Photo by Ty Swenson
'A Conversation with DESC', put on by the Delridge Community Forum, brought around 100 residents to the Youngstown Cultural Center on Oct. 11 to discuss DESC's proposed supportive housing project for Seattle's chronically homeless population. Inset: A citizen's concern was written down on a table at the forum.

Forum on proposed homeless housing project in Delridge invokes continued concern

“How can our community grow from this conversation?” was the question asked by Tanya Baer of the Delridge Community Forum at the onset of the “world café” style town hall meeting to discuss the planned DESC supportive housing project for chronically homeless individuals. The meeting took place on Oct. 11 at the Youngstown Cultural Center in Delridge.

At the end of the night it was clear that many in the Delridge community have not come to peace with the project, with several questions and concerns still alive and unanswered. For some at the meeting, a “bad gut feeling” (as one resident put it) persists about the 75-unit, four-story complex planned for the 5400 block of Delridge Way S.W.

There was a shared sentiment amongst many in the room that Delridge is on the up-and-up, with hopes that one day it can thrive with strong local businesses and a safer community. There was a shared fear that the DESC project could set the community back in achieving that goal.

“You are harming one community in an attempt to help another,” one Delridge resident wrote on paper that covered the tables where people were encouraged to put their feelings down in writing.

Delridge citizens were invited (and packed the Youngstown auditorium) to listen to presentations from DESC representatives along with city and county officials involved in the funding and decision process for the supportive housing project that, if DESC secures funding and the OK from the city, could open in fall of 2013.

In a break from the traditional town hall style, the community was split into groups of five to a table along with an expert who could answer questions on the project – be it an employee of DESC or a city/county official. After the presentations the small groups brainstormed and came up with a collective question for the experts in the room.

The questions began.

“I want to say first of all that we really support the mission (of DESC) but we have concerns that I think are very real,” a woman said. “Considering the mission and the fact that their needs to be infrastructure for these people to be successful … for example we don’t have a grocery store in walking distance, we don’t have a lot of amenities for these folks to participate in the community. As a neighborhood I don’t think we’ve gotten a lot of the support that we’ve needed. For example there are some section 8 houses … just down the street from where this is proposed where there is all kinds of drug activity … considering a lot of these people are going to be at risk I guess we are really worried that these people will not be supported to be successful …”

DESC Director of Housing Programs Daniel Malone addressed the question.

“We have eight of these buildings now and none of them are in a neighborhood that has a walkable grocery store or some of the other kinds of amenities and there is active drug activity close to many of them. That isn’t to say we should be satisfied to be in a location where that is the norm.”

Malone went on to say that the programs have been successful in areas with similar challenges to Delridge, due in large part to the DESC staff’s commitment to improving the lives of chronically homeless. He also said economic and spatial realities come into play. The Delridge land is affordable (they plan to purchase three lots across the street from the library) and the space works for their building design, Malone said.

Southwest Precinct Capt. Steve Paulsen, with 27 years on the SPD force and experience with DESC housing communities in his career, addressed the issues of drug activity and DESC’s plans in Delridge.

“I can say after working with DESC they are very proactive on, “How do we integrate with our community and make this a win for everybody,” he said. “Now as far as the 5400 block of Delridge it is a very delicate area right now.

“We still have some open market drug dealing and one of the problems we are having … with this particular neighborhood is how to get more actively involved.”

“We know what’s going on but we’re not seeing the 911 calls,” he said. A handful of residents rejected that claim, saying they have called 911 many times and seen little change in drug activity.

The next question was, “How do we actually stop this from being built here?”

Rick Hooper, director of the Seattle Office of Housing, said DESC has applied for funding from his department – a decision he will make within the next month.

“To kind of rephrase the question, DESC has applied to the Office of Housing for funding and you can ask, ‘How do we send the message that (his office) should not fund the project because the neighborhood doesn’t want it?’”

“I think that would violate several local, state and federal (fair housing) laws. That’s why a consideration in our funding the project is not ‘Would the neighbors vote against it?’ per se; instead we are looking at other factors of the project. We are wanting to make sure it fits into the neighborhood well, we are wanting to make sure you have the opportunity to engage with the sponsor… essentially we have fair housing laws that we have to live and operate within.”

Diane Sugimura, director of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development spoke earlier in the night on this subject. In part, she said, “If it is a use that’s allowed in the zone and it meets the requirements, then it needs to be permitted.”

DESC’s building does meet the requirements for zoning, and Sugimura said even if the zoning changed DESC would be grandfathered in as they have requested to build under current regulations.

From the City of Seattle’s perspective, there seemingly isn’t anything that can be done to stop the project unless DESC is unable to secure funding from local, state and federal sources.

“Why did you choose a site on Delridge for a project like this?,” a woman asked. “A site that is served by one bus line with no connection to the rest of West Seattle, geographically we are alone – you can go to White Center and you can go to downtown and you can’t walk anywhere. We have no grocery stores, we have no health services, we don’t even have a bank.”

“We are essentially in a constant effort to find sites to build more supportive housing for the population we serve because the numbers of those in need are so great,” Malone responded. “When we look for sites we are looking for property that we can afford that is large enough and developable to do the type of building we want to do, and we want those sites to be in places that are decent to live.”

Steve Johnson, the director of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development was asked what his office has or can do to support “a fragile neighborhood that is trying to support itself economically and socially”, a question that strikes at the core of many people’s concern that low-income housing projects make it into Delridge, but establishments like a bank or grocery store never seem to show up.

“What a business will ask is ‘What are the behaviors going on around it (DESC’s housing)? … They say we are supporting our clients, we are making sure they are involved in the community, that they are behaving well and if there is some problem we’re going to intervene and make sure it’s resolved – you couldn’t ask for anymore and that’s my candid opinion on what this does to the economic potential.”

Johnson went on to say, “I don’t have any great news to share with you in terms of a walkable grocery store. Markets occur where there are confluences, people and paths and roads … when you look at the map of density, Delridge is the least dense strip of land in the whole West Seattle peninsula. You have development potential blocked by the greenbelt to the east and there is a largely single family neighborhood. I would probably give Councilmember (Nick) Licata a heart attack if I told him how much money I need to convince a grocery store to come in with these economics. There is nothing the public can do.”

“We will do anything to help any individual business owner to take root and grow and survive,” he said. “We have financing and technical assistance … for any business that wants to take root in Delridge. A strategy that creates a vibrant, walkable commercial district that took foot in Columbia City or is growing in Ballard or in other neighborhoods requires a lot of elements that just are not here and it is beyond our ability to push the market where it’s not going to go.”

As the question-and-answer phase of the meeting wrapped up it was clear the conversation will and needs to continue on the DESC project, and the Delridge Community Forum plans at least two more gatherings for that purpose.

“We are talking like this is going to happen and we want to know why this is going to happen,” a man said. “We are the people who live in this community so we should know what’s best for it instead of having people who don’t live here shoving it down our throats.”

“I don’t think this is a bad thing for the neighborhood,” a supporter of the project retorted. “What is bad about it? I want evidence; now don’t give me anecdote that mentally ill people reduce real estate rates. You might as well say that to our black brothers and sisters too. That was an excuse to keep them out of neighborhoods.”

An excellent resource for learning more about DESC’s supportive housing project can be found at the Delridge Community Forum website, including an expansive fact sheet.

For additional background from the Herald, please check out our earlier coverage, “Impending homeless housing project dominates North Delridge Council discussion.”

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