A new Yesler Terrace, Part 2: A housing project that works

As plans for a large-scale redevelopment of Yesler Terrace head to the City Council for approval this summer, neighborhood activist Kristen O’Donnell took CDN on a tour of the neighborhood to show us what some residents fear could go wrong and what unique aspects of the neighborhood could be lost. In part one, we looked at ways the plan could go wrong. In part two, we highlight some of the ways that the housing project works for its residents.

If you take a stroll through Yesler Terrace, the first thing you may notice are all the different languages you hear around you. Next, you may notice the walking paths that run in front of each home, snaking through the neighborhood and connecting the front porches and backyards of each row house in this unique housing project. Some yards are overgrown, while others have beautiful gardens. Others are filled with childrens’ toys.

Kristen O’Donnell looks at a particularly beautiful garden in the neighborhood

Though some of the buildings and playgrounds look a little dated and in need of love, Yesler Terrace is a neighborhood that can help individuals and families through hard times. The average stay in the neighborhood is only a few years.

“This is designed to be a good place for people to live,” said neighborhood advocate Kristen O’Donnell.

The waiting list to get into Yesler Terrace can be years long, especially for larger families. Once on site, though, the wait can be well worth it. Residents have access to services that are not always available when living in the private market with the aid of housing vouchers. There is also support for people who have limited English speaking abilities.

“Vouchers work better for people who have small families and speak English,” said O’Donnell. The monthly community council meetings in Yesler Terrace are conducted in five languages. If something is said in English, the speaker must give pauses every couple sentences so the interpreters can translate. If someone speaks in a language other than English, the question must be translated into English, then into the other four languages before a response can be given.

“It easily takes twice as long to go through the same amount of subject matter,” said O’Donnell, who is the facilitator of the leadership team of the council. “But it’s also very exciting.”

Under the Seattle Housing Authority’s plan for redevelopment, the number of low-income units available in Yesler Terrace should go up significantly. As the SHA sells land to private developers for the construction of high- and mid-rise residential, office and mixed use buildings, they will use that money to build mid-rise buildings to replace the current, aging housing stock in the neighborhood. Under the plan, the neighborhood would become a mixed-income neighborhood with more communal park space, neighborhood roads that connect to the street grid and a new retail core. The neighborhood could go from short buildings with individual lawns to a more urbanist vision with high density housing, a neighborhood retail core and strong transit access, including the First Hill Streetcar.

Some residents do not use their lawns, allowing them to become overgrown either out of lack of interest or because they are no longer able to take care of the space. But for others, the lawn space has become a business or a work of art.

One household we passed operates a day care service out of their home. The yard space here is heavily used by children, and is an important part of that business. The service also fills a clear need, as Yesler Terrace’s population is 39 percent children.


Another common use of the yard space in the neighborhood is row farming. Residents will use their back yards, the neighborhood p-patch or other neighborhood space to grow vegetables. Some will then load up a grocery cart or other vehicle and take the food down to the International District to sell at the market. Urban agriculture becomes a side business for residents, and it’s hard to imagine finding food for sale that is more local than Yesler Terrace vegetables.

Urban agriculture in the neighborhood also got a boost last year with the start of GroundUP Yesler, a project that is working to reclaim some space on the hill overlooking I-5 as gardening space for residents, particularly youth. The program was profiled on Green Acres Radio in late March:

A stone’s throw from the interstate, this grassy hillside with views of Puget Sound and Safeco Field, is being “reclaimed”. The two and half acres of land are on the south slope of Yesler Terrace Housing. The Seattle Housing Authority plans to redevelop the project with high rises and town homes. “So we won’t be able to keep it forever.” Still Floyd says he and others growing food here want to show the capacity of urban ag, a capacity driven by community need. “Yeah, we’re going to have a good case to present to the SHA to say we should do this again in the next development.”

The city council will have the chance to weigh-in on on the SHA’s plans for the neighborhood this summer. O’Donnell would prefer the SHA look into renovating the existing housing, but the SHA is not considering that option. Others, such as GroundUP Yesler are working to try to have their interests included in the new plans. O’Donnell said the plan is like “selling half the farm to keep the rest of it going,” but others point to the social, environmental and economic benefits of dense, mixed-income neighborhoods, especially in locations so close to all the jobs in the central business district.

In the meantime, the residents of Yesler Terrace continue to reinvent the spaces available to them, many of them creating businesses and utilizing the help available to work their way into a private housing market they previously could not afford. As plans for redevelopment move forward, there are lessons in the neighborhood today that need to be understood and preserved before they are buried under 26 stories of urban highrise.

0 thoughts on “A new Yesler Terrace, Part 2: A housing project that works

  1. How does a person low-income enough to live in Yesler Terrace operate a day care and still remain low-income enough to live in Yesler Terrace?

  2. This is a good question. I would imagine that SHA uses opportunities like this for qualifying residents for “back to work” programs. Especially new immigrants who are learning to start businesses here so that they can get off public assistance. I know that in my neighborhood near High Point, all of the daycares there are run by East African women and are substantially cheaper than larger centers or other more traditional daycares (English speaking). Yesler has also gone above and beyond to incorporate live/work units in the new designs to cater to these kinds of home businesses, presumably because in the long-run they create self-sufficiency.

  3. Why are we not hearing from a supporter or advocate of the expanded project? Who is this Kristen O’Donnell, and what credentials does she have other than being a “neighborhood advocate”? The points made in the article are valid, however, a good article (and editor) would write about both sides of the issue. How many people are currently waiting for the opportunity for subsidy housing? By volunteering in the community I have learned that many qualifying individuals are vocal about the lack of enough affordable housing and wait on long lists for a chance. So should we provide more housing, or less so that the units can have individual yards? It would be better, and more responsible, to provide information from each side, rather than a biased article with a lack of substance. I encourage you to do better, Tom. And I encourage readers to learn the pros and cons of each side.

  4. O’Donnell is the head of the resident group there, in my mind that qualifies her to say A LOT on behalf of the residents. Having attended many of her meetings I can also say that it is true that they simultaneously translate and a wide variety of people come. It is a very cool experience.

    Not sure if you understand that there is extremely limited public housing (and Section 8 portable vouchers) for offer in Seattle. This type of housing is for people who basically have no or very little income (elderly, disabled, single moms/dads with kids, new refugees with limited English skills). In fact, the Seattle voucher wait list has been closed for a long time, and King County just opened their wait list after several years of being closed. Even if you get on the list, it can be years before you actually get a voucher or a public housing unit. So I am not surprised that people at Yesler, with backyards and views of the City and sound, love where they live. It is so hard to get in there and the amenities are pretty amazing.

    Housing authorities cannot provide more of this type of housing (basically free) without the direct subsidy from the federal government to do so, and not sure if you have followed recently, but our reps aren’t looking for new ways to spend money these days. If anything this type of funding is being decreased or frozen, hence the closed lists. This is in part why you see a greater variety of housing proposed for the new Yesler. I think the idea is that some of the higher income (market) and affordable workforce housing for people between 50% and 80% AMI will subsidize operations of the lower cost housing for the very very poor. You can agree or disagree with this approach, but in the era of shrinking resources, I believe SHA is trying to find creative ways to create and save public housing for the very poor. The hard thing about this, of course, is that the new Yesler will not only be for these folks, it will be for all different types of poeple, rich and poor, and that marks a significant departure from the projects of yesteryear, in both good and hard ways.

  5. The link to “read more” in kgdlg’s comment directly above isn’t working for me – when I click on it I get the same truncated comment. Is there a fix for this?

  6. Yeah, this blog often does this to my comments and I don’t know why! I swear I didn’t use profanity in here or anything!

  7. Now it works!

    I’ve always assumed it was a length-of-comment issue, and clicking on it has always been successful for me, until this one. And now this one is successful too, whatever the reason.

  8. Yes, the system automatically truncates due to length. You may also see a missing letter or two once you click “read more.” It’s one of those little bugs in the system. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  9. Thank you, kgdig, for your comment. This is exactly the point that I was making, which you made much more eloquently. I think we all hate to see anyone, especially children, lose access to personal outdoor space, however we need to make more housing available. The lack of new Section 8 housing in Seattle is downright depressing, and far too many have been waiting too long, if they even were able to get on the voucher list.. If my understanding is correct, current Yesler residents will get priority over new residents (although they do have to deal with being displaced during construction). Change is difficult, but this project has the intention of bringing more housing to those in need, utilizing the land more efficiently, and doesn’t have to mean the loss of urban agriculture projects (think rooftop gardens) and outdoor space (although it won’t be private). Of course the current residents, whom Ms. O’Donnell speaks for, may be adverse to giving up what they have. However, it seems the new project serves more people and the greater good.

    Thank you, Tom, for clarifying that your article is not meant to take a position. I do believe it is easy to read it that way because of a few opinions you seem to place within. I think that including comments from someone that speaks for the potential of what this may bring to those currently awaiting housing would provide balance.

  10. When I was an infant and my dad got laid off from Boeing, my mom was pregnant with two small kids at home. My parents lost what little they had fast after that lay off, and ended up at Yesler Terrace for 11 months. I think of that when I drive past Yesler Terrace on the way to work each day. It’s nice that Yesler Terrace has a family-oriented feel to it that it really didn’t have when my parents were there and murders happened on the grounds. I would hate to see what is already a high crime area become a Seattle version of Cabrini Green. Are there any high-rise “projects” that have not become insta-ghettos? I’d like to know if they exist in the U.S., and if we’re going to follow a successful model, before we install one in Seattle.