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Lessons in Civic Activism: Greenwood Gardens

Greenwood GardensIn the 1970s, people had all kinds of ideas about what should go in at 38th and Othello -- a police station, a bible college, a Native American cultural center staffed with armed guards and encircled by an electrified fence  -- but what mattered most to those who lived in the surrounding South Seattle neighborhoods was what shouldn't be there: the Greenwood Gardens apartment complex.

Rising up from a sea of empty parking lots, the olive drab two, three, and four story buildings were arrayed over seven acres between the Holly Park housing project and what was then Empire Way. Squares of blue, gray, green or unpainted plywood had been fastened over all the windows, which had been systematically smashed out, dividing the facades into a peculiar geometric grid suggesting some purpose other than human habitation.

From the day it was built in 1970, Greenwood Gardens appeared with alarming regularity in the local paper's police blotter as the location of a lurid catalog of urban dysfunction: vandalism, prostitution, child neglect, drugs, robbery. Built to accommodate four times the density of living units as the adjacent Holly Park housing project, Greenwood Gardens seemed a crystallization of anxieties about a crowded, desperate, dangerous future for the Rainier Valley.

The project had been born in 1968 as a charitable initiative of the Central Area's First African Methodist Episcopal church, which had been at the forefront of black Seattle's fight against segregation. But before the permits for low-income housing were approved, the church backed out.

Sound Lakeview, a California firm which envisioned Greenwood Gardens as a middle class rather than low-income development, took over and, in August of 1969, secured a 4.6 million dollar federal loan. The shift in emphasis came at just the time when the desired middle income renters were fleeing the Rainier Valley in droves.

Developments in the late 1960s, such as the construction of Interstate 5 and South Center mall, served to isolate the Rainier Valley from the economic life of the Seattle metropolitan core. When Boeing laid off almost two thirds of its workforce in 1970 and 1971, the pain was especially sharp in the Rainier Valley, which had served as a dormitory for prospective and actual Boeing employees.

Between 1960 and 1970, southeast Seattle lost 11,962, or 20%, of its white residents. During the same period, in the the area where Greenwood Gardens would be built, more than 40% of the white population moved away. Vacant housing jumped from 5% to 17% over the course of the decade1 and by 1976, the apartment vacancy rate in the Rainier Valley was 20% - twice the rate of the rest of Seattle.2

Sound Lakeview, the developer, took advantage of Section 236 of the National Housing Code, which had been adopted by Congress in 1968 to stimulate construction by private developers of modestly-priced multi-family housing. The bargain was that, in exchange for a 40 year loan with an interest rate of 1%, rents would be limited to no more than 25% of a tenant's income. Also, 59 of Greenwood Gardens 294 units were to be eligible for direct rent subsidies for low income tenants who couldn't afford even the capped rental rate.

Greenwood Gardens opened in April of 1971 and over the next several months renters trickled in more slowly than anticipated, culminating in a peak occupancy rate of between 60 and 70 percent in July of 1972. By the end of 1972, of the roughly 100 families at the complex then, 59 of them lived in the low income subsidized units. Most of the full price apartments went vacant or had tenants who didn't regularly pay their rent. Having failed to build the middle class rental community it envisioned, Sound Lakeview defaulted on its loan.

In March of 1973, Greenwood Gardens came under new ownership. Instead of seeking to remedy the low occupancy problem by attracting new renters, the new owners abandoned successive buildings as vacancies increased and herded the remaining tenants into the buildings at one corner of the development. Three months later, city inspectors shut down two thirds of the units for fire code and safety violations. On July 13, 1973, the Seattle Times published a front page story about Greenwood Gardens under the headline "Housing Project Quickly Becomes a Slum."3

Despite having acquired Greenwood Gardens on very favorable terms, -- a reduction of the mortgage payments to interest only and tax deductions that would offset their investment in less than a year -- in August of 1973, after having failed to make a single mortgage payment, the new owners defaulted on their purchase agreement and the property came under the ownership of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the second time in less than a year.

Section 236 was created to encourage private developers to meet the demand for low income housing and reward prudent management of the projects. Instead, as was the case at Greenwood Gardens, many took the program as an opportunity for a guaranteed short term windfall. As a Seattle Department of Planning and Development memo put it, "ownership has no incentive to add cash in any sizable amount to physically improved Greenwood. From an investment point of view it would be throwing money down the drain, since they bought a shelter for taxes, not people."4

There was marked neighborhood opposition to Greenwood Gardens from the start, but the decisive moment came in 1975 when two Jesuit priests arrived in South Seattle and founded the South End Seattle Community Organization (SESCO). Under the leadership of SESCO, area churches, community councils, and residents joined together, gathering signatures for petitions, lobbying politicians, and picketing government offices.

With programs like Section 236, they argued, federal agencies, with the complicity of local officials, were segregating the poor in the Rainier Valley. At a public meeting in 1976, Rainier Valley resident Lynn Taylor rendered the verdict of the neighborhood activists: "They have been putting low income housing here for years, while areas such as Queen Anne Hill and Magnolia are almost totally free of low income housing... It is time that southeast Seattle stand up for itself. No more low income housing. Demolish Greenwood Gardens."5

HUD for its part was determined not to write off the $5 million already invested in the project. For the Seattle Housing Authority, the organization HUD tasked with managing the redevelopment of Greenwood Gardens, the highest priority was finding housing for the city's growing low income elderly population. Backed by a coalition of local businesses and nonprofits, the plan they settled on was to demolish the worst of the buildings and revamp the rest as low income senior housing.

On September 20th, 1977, after having exhausted the avenues of the official process and protest, SESCO filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against HUD and the SHA which sought to "enjoin the Seattle Housing Authority from permitting, or approving further design or architectural or construction or demolition work" at the site.6 But as the lawsuit worked its way through court, the SHA went about its plans, demolishing more than half the units in preparation for redeveloping what remained.

On June 21, 1978, the judge sided with SESCO, ruling that the SHA's Environmental Impact Statement had been conducted improperly, but contrary to their hopes, the court affirmed that the "SHA will continue to own and operate the facility to provide housing for low-income elderly persons."

And with that decision a decade of meetings, studies, petitions, marches, all bound up in the fate of Greenwood Gardens, drew to a close. With new vinyl siding, and a new name -- Holly Court -- starting in 1980, the three remaining buildings have housed low income disabled and elderly residents. With the redevelopment of the Holly Park housing project in the mid-1990s, new state-of-the-art senior housing was built on the remainder of Greenwood's footprint.

Though today the name Greenwood Gardens is largely forgotten, the fight that began forty years ago over what should occupy that spot on the map was decisive in forming the Rainier Valley's identity as a distinct place. It defined a fault line that has persisted in local politics between residents and outsiders, neighborhood activists and government and provided a vocabulary for struggles with residential density and crime that redounds to this day. 

-- John Hoole



1 U.S. Census of Population and Housing, 1960: Selected Population and Housing Characteristics: Seattle, WA. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1962.
U.S. Census of Population and Housing, 1970: Selected Population and Housing Characteristics Seattle-Everett, WA. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1972.

2 Letter/Report titled "Greenwood Gardens" to: Lee Pasquarella from: Al Levine (SHA) and Jennifer Silver (DCD) Subj: "Preliminary Report on the conversion of Greenwood gardens as the site for the Southeast Multi-Service Center and related activities dated 9/19/72

3 Ross Anderson, "Housing Project Quickly Becomes a Slum" Seattle Times, 7/13/73

4 Document titled "Greenwood Apartments" to Jim Braman, Mike Hansen, dated 8/20/73

5 Seattle Housing Authority, Greenwood Gardens Redevelopment Environmental Impact Statement, 1976

6 King County Superior Court civil appearance docket - Hans P. Petersen, et. al., vs. Luther J. Carr, Chairman, Seattle Housing Authority, et al., 9/20/77