, who lives by the project site, said she would be “concerned about a project that size and density, no matter who the residents were.” She wasn’t the only one to express concern that the project was too big.
Her husband, Aaron, noted that many of the project documents obtained by community members and posted online seemed to be directly cut/pasted from DESC’s application for the Aurora project on which it is about to break ground. “I feel they have tricked the neighborhood.”
Pete was the first to identify himself as a supporter of the project: “The way we have addressed the homeless issue over the years has really not worked.”
Introductions continued. Miranda said she was on the fence.
Patrick, a leader of the Delridge Community Forum project, said he wanted a solution “where we as a community can have some say in what happens.” One of his concerns was shared by others – the space that this project will take, becomes space that will never become commercial development for which the neighborhood has longed. (It’s in what’s known as the “Brandon Node,” where a mini-business district has sprung up nearby, including Pho Aroma and Olympia Pizza, as well as automotive and appliance businesses.)
Tanya, who also had been working on Delridge Community Forum, spoke with almost a sense of anguish, echoing Betsy’s opening statement about how difficulty the contentious conversations have been, saying flat-out that they are “damaging the community.” Planning a community meeting, she added, had been stressful and unpleasant: “It’s a lot to ask of community volunteers, to manage this.”
And yet throughout the night, Hooper’s answers made it repeatedly clear, if the community doesn’t organize conversations, they don’t happen. Even though his first words, in the introductory around, were that the “kinds of projects that we fund … often cause a lot of questions for neighbors and community groups organized in the neighborhoods in which these are located.” And before long, the focus was not just on conversation, but also on negotiation.
That was first raised by Vonetta. In her view, the project seems inevitable and may even have benefits – “24-hour staffing, someone [on duty] who has the cops on speed dial” – so the community would do well to consider what it might negotiate for DESC to commit to, and would also be well-advised to talk to people in other areas where DESC facilities are located, “to find out what their issues are.”
Katie stressed the humanity of the 75 potential future Delridge residents: “To me, the main thing to keep in mind is, these are people … you don’t get to choose who moves in next door to you.”
From Parie, a historical perspective: She said she had worked on the Croft Place Townhomes project, which “faced significant neighborhood opposition” and ultimately made changes in response to community concerns. That, she said, left her “a passionate believer in the importance of process,” which in turn heightened her concerns about what has occurred so far in this one, with “DESC and public funders slow to answer questions, though the process is moving fast” and in her view implying “the only possible motive for opposition is fear … That’s no reason to shut down public discourse. The Delridge community is raising valid questions that deserve a thoughtful response.” She drew applause – the only round of the night – as she added, “Delridge is not an ungracious community. We’re the ones who welcomed the skatepark instead of worrying about ‘those types of people’.”
Michael said he had gotten involved in Delridge Community Forum in hopes of fighting the fear and lack of knowledge he perceived in discussions online and offline. Though he described himself as “leaning pro,” he told Hooper that “what the city expects applicants to do in terms of communicating with the neighborhood is clearly not working.” He mentioned the privately developed 180+-apartment 26th/Dakota Cooper at Youngstown project going in not far from his home, saying its developers were all but overcommunicating about their plan, with frequent updates and check-ins, a stark contrast to the relative lack of outreach from DESC.
Mat wondered about a “saturation point, in a community that has accepted a lot of (low-income housing) already – is there a point to say ‘whoa!’?”
If only the clock could be turned back, some suggested. Betsy observed, “If DESC had come to us from the start and said ‘we have a medically vulnerable group of senior citizens currently living in doorways and (under bridges); we don’t have a facility in West Seattle yet, we’re looking at Delridge, we’d like to talk to your community …”
“They didn’t ask (us) questions,” Aaron interjected.
Betsy: “That’s the point, if they had, we would have listened so differently.” If only, she suggested, all involved could “restart the conversation.”
After a break, Rick Hooper had the floor. (By means of background – he has been interim director of the Office of Housing only since last March, but, according to the announcement issued by the mayor at the time, has been with the city for 30 years. The mayor had proposed ending the Office of Housing’s status as a standalone department in next year’s budget, but, also on Thursday, hours before Hooper’s visit to Delridge, the City Council approved a budget item canceling the department’s proposed merger with the Office of Economic Development.)
“I’m not exactly sure where to start,” he admitted – then he began with background: “We’ve been funding these types of projects, not so much ‘Housing First’ like this project, but other types of projects for homeless and special needs (people), for about 30 years, and we have about 11,000 units that we have funded over those years, in our portfolio.” The city doesn’t just write a check and walk away, he emphasized: “We periodically inspect projects, call people to task if things aren’t being taken care of well.”
He elaborated on his earlier statement that projects like this are seldom welcomed with open arms: “Projects like this engender the most neighborhood interest and concerns … Our processes set up to deal with that (controversy) have been (honed) along the way. Each neighborhood is different, each process is different. … I think it’s our belief that these are not bad projects for any neighborhood. The housing we are trying to provide is designed to meet a particularly community need that is serious and getting worse.”
He echoed what you can read on DESC’s website under the “Housing First” philosophy explanation, that “this type of housing is a better way to get their mental illness under control, to get the back … into life. We don’t feel they are a negative (influence) in a neighborhood, or cause a problem in a neighborhood. … They are not bad projects for a neighborhood if well run. So far as we are concerned, they belong, and can go, just about anywhere in the city. … So we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about, or wondering about, neighborhood characteristics of where these projects are going to go, because we have found they are not negative influences on neighborhoods.”
He cited a few of the frequently listed concerns about the Delridge project, and dismissed them quickly: “There aren’t pharmacies or services nearby – so what? There’s only one bus line – well, how often do they go out and take the bus? Vans are available to take people to the grocery store, but there’s a meal program in the building, so how often do they need to go to the store? … I’m not going to spend much time on those questions; DESC should address them – ask them.”
And yet in the next breath, Hooper acknowledged that the October 11th Delridge Community Forum meeting with DESC and others “didn’t work very well,” saying even he “had some questions.” But overall, he explained he looks at the big picture – for next year, for example, they are expecting a dramatic reduction in funding for projects like this. “The safety net is falling apart; there are more folks on the street who need help.”
He addressed the siting policy and the waiver that was granted for DESC to have 75 units in the building, though the “census block” area had only room for 63 more units before maxing out at having 20 percent of its population in the very-low-income category. He said they track the number of units that are subsidized, not the number of people: “We’re concerned about buildings, we track those more than portable tenant vouchers.” And he reiterated what has been reported before, that the waiver was granted because the “census block” area had building permits granted for enough additional units that the 75 DESC units would before long still qualify under a 20 percent cap.
“You can have permits but not build,” Michael pointed out, citing the infamous “Hole” in The Triangle as a West Seattle example.
It seemed clear from Hooper’s answers, that’s just the threshold the city has chosen, not necessarily a magic number. They had to set a baseline somewhere, and they also had to chose criteria; he said they track subsidized housing because it’s something for which they “get numbers.”
For the community, Angela reminded him, it’s “not just the numbers.”
Betsy brought up an elephant-in-the-room type of question at that point: “Are we saying it would be better to bring in a building for middle-income people, is that what we are trying to say?”
Miranda: “That’s the conversation we need to have as a community.”
The same issues started circling around again: Limited service levels in the area – not just potentially affecting the residents of the proposed DESC development, but everyone who already lives there. Limited space for future development, if this one takes up three lots. And Hooper reiterated, “We don’t think any particular neighborhoods should be off-limits for these kinds of projects – we leave it up to (the organization) to choose a site.” In other words, for those who had asked “what other sites were looked at?” – that was a question for DESC, not for the city.
And there, the conversation veered toward the need to be speaking with DESC, directly. “I think there are opportunities to get together with DESC and negotiate and talk,” Hooper said. “I’ve talked with (DESC executive director) Bill Hobson regarding our expectations about notification … it’s important to engage with the community before applications come in for funding, during the review process pre-development, during preparations for construction, during construction, as it gets ready to open …”
Those in the room made it crystal-clear that the level of communication from DESC had not approached anything resembling those “expectations.”
But, they asked, regarding “negotiations” – who can help? Tanya noted that she was surprised to learn there were business organizations involved in the advisory group created by Hillman City when DESC was getting ready to build there.
“Different areas have different processes,” Hooper observed. “Decide the kinds of things you want to go in and negotiate with them about.”
Vonetta mentioned the “Good Neighbor Agreement” negotiated in connection with DESC’s Jackson Place “Crisis Solutions Center” facility, and the fact that a county councilmember (Larry Gossett) was involved with the process. “Maybe we could get (West Seattle’s County Councilmember) Joe McDermott involved.”
“What incentive does DESC have to listen to us?” asked Angela. “They are going to get what they want.”
Not necessarily so, said Hooper.
“Do we have any influence with them?” she asked.
“Yes, you do, and we can help facilitate that.”
So at this point, what was established was that “negotiating” with DESC regarding aspects of the project might be a course of action, and that the city Office of Housing could help make sure the agency is involved.
But – the question came next – who is speaking for the community? The North Delridge Neighborhood Council?
Patrick, the only member of its leadership present – though not speaking for them in an official capacity – at the Thursday night gathering, explained that council members/leaders are “split” on the project’s merits. (And it was mentioned more than once that NDNC has not taken an official position on the project.) He addressed Hooper: “You’re saying we have these roles in the process, but where? December (8th) is (already) the first Design Review meeting. … We’re treading water right now, we have no idea what to do.”
Once again, Hooper said DESC “needs to get engaged” in this discussion, and suggested that his conversations with Hobson led him to believe he would support a “community advisory committee” for the Delridge project. Asked what kind of negotiations they might pursue, he said, “It starts with, what kinds of things are you concerned about? Design Review might help to some degree … at this stage in time, you can consider a lot of changes.”
The community members pressed for more suggestions – and specifically, details of how the development process proceeds from here. Someone to create a list of, here’s what happens on this date, then this happens on this date, then this happens, and so on.
Before too much more talk of speaking with County Councilmember McDermott continued, there came a reminder that City Councilmembers should be contacted too.
However, Hooper noted, “If you’re going to talk to the Seattle City Council, one way or another, the road leads to me.” So far, he said, he already had received e-mail about this project from Councilmembers Tom Rasmussen and Tim Burgess.
How do we get started, and when? was the next question.
“This is the point (where) I turn it back to you folks – what do you think is appropriate in Delridge?” asked Hooper. “I can tell you what’s been happening (in other neighborhoods) – usually two to three big neighborhood meetings, and (that usually brings out) the people who are particularly interested in following through on some of the negotiations …”
“So there’s not anything we can do to keep this project from landing in our backyard?” asked Aaron.
Without saying the actual word “no,” Hooper’s answer seemed to be meant to imply it: “The project’s been funded; the county is making (its funding decision next week). It’s not fully funded yet – there are still other funding sources; the state has funded it … Tax-credit applications are due in mid-December, and the (State Housing Finance Commission) will make decisions in the middle of January. We hope the project proceeds.”
At least one person had a double-take at that statement. But the discussion rolled on. Some of it, onto the topic of – how could this group be empowered to negotiate on the committee’s behalf, when a group of project opponents could just as easily form and say it was representing the community?
Miranda suggested approaching opponents: “We need to talk to them.”
Even the issue of talking to DESC, however, wasn’t a sure thing. “I don’t understand why we have to go to DESC,” said Patrick. “The city is funding it.”
“DESC is the agency that is moving into your neighborhood,” repeated Hooper. “They are going to be maintaining this over time. That’s where you need the relationship.”
“But if we are giving them money – city, state, county – I don’t understand why they are not listening to us,” Patrick pressed. “They came to our community and said (in so many words), ‘You’re getting this’ … That’s not how to make friends. They basically came to our community with boxing gloves on. I want to work with them and make a solution.”
That was still not quite a consensus. Michael attempted to draw a comparison with any project a neighbor might seek to build, regardless of what their neighbors think. The difference, he was countered, is that “We’re not funding that! (with taxpayer dollars).”
The anger at the city seemed misplaced, Michael continued: “They’re not building it.”
Hooper interjected, “We’re funding it, and that’s why I’m here tonight.” He offered to call Hobson and invite him to a meeting with community members.
“Will you be there?” someone asked.
“I will come help get it launched,” Hooper promised, while saying that on an “ongoing basis” he would have to see if there were staff members to pick up the ball and run with it. At that point, as he had several times earlier, he stressed that the size of the commercial space in the building might be up for negotiation. (It is not formally specified in the online permit-application files, so far.)
What about reducing its size – 50 units instead of 75? he was asked, especially considering the Hillman City DESC building was reduced to 50 units from its original 80-unit proposal. Hooper said that would be a point to discuss with the agency.
The meeting then turned to informal conversation between the residents regarding how they might proceed. Hooper’s role in the discussion was clearly over, and, after he said again that “my office wants to remain involved … to do what we can to try to get this on course,” host Betsy gave her blessing for him to go. By then it was after 10:30 pm. Not having planned for a 4-hour meeting, we excused ourselves a few minutes later.
What happens next in terms of community conversation is up to the community; those who participated in this informal gathering, the volunteers on the Delridge Community Forum project, North Delridge Neighborhood Council, and anyone else interested. Dates of interest include:
*NDNC meets tomorrow night, 6:30 pm at Delridge Library, with “DESC update” near the top of the agenda, right after officer elections.
*The county’s Regional Joint Recommendations Committee is scheduled to decide on a half-million-dollar funding request for the Delridge project when it meets at 9:30 am this Thursday on Mercer Island (location and other details here), rescheduled from an earlier meeting after Delridge community members voiced their concerns and committee members tabled the item so they could investigate those concerns.
*The first of at least two Southwest Design Review Board meetings to review the project is set for December 8th, 6:30 pm, Youngstown Cultural Arts Center (4408 Delridge Way SW).
Websites of note:
—DESC’s webpage about the Delridge Supportive Housing project
—Delridge Community Forum’s site, with links to many documents its members have researched and procured through public-records requests
—“A Concerned Delridge Neighbor Questions the DESC Project” website, with more research and questions about the project
—WSB project-coverage archive (we have gone back and tagged each relevant story “DESC Delridge project” so that they can be found in one spot – you can also follow this category via RSS; scroll down the WSB sidebar to the list of “categories,” each of which has an RSS link after the category name)