EVERETT — The housing authority is considering a major project in one of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods: 1,500 dwellings on land once eyed by a university for expansion.
As the price of housing skyrockets across the region, the Everett Housing Authority views the move as a step toward building levels of affordability into the city’s neighborhoods. The future of the Baker Heights site, a former public housing development on roughly 15 acres, will greatly impact the distribution of affordable housing in Everett.
“We don’t have an equitable distribution of housing in this city,” said Ryan Weber, a resident of the city’s Delta neighborhood. “If you’re middle class, people can choose what school they want their kids to go to. They choose to not go here and so we get kind of trapped.”
Weber chairs the Delta Neighborhood Association. He works for a bank in residential home construction loans. However, Weber spends much of his free time trying to preserve his community’s green spaces, advocating for sidewalks and seeking answers about the future of the Baker Heights site.
The portion of the site that may hold up to 1,500 residences was previously reserved for a Washington State University Everett expansion. A deal between the housing authority and the university fell through earlier this year. On a much smaller portion of the Baker Heights site, the housing authority is building 105 dwellings for low-income housing, with 67 meant for homeless families in the Everett School District.
The Delta neighborhood is in north Everett, east of Broadway Avenue and bordering the Snohomish River. Historically, the neighborhood has held the vast majority of the city’s low-income housing.
The neighborhood’s only school, Hawthorne Elementary, is near a juvenile detention center. The most recent state data show all of the students there qualified for free meals last year.
Residents worry they won’t have the resources necessary for such a large influx of people, neighborhood association vice chair Alyssa Gray said.
“What we want is to be able to be a community that can actually surround and care for our neighbors,” Gray said.
In the housing authority’s view, however, a large influx of housing would benefit residents in the Delta neighborhood.
The agency is making a two-pronged move. It wants to increase the overall supply of housing in the neighborhood but decrease the area’s high concentration of housing for people with “very low incomes.”
When it comes to affordable housing, what qualifies as “very low income” depends on where someone lives. In Snohomish County, a family of four that earns $57,850 or less is considered “very low income” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For people who aren’t married and don’t have children, the amount that qualifies them as “very low income” drops. A barista that makes somewhere between the state’s minimum wage and $19 per hour, for example, also earns an annual income that HUD qualifies as “very low income.” (Assuming the barista doesn’t have children and isn’t married.)
The housing authority wants to create housing for residents who fall below the “very low income” limit throughout the city. Right now, the vast majority of this housing is concentrated in the Delta neighborhood.
With the Baker Heights redevelopment, the housing authority has a chance to not only house more people but also residents with a wider range of incomes, said the housing authority’s executive director, Ashley Lommers-Johnson.
Under state law, the housing authority can rent half of the units at the new Baker Heights at market rate. It can rent the other half to people with “low incomes” who earn less than 80% of the area median income, or something below what is considered “low income.” (In Snohomish County, a “low income” salary for a family of four is $90,500.)
However, it’s too soon to say what the exact income mix will be at the new Baker Heights. Assembling projects like these takes years, said the housing authority’s senior policy analyst, Janinna Attick. The housing authority is still developing a conceptual plan for the site.
While standing in a large field near Wiggums Hollow Park and across from the Baker Heights site, Weber and Gray pointed to parcel after parcel owned by the Everett Housing Authority. In recent years, residents learned the large field adjacent to Wiggums Hollow Park — which they’ve traditionally used as part of the park — is also owned by the housing authority.
Residents’ biggest concerns for the neighborhood, Weber said, are 10-story buildings at Baker Heights and losing the field near Wiggums Hollow Park. It’s difficult to overstate the park’s importance to residents. If residents lose such a large piece of it, Gray said, they are losing one of the few public spaces neighbors have to spend time together.
“If you take one of the most low-income, under-resourced neighborhoods in Everett — and you remove their community gathering spaces — you are removing the opportunities for community engagement, potential growth and rejuvenation,” Gray said. “This isn’t just an issue of removing a park.”
At this point, it’s unclear what the housing authority plans to do with the park. The agency thinks in terms of decades, Lommers-Johnson said, and is still developing its overall plan for the neighborhood.
The agency’s next step is a key decision.
It can develop a plan for the site according to the city’s current zoning regulations, allowing it to build up to 800 residences. Or it can pursue a process with the city that would, if successful, allow the agency to build up to 1,500 residences. The second option also opens the door for future commercial development in the area.
At minimum, Lommers-Johnson said, he envisions a grocery store and some kind of cafe or gathering space in the neighborhood. The equation: What building height and population density will residents accept in exchange for amenities?
Katie Hayes: email@example.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.
Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.