This is a guest blog post from VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project (VAHPP) Community Organizer, Amy Tower ('16), of Tenants Union of Washington in Seattle, Washington.
I have spent my entire life in Seattle, growing up in the greenery and under-appreciating the mountain vistas that miraculously appear on clear days. I grew up riding the 48 bus from the University District into the Mount Baker neighborhood, traveling from my parents’ home in Wallingford to school in the Central District. The evergreen trees remain the same, but the neighborhoods have begun to change: an army of cranes stand over sites of demolished bungalows, ready to construct glass-walled condos alongside rows of rectangular townhomes. Demolition and construction of new market-rate complexes has begun in neighborhoods like Yesler Terrace, just up the hill from the center of downtown. The former site of the first racially integrated public housing development in the United States, constructed in 1941, is slated to become new and improved “mixed use” apartments with ground-level retail opportunities.
The construction of new homes throughout the city follows a shift in Seattle’s demographics. The recent surges in new employees of major corporations has displaced many of the residents who had been historically redlined into racial enclaves in the 20th century. In 1970, the population of the Central District, for example, was 73% black. In the 2010 census, that percentage declined to 23%. Wealthier, whiter people have been moving into the city center in waves of gentrification, similar to other major cities in the United States. Along with this gentrification, the rents have been rising at rates that the majority of non-millionaires cannot afford.
I didn’t understand much about the history of public housing in the United States until I came to the Tenants Union. I knew that in 2015, our mayor declared a “State of Emergency” in Seattle regarding the homelessness crisis, and I was beginning to better understand its connection to the overarching crisis of housing insecurity across the city. I have listened to tenants describe their experiences of abrupt economic displacement, and their inability to find affordable places to live within the city limits. More and more people are being pushed out of the city, further away from their jobs and communities. Many of the once-affordable housing options are being torn down along the new rapid transit line, as developers see an opportunity to profit - and as a result, residents who have lived in the area for decades are forced to move.
As an AmeriCorps VISTA Community Organizer at the Tenants Union of Washington, the housing crisis in Seattle is at the forefront of every day. It is not limited to Seattle alone: tenants are afraid of losing their homes across the state. In particular, residents who are interested in organizing and live in subsidized public housing fear retaliation and eviction from their landlords, as well as the resulting threat of homelessness. One of the biggest hurdles facing tenants is the real threat of ending up without shelter. This makes for a challenging environment for tenant organizing, though there are tenant leaders who have continued to work with their neighbors in their buildings for years. I have recently gathered a group of tenants who live in subsidized housing for seniors and disabled people, who are interested in bringing more visibility to the struggles they face. We are organizing with groups at the city and county levels who will be able to bring together more necessary resources like dispute resolution and mediation, support for formerly homeless tenants transitioning into permanent housing, and food insecurity for folks on a limited income. These tenants are coming together as elders facing common challenges in this stage of their lives, and working together to advocate for all seniors in subsidized housing.
The Tenants Union of Washington is approaching its 40-year anniversary this year. Our team has been strategizing about how to best equip tenants for the immediate crises they face, while also advocating for change on a systemic level. Housing is at the center of many intersecting issues: job opportunities, mental and physical health, and community support, as well as questions like, “Who belongs here?” and, “Why have our systems discriminated against some, and not others?” I have been honored to work with a team of passionate and dedicated people, full of heart and concern for their neighbors. We have all been thinking about how to work together with other organizations and justice movements to strengthen our empowerment models and advocacy opportunities, which will ultimately improve our community for everyone.
I am committed to what will be our collective, lifelong group effort in brainstorming how to face these challenges together. My work, particularly with seniors facing housing insecurity in project-based Section 8 buildings, has convinced me of the necessity of this work. I will be headed to law school in the fall of 2018 with a strong desire to continue learning about the ways in which I can effectively contribute, looking for academic and clinical opportunities in housing justice. It will take all of our diverse skills, talents, and insights to craft a system that will allow us all to flourish and live our best lives.