Baker Heights residents left waiting to know community’s future

EVERETT — The outside of Andrey and Anna Kolosha’s home in the Everett Housing Authority’s Baker Heights project is much like that of their neighbors: low-slung World War II-era bungalows that still look like the military barracks they once were.

Inside, their home is a little two-bedroom slice of Konotop, the small city in eastern Ukraine they emigrated from in 1998.

Thick Oriental rugs cover the wall-to-wall carpet, an embroidered “Lord’s Prayer” in Ukrainian hangs on a walls. Andrey’s accordion rests on a nearby table, along with a faded black and white photograph that shows a much younger version of him playing in a folk ensemble back in Konotop. Pictures of their 11 children, 25 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren cover another wall.

The Koloshas, like the other residents of Baker Heights, have some trepidation about the future. Late last year, the Everett Housing Authority told the residents that it was intending to sell or demolish — or both — all 244 units in the project and issue federal Section 8 vouchers to the residents.

The only potential buyer was Washington State University, and it wasn’t ready to commit, said Ashley Lommers-Johnson, EHA executive director.

Anna Kolosha, speaking through an interpreter, said she and her husband have heard of a few nearby apartments that might be available, but haven’t visited them yet because they don’t know how they will go about getting those Section 8 vouchers.

They would prefer to relocate into the nearby Baker View building, a high-rise also owned by the city that was recently remodeled and converted to Section 8 housing.

“They don’t have any two- bedroom units available,” Andrey Kolosha said.

Other residents of this community, the largest of the city’s housing projects, are concerned about what the future will mean. Will the EHA build new housing on the site of the old? How will residents find new places to live? What will happen to the community of neighbors that has built up over the years?

“We’re a family, heart and soul, and to disperse us is to disperse a family,” said Michael Hill, who has lived in Baker Heights since 2006.

Many of the residents are elderly or disabled, Hill said, and need to live in ground-floor units or houses. Others have grown close to their neighbors and work the communal Friendship Garden together.

And there’s the added complication that vouchers for Section 8, the federal rental assistance program, are not universally accepted by landlords.

“Just because one has Section 8, it doesn’t mean you’re going to find a place. There’s no guarantee,” Hill said.

The planned changes for Baker Heights have been the subject of two public meetings so far, with more to come.

On Thursday night, Lommers-Johnson addressed a packed community room, going over the plans and options available, pausing after every other sentence for Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Nepalese or Spanish translation.

The crux of the problem is this, Lommers-Johnson explained: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development only allows public funds be used to renovate public housing if the cost to do so is less than 57 percent of the cost to replace the housing entirely.

For Baker Heights, the buildings are so old and in such poor condition, renovating them and bringing them up to code would cost more than 90 percent of the replacement costs.

The Housing Authority can spend money on minor repairs — leaky pipes, broken refrigerators, and so on — but it is prohibited from major renovations, such as new roofs or foundations.

“We’ve made a decision to get out of the public housing program,” Lommers-Johnson said. “The federal government isn’t investing in public housing, and instead is converting over to Section 8.”

The federal subsidy for renovations to public housing has been cut in half over the past 12 years, he added.

The money left won’t even cover 10 percent of the estimated $26 billion to $28 billion in needed repairs and renovations to public housing in the country.

There is also a strong incentive to convert Baker Heights tenants to Section 8: If the units are sold or demolished, every current household in Baker Heights will automatically qualify for vouchers.

The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, however. Making that conversion requires applying to HUD, and that can take up to 100 days for approval. The vouchers would only show up later, six months to three years from now.

The Section 8 vouchers are only guaranteed to current tenants of Baker Heights. Tenants must wait until the vouchers are in, or else they won’t receive guaranteed relocation assistance.

The waiting is a challenge, as is the uncertainty of where everyone will go. The EHA is considering applying for a federal $30 million grant that will allow both for new housing as well as other amenities for the immediate area around Baker Heights and Hawthorne Elementary School.

The grants are far from guaranteed, though, and even if the residents of Baker Heights are able to move to other housing authority properties in the city that accept Section 8 vouchers, there’s no assurance that some long-established communities won’t be broken up.

“We like our neighbors. We like to be able to go outside and see grass,” said Beverly Bowers, who has lived in Baker Heights for 16 years.

Bowers said she hopes wherever she lands will be similar to the six-plex with a small yard she lives at now, and not wind up in a tiny apartment.

Her friend Kathy Conway, a 22-year resident of the community, is hoping she’ll still have the EHA as her property manager, and not a private landlord who could raise the rents or stop accepting Section 8 vouchers.

For the Koloshas, their primary concern is waiting for the vouchers to come in.

Andrey is 88 and Anna is 76, and they were prepared to live in their home for the rest of their lives. Knowing they will have to move, they want to get it over with.

Anna Kolosha said they are concerned about losing their neighbors, many of whom are also from Ukraine, or moving away from the buses that take them to church. But they don’t like the uncertainty.

“We’re ready to move,” she said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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