Kevin, Kelvin and Georgia Hinton at their old apartment 
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Kevin, Kelvin and Georgia Hinton at their old apartment
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Hamsters buried in the backyard and other artifacts of Yesler Terrace

The movers have arrived at the Hinton household. They load up boxes onto dollies and wheel them out the door.

This apartment is full of memories for brothers Kevin and Kelvin Hinton. Kelvin, 12, points to the corner of their bedroom, where the Xbox used to be. “We played a lot of games. That’s when we bonded," he said.

In the other corner of the room is where they kept their pet hamsters, Kayla and Sam. They’re buried in the backyard now.

The Hintons have lived at Seattle’s Yesler Terrace for 11 years. They're moving to a newer building within the complex.

Yesler Terrace, built in 1941, was the first racially integrated housing project in the nation. Federal support for public housing has slowed to a trickle recently, but Yesler Terrace is undergoing a massive rebuild. Shiny new apartment buildings are replacing the old row houses. It’s one of many places where Seattle will rely on developers to help pay for affordable housing.

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Georgia Hinton said the old Yesler Terrace was not always a safe place for her kids to grow up. "Kids pick up anything, regardless if it’s a needle, blood," she said. "They’re just kids, they don’t understand like we do.”

Being on the ground floor was nice, because they had a yard. But the apartment they’ll move into today is several stories up. The building has a modern security system. For Hinton, that’s a relief.

“You know, you don’t have to worry or watch — ‘Ooh, is somebody knocking on my door, is somebody coming in through the window?’” said Hinton.

She will not mourn the destruction of these buildings after she leaves.

Neither will Kerry Coughlin of Seattle Housing authority.

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“What do you do when the community reaches its end of life?" Coughlin said. "The buildings are too old to be rehabilitated anymore. In the case of Yesler Terrace, the infrastructure – sewers were crumbling – we really had to do something with it.”

Coughlin says her agency didn’t have money to renovate these buildings. But they did have something other people wanted: land near downtown.

“By selling a little bit of the land to the developers, that gives us the money to build the buildings that we need to build,” she said.

The developers who bought the surplus land are building market rate apartments and a few subsidized middle income apartments.

This neighborhood used to be nearly all extremely low income, where a single mother with two kids typically earned less than $26,000. Now wealthier people will move here, too.

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Coughlin says that’s good, because it could bring jobs. “Several of the townhomes have been designed so that people can be childcare providers. So some of our residents do childcare. Which is of great benefit to the community. And also a great home business for them,” she said.

It would have been nice if Seattle Housing Authority had been able to dramatically expand the housing for extremely low income residents. The agency has a wait list of 3,500 people who hope to get vouchers to help them with rent in the private market. And they're the lucky ones: They got on the wait list by winning a lottery for which nearly 22,000 people applied. Clearly, there's demand for much more housing than Seattle Housing Authority will build at Yesler Terrace, a project that promises only to replace the extremely low income housing it demolished.

"How are you going to pay for it, though?" asked Coughlin. The federal government kicked in $30 million, but in today's market, that doesn't go as far as it used to. Seattle's housing levy helps the city (which does not run Seattle Housing Authority) soak up some of that demand. But demand keeps growing.

It's not just homes that come with the new Yesler Terrace. There will be storefronts occupied by nonprofits — one will tutor kids after school — a new park and more people to care about the neighborhood.

Coughlin says the partnership at Yesler Terrace between a public agency and private developers offers guidance for the rest of Seattle. Because without developer buy-in, nothing gets built.

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Back at Yesler Terrace, Kelvin Hinton stands in his new apartment and looks out the window. He has a fantastic view of the sports stadiums and Mount Rainier. But his eye is drawn to goats eating blackberry brambles on the ground far below.

“You can see the goats are back. And some are roughhousing," he said. "Those two right there that are butting heads.”

Butting heads. It reminds me that you can’t just wave a magic wand and turn a low income neighborhood into a cohesive mixed income community. People have to reach out across economic classes to make it work.

It’ll be instructive to watch how that works at Yesler Terrace when the money moves in.

Because the City of Seattle is trying something similar with its affordable housing plan. The idea is to lean on developers to create neighborhoods with a mix of incomes as new housing gets built. The hope is that people in different economic classes can work together to help each other.

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To achieve that would demonstrate something important at a time when people in other tech-driven cities are finding themselves increasingly segregated by economic class.

At Yesler Terrace, Georgia Hinton is optimistic. “I think it’s a good thing to have a change. So, it’s a start.”