Seattle Housing Authority -- Part 1

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 3/27/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10760

The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) was established in 1939 during the waning days of the Great Depression. It was inspired by New Deal legislation and brought to life largely through the tireless efforts of Jesse Epstein (1910-1989), a young Seattle attorney who believed that providing its citizens safe, clean, and affordable housing was, or should be, the responsibility of an enlightened society. America entered World War II shortly before the authority's first project, Yesler Terrace, was completed, and for the duration of the war and beyond, SHA's main task was to build and manage housing for defense workers, military families, and veterans. In the early 1950s, public and Congressional sentiment turned against subsidized housing, bringing on long years of consolidation and retrenchment. Four SHA projects built for defense-industry workers and military families were converted to low-income housing, but no new construction would be possible for more than a decade. Part 1 of this two-part essay follows the work of the agency from its earliest days through the 1950s.

The Housing Act of 1937

Until the Great Depression, inadequate housing and most other problems afflicting the poor were rarely the subject of federal lawmaking. Such things were considered a local responsibility, but cities, towns, and even states often had neither the will nor the money to accomplish a great deal, relying instead on well-intentioned but inadequate private charities. A stubborn barrier to federal action was conservative opposition to anything that smacked of interference with private enterprise, and even the rigors of the Depression did not fully narrow the philosophical divide.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) and his advisers desperately wanted to bring federal power to bear against the country's social ills, but were forced to proceed with political caution. Several New Deal proposals from the mid-1930s had faced stiff opposition in Congress and the courts. The federal government's first major effort in the housing field, the National Housing Act of 1934 that established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), primarily eased the credit market by pledging federal funds to guarantee loans used to purchase single-family homes. It was helpful to many working-class families, but did virtually nothing to address the housing needs of the poor.

This changed with passage of the Housing Act of 1937 (also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act), which inaugurated the first direct federal public-housing assistance to local governments. To gain political support, including the co-sponsorship of conservative Alabama Representative Henry Steagall (1873-1943), the act paid lip service to "the reduction of unemployment and the stimulation of business activity" (Housing Act of 1937). Its primary goal and intended effect, however, was to get the federal government deeply involved in providing public housing for low-income Americans. The law established in the Interior Department a United States Housing Authority, which was subsequently funded with $500 million. Cities committed to building public housing were eligible for low-interest loans equal to 90 percent of project costs, with up to 60 years allowed for repayment.

The Right Man at the Right Time

A young Seattle attorney, Jesse Epstein, was paying close attention when Congress passed the Housing Act of 1937. Born in Russia and raised in Great Falls, Montana, Epstein moved to Seattle in 1927 to attend the University of Washington, where he earned a degree in political science and graduated from law school in 1935. He went to work that year for the university's Bureau of Governmental Research, affiliated with the Association of Washington Cities. One of his assignments was to keep track of federal programs that could be of benefit to local governments across the state, and he was quick to see the potential of the 1937 Housing Act. Epstein soon won the crucial support of Seattle's acting mayor, James Scavotto (1910-1990), who was filling in for an ailing Mayor John Dore (1881-1938). A tougher sell was the next mayor, a wary conservative, Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966). But Epstein persuaded him that building low-income housing was not only a valid goal in itself, but would also boost employment, stimulate the local economy, and clear blighted areas of the city. The city council followed up with an ordinance that created a Local Advisory Housing Commission, with Epstein as chairman and $25,000 to work with.

The federal law required the involvement of a "local public-housing agency," something Seattle did not have and could not establish without authorization from the state legislature. To set the stage, on April 20, 1938, the city council unanimously adopted a resolution declaring its intent to create a Seattle Housing Authority once the state legislature granted the necessary powers, and expressing the hope that the federal government would earmark money for Seattle in the meantime.

Epstein turned his attention to Olympia, helped draft the necessary legislation, then lobbied to get it passed. Opposition came mostly on philosophical grounds, fueled by a belief in some quarters that direct government involvement in housing (and in many other New Deal activities) was evidence of creeping socialism. Epstein spoke around the state, persuading many doubters that having government finance the building of low-income housing would not endanger free enterprise, but would in fact create new and lucrative opportunities for the private sector.

The legislature met only every second year at that time, and Epstein and his allies had to wait until 1939 for passage of the state Housing Authorities Law and Housing Cooperation Law. Together, these two statutes authorized the creation of local housing authorities and granted municipalities the powers necessary to help them along. Both acts were signed by Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) on February 24, 1939, and just three weeks later, on March 13, the Seattle City Council created the Seattle Housing Authority. One week after that, Mayor Langlie appointed an unpaid board of commissioners to direct the new agency. They were: George W. Coplen, a builder and developer; Charles W. Doyle (1874-1958), secretary of the Seattle Central Labor Council; Metta Henderson (1892-1976), from the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs; Kenneth J. Morford (1897-1961), a mortgage broker; and, as chairman, Epstein.

Within a month, the authority had completed an application for funds under the Wagner-Steagall Act to be used to raze a neighborhood of dilapidated buildings near downtown Seattle and replace them with housing for low-income families. When a $3 million loan was announced two months later, Epstein stepped down as chairman of the SHA board and was appointed the agency's executive director. The Seattle Housing Authority was about to get off to a rather stellar start, and it doesn’t trivialize the countless contributions of many others to say that it was largely Epstein's doing.

Yesler Terrace

For its first project, the Seattle Housing Authority selected a 24-block area totaling 43.5 acres just east of downtown on what was then called Yesler Hill, at the southern end of First Hill. It was home to about 1,000 people living in 471 separate dwelling units, of which only 22 were owner-occupied. The area had been nicknamed Profanity Hill for the curses of those forced to climb the steep slope to reach the original King County Court House at 8th Avenue and Terrace. By the 1930s the neighborhood was far past its prime; the courthouse was gone, the few remaining fine old Victorian homes were chopped up into boarding houses, and most of the later-built duplexes and row houses were left unmaintained and unimproved by absentee landlords. By 1940, most residents were low-income, the exception being a relatively prosperous community of Japanese, many of whom operated businesses in the neighborhood. The future site of Yesler Terrace may have been one of Seattle's most dilapidated areas, but it was by no means alone. A 1940 city-wide housing survey, financed with a grant from the federal Works Progress Administration, found that nearly 30 percent of all houses and apartments in the city were sub-standard.

There was much to recommend the Yesler site besides the opportunity to clear an area that was considered a civic embarrassment. It was close to King County's public hospital and several schools, within easy walking distance of downtown, and blessed with magnificent views that it was hoped would help give new and returning residents "pride of place" (Sale, 165). The downside was that 1,000 or so people would have to relocate, some temporarily, most permanently. As the city began buying up the properties to be razed, Irene Burns Miller (1902-1983), the project's tenant-relocations supervisor, started knocking on doors. She later recalled:

"Relocation of tenants ... on 'Profanity Hill' ... was particularly interesting because of the colorful conglomeration of various nationalities, mixed marriages, and houses of prostitution. The 1,021 persons living on the site ... were made up of 161 white families, 66 Negro families, five Chinese, 127 Japanese ... and single persons including 20 Filipinos and a smattering of Indians, Greeks, and Eskimos" (Miller typescript, 1).

Existing low-income residents were given priority in the new development, but only households headed by U.S. citizens and able to meet strict financial-need requirements (no more than $1,200 annual income) were eligible to return. And Yesler Terrace was specifically for families; unmarried men and women would be excluded. By the end of September 1940 almost all who had to move out had done so. In the meantime, Jesse Epstein had made two decisions that would set Yesler Terrace apart from most other low-income housing developments then going up across the country. One was based on justice, the other on aesthetics. First, he insisted that Yesler Terrace be integrated and that eligibility standards be applied without regard to race. To avoid debate and controversy, the issue was never formally proposed to or approved by the housing-authority board, although both the board and Mayor Langlie supported the decision, as would future mayors. Many sources claim that Yesler Terrace was the first integrated public-housing development in America. While documentary support for this is lacking, it is a fact that many other such projects around the nation were strictly segregated. The federal government was silent on the issue at the time, neither requiring nor forbidding integration.

Epstein's other decision was to reject the U.S. Housing Authority's sample plans, which were intended to expedite the design process and limit construction costs but suffered from a bland sameness. He instead retained a hand-picked team of five local architects -- William Aitken (1889-1971), William J. Bain (1896-1985), John T. Jacobsen (1903-1998), J. Lister Holmes (1891-1986), and George W. Stoddard (1896-1967) -- to plan the project and the dwellings within it. Some details of their first designs brought bids higher than the federal government would allow. The plans were tweaked, new bids solicited, and on February 28, 1941, the SHA signed a contract with the J. C. Boespflug Construction Company of Montana to build a total of 690 dwelling units at a price of $2,176,000. Construction began in April 1941 and was completed in little more than a year. Victor Steinbrueck, noted Seattle architect and preservationist, later described what the tenants found when they moved in:

"Each family unit has its own private sitting-out area and yard and is afforded a view by the terrace site planning and flat shed roofs. The design and color of the well-arranged buildings ... make this good contemporary architecture. Only in such a public project has it been possible to provide play areas and community social and recreational facilities giving a most complete environment" (Seattle Cityscape, 159).

But the families who moved into this new housing included few of those who had earlier had been forced to leave the neighborhood. Some, particularly among the Japanese, were not sufficiently poor to qualify, and the wartime internment that began in Seattle in April 1942 ensured that no one of Japanese descent would be among the first residents of Yesler Terrace. Others were disqualified for other reasons, or did not apply, and of the families of all races that were moved out, only 25 returned.

War ...

By 1940, with Europe and Asia wracked by war and the threat to America growing, the United States had become, in President Roosevelt's words, "the arsenal of democracy" ("Fireside Chat"). U.S. industries were producing vast amounts of military arms and equipment, both to supply Great Britain and others fighting the Axis powers and to build up America's own depleted inventories. In June 1940 Congress amended the Housing Act of 1937 to divert money allocated for low-income housing, but not yet spent, to build accommodations for tens of thousands of defense workers and military families. Three months later, President Roosevelt approved construction of 150 dwelling units for military families in Seattle near the Sand Point Naval Air Station on Lake Washington, using surplus low-income housing funds. The Seattle Housing Authority managed the construction, which was completed in April 1941. The development was located near middle-class residential neighborhoods, and the city council, worried that the housing might be converted to low-income use after the war, stipulated that needed municipal services would be provided only as long as the development was used for national defense.

The shift in focus from the New Deal's aspirations of social progress to the necessities of war was further emphasized in October 1940 when Congress passed the Lanham Act, which completed the redirection of money for low-income housing to housing for defense. The program was funded initially with $150 million, with local authorities often relied upon to build and manage the projects. Seattle was a major center for defense industries -- Boeing, Issacson Steel, and Todd Shipyards, to mention just three -- and the city was laboring under a severe housing shortage. Just one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, The Seattle Times (which consistently opposed expenditures for low-income housing) described the need:

"Auto and trailer camps, jammed to overflowing and with their 'no vacancy' signs out; newcomers actually sleeping in automobile garages, not knowing where to look for better shelter; dark, windowless attics of old houses, crammed with ten or twenty defense workers' cots, or as many as they will hold" ("City Housing Shortage ... ").

Steps were already well underway to relieve the crisis. On July 4, 1941, Epstein announced that the Seattle Housing Authority had been selected to build and manage a $1,750,000 housing development for defense workers on city-owned land at the north end of Rainier Valley. He appointed Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971) and architect/engineer A. M. Young (1884-1954) to design the project, called Rainier Vista. There were to be 500 housing units spread among 231 one-story buildings on 90 acres. Construction began in September 1941 and was completed in less than a year.

About a mile and a half south, on the eastern slope of Beacon Hill, a second defense-housing development, considerably larger, was soon underway. This project, Holly Park, opened 300 housing units in September 1942, and when completed nearly a year later covered 108 acres with 339 one- and two-story duplexes and four-plexes accommodating 900 living units.

For these projects the housing planners adopted the "garden city" concept, pioneered in Great Britain decades earlier to alleviate the stultifying bleakness of housing built for workers drawn to cities by the Industrial Revolution. Rainier Vista and Holly Park had curving streets, cul-de-sacs, and housing units grouped in clusters separated by large, open areas. Even the names were evocative of a sylvan suburbia. The layout seemed a refreshing break from the grid-lined geometric sameness of most city neighborhoods, and it looked good on paper. It even looked good on the ground at first, but in later years would contribute to a number of negative and unexpected sociological consequences.

By the time the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the SHA was building housing at a furious pace. In addition to Rainier Vista and Holly Park, in January 1942 a 178-unit expansion of Yesler Terrace was funded. In West Seattle, the authority was busy building High Point, another huge housing project for war workers, planned for 950 units, the largest SHA development yet. The paint was not yet dry when an adjacent 37 acres was condemned for an additional 350 units. Additions were being made to other developments as well, and by the end of 1942 the Seattle Housing Authority had completed or was nearing completion of 3,768 housing units (all but the original 690 in Yesler Terrace reserved for defense-industry workers and military families):

Yesler Terrace, 868 units (690 low-income, 178 defense-worker housing)
Holly Park, 900 units
High Point, 700 units
High Point Addition, 250 units
High Point Extension, 350 units
Rainier Vista, 500 units
Sand Point, 200 units

It was not nearly enough. In 1943, 9,573 families applied for SHA housing, up 23 percent from the previous year. The housing authority responded as best it could, building temporary accommodations that included 700 units at the Duwamish Bend Development, a 122-unit expansion at Rainier Vista, a 100-unit addition at Holly Park; a new 40-unit development on Minor Avenue; 450 units at Delridge (in West Seattle); and 416 units in a project called Stadium Homes near Sick's Stadium. By the end of the war in 1945, the Seattle Housing Authority was managing more than 8,400 units of housing, most of them meant to be temporary.

... and Peace

In January 1945, with peace in sight, the federal government restricted new applications for housing built with Lanham Act funds to veterans and active-duty military personnel. The waiting list for SHA-managed projects grew to more than 3,000 by March, and an expected exodus of defense workers at war's end did not materialize -- many had decided to make Seattle their permanent home.

Jesse Epstein, who started it all, did move on. He went to work for the U. S. Housing Authority in 1945, and two years later was named director of the West Coast Region, comprising nine states and two territories. In 1948 Epstein was caught up in the Red-hunting fervor of the time, accused of having once attended a Communist Party meeting. He was cleared, but soon left government service, accepted a fellowship at Harvard University, and later returned to Seattle to practice law.

Epstein had told his staff in 1940, "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" ("The Radical Roots ... "). He was about three decades ahead of most of society, but he was dead right on the principle, and non-discrimination was a guiding tenet of the SHA from the beginning. In part because Epstein did not think the question should even be open to public debate, his dedication to racial equality went largely unpublicized and mostly unlauded for many years.

Epstein was replaced at the Seattle Housing Authority by his assistant director, Charles W. Ross (1903-1982), who would serve for the next 23 years and guide the organization through some of its most difficult years and its renaissance in the 1960s. Ross was soon confronted with a crisis caused by the return of servicemen mustering out after the war. In November 1946, approximately 38,000 veterans were living in Seattle, many in ratty rooming houses, trailers, and makeshift accommodations. The housing authority continued to utilize supposedly temporary war housing, even moving some structures to Seattle from Port Orchard. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill) began gaining traction, and its home-loan guarantees for veterans brought some additional relief.

War had thrown things considerably off course. The Seattle Housing Authority, created to provide housing for low-income residents, had been transformed into an agency that served primarily veterans, military families, and defense workers, most of whom were solidly middle-class. Of the thousands of housing units in place in the late 1940s, only the original 690 at Yesler Terrace were reserved for low-income families. This is not what anyone would have predicted in 1938, and getting back to the original mission would take time and effort. And there was another festering problem. Epstein's integration mandate seemed impossible to achieve on the ground. By 1949, more than 90 percent of those living in High Point, the largest SHA development, were white. Yesler Terrace was the most diverse; 14 percent of its residents were African American and 6 percent classified as "other." But most minorities had ended up living in the war housing that was intended to be temporary and built that way, including Delridge (40 percent black) and Stadium Homes (30 percent).

Backlash

A new federal Housing Act passed in 1949 authorized substantial loans for slum clearance and low-income housing and facilitated the transfer of wartime housing to local authorities. But the political winds were beginning to blow in the other direction. In September 1949, the SHA proposed construction of more than 1,200 units of low-income housing, to be clustered in small groups at scattered sites throughout the city. It also recommended that the 1,400 units in Rainier Vista and Holly Park revert to city ownership, together with High Point, the latter of which would be sold on the open market. When the city council approved the new construction a year later, opponents gathered enough signatures to put the question to a vote of the people. This was part of a national campaign, spearheaded by the National Association of Home Builders and supported by the Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations, to roll back public housing.

The tone of the campaign can be seen in the opposing sides' advertising in The Seattle Times on consecutive days in March 1950, just before the election day. Opponents of public housing asked, "Can you afford to pay somebody else's rent?" (March 12, p. 26). Supporters pleaded, "Seattle needs decent low-rent housing. Children deserve a better break" (March 13, p. 12). Opponents again raised the specter of socialism, this time with greater success. In the March 14, 1950, election the measure to build new housing was trounced, losing by a margin of 57,732 to 33,529. It was a bitter defeat, and Seattle would build no new low-income housing for more than a decade.

In 1953, the Seattle Housing Authority took over ownership of most of the federal housing properties in the city, including Rainier Vista, Holly Park, and High Point, paying nothing in return. New income limits were imposed, and low-income tenants began displacing the many middle-class families that had been housed during and after World War II. The 1949 Housing Act also authorized money for renovation and remodeling, and this did not require voter approval. A number of two-bedroom units were combined to accommodate larger families, and most of the temporary housing was demolished or sold off. By the end of 1953, the number of SHA-managed units had decreased dramatically, from more than 8,400 to less than 3,600, and would drop further with the sale of the Sand Point housing development to the University of Washington in 1956. That same year, in a move that seemed Dickensian, the federal government ordered that local housing authorities could no longer provide staff to provide recreational and social services for tenants, something SHA had been doing since the early 1940s.

All in all, the 1950s were years of consolidation and retrenchment for the Seattle Housing Authority, which had to scramble to cope with decreased funding and increased restrictions on its permissible activities. To get around the ban on providing staff for recreational and social services, it turned to private agencies, providing space (which was permitted) in return for services to such organizations as Neighborhood House, the Atlantic Street Center, and Seattle Day Nursery. SHA had been doing its best for more than 20 years despite having been diverted by the exigencies of war and hampered by the vagaries of public opinion and legislative whim. As the 1960s approached, great societal changes were just over the horizon, though as yet largely unseen. Soon the Seattle Housing Authority would be faced with new challenges, and new opportunities.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature" below.  


Sources:

"FDR and Housing Legislation," Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum website accessed March 10, 2014 (http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/aboutfdr/housing.html); Dominic Black, "The Radical Roots of Yesler Terrace," KUOW website accessed March 9, 2014 (http://kuow.org/post/radical-roots-yesler-terrace); Dominic Black, "From Profanity Hill to Yesler Terrace," KUOW website accessed March 9, 2014 (http://kuow.org/post/profanity-hill-yesler-terrace); "Report on Designation, Yesler Terrace Steam Plant," City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website accessed March 10, 2014 (www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/documents/desrptyeslersteam_002.pdf); "Housing Authorities Law," 1939 Wash. Laws, Ch. 23; "Housing Cooperation Law," 1939 Wash. Laws, Ch. 24; United States v. Certain Lands in Louisville, Jefferson County, Ky., 78 F.2d 684 (6th Cir. 1935); "Landmark Nomination, Yesler Terrace" (June 24, 2010), City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website accessed March 12, 2014 (https://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/documents/LPBCurrentNom_Yesler_ Terrace_Text.pdf); Irene Burns Miller, "Relocation of Tenants on the Site of the Yesler Terrace," typescript dated January 13, 1941, copy available at KUOW website accessed March 9, 2014 (http://kuow.org/post/profanity-hill-yesler-terrace); "Yesler Terrace Redevelopment Final Environmental Impact Statement," Seattle Housing Authority website accessed March 12, 2014 (http://www.seattlehousing.org/redevelopment/pdf/YT_FEIS.pdf); Quintard Taylor, "The Great Migration -- The Afro-American Communities of Seattle and Portland During the 1940s," Arizona and the West, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 109-126; Roger Sale, Seattle, Past to Present (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976), 163-167; Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle Cityscape (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962), 159; "Fireside Chat: December 29, 1940," University of California at Santa Barbara American Presidency Project website accessed March 14, 2014 (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15917); John Hoole, "Public Housing in Southeast Seattle, 1940-Present" (Seattle: Department of Neighborhoods, Historic Preservation Program, 2011), available at http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/southeastseattle/pdf/SE%20Essay%20-%20Public%20Housing.pdf; Fourth Annual Report, 1943 (Seattle: Seattle Housing Authority, 1944), 2-3; "Public Housing Projects under Management of Seattle Housing Authority," September 30, 1949, typescript in "SHA History and Source Book," Seattle Housing Authority archives, Seattle, Washington; 115,000 Senior Citizens: The Story of What Public Housing Has Done and Is Doing for Them (Washington, D.C.: United States Public Housing Administration, 1961), 24-25; Housing Act of 1937, 50 Stat. 888 (1937); Housing Act of 1949, 63 Stat. 413; "City Council Indorses Housing Authority," The Seattle Times, April 20, 1938, p. 24; "Council Act, to Protect City, May Kill Sand Point Housing," Ibid., September 10, 1940, p. 2; Richard L. Williams, "City Housing Shortage Rapidly Nearing Crisis," Ibid., November 30, 1941, p. 1; "U.S. Takes Over West Side Land," Ibid., March 20, 1942, p. 32: Anti-Referendum 3 advertisement, Ibid., March 12, 1950, p. 26; Pro-Referendum 3 advertisement, Ibid., March 13, 1950, p. 12; Ross Cunningham, "Conservatives Call Defeat of Public Housing 'Turn of Tide,'" Ibid., March 15, 1950, p. 1; Joanne Plank, "Jesse Epstein's Campaigns Made Yesler Terrace Project Possible," Ibid., June 22, 1989, p. E-7; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Neighborhoods: First Hill -- Thumbnail History" (by Paul Dorpat).
Note: This essay was modified on September 28, 2014, to include the steps taken in 1938 by Seattle's acting mayor, Jame Scavotto.

 

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