Pastors and advocates hold up New Hope Missionary Baptist Church and the land taken from it as a startling example of the barriers Black communities have faced throughout decades of systemic racism.
Starting in the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, created what’s known as the Model Cities Program. The aim of the program was to clear out “blighted” areas in inner cities by creating opportunities for urban development. Under that program, which targeted the Central District locally, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church was forced to sell land now part of Spruce Street Mini Park to Seattle for $34,000. That land, which New Hope owned until 1970, is now worth $2 million, according to the Low Income Housing Institute.
“The land was unjustly taken,” said Pastor Robert Jeffrey in a recent interview. “We have evidence that the pastor, the church, did not want to sell the land, but he was threatened that if he didn’t sell, they would take it for less money than they were offering. So he relented.”
Jeffrey said he and others are looking at other parcels of land in the Central District taken from the Black community. But for now, he wants part of the $18 million slotted for housing for residents with community connections, and generated by Seattle’s new annual tax on big business, to go to his church to build 90 units of affordable housing. The new business tax is expected to raise a total of more than $200 million annually.
The community goal overall is for at least 1,000 new affordable apartments to be built over three years for historic residents and those displaced from the Central Area. In a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council, Jeffrey and two other pastors also said they want to train students of color to help construct some of the new neighborhood developments, including tiny houses.
Sawant said she has helped champion the pastors’ goals in an attempt to prevent deepening poverty, citing the likelihood of a pandemic-related recession hurting Seattle.
“The only way that we can prevent this, the burden of this recession from landing on the shoulders of working class people in general, but most acutely on working class communities of color, is to do the exact opposite, which is invest in the community,” she said, adding that would include both new housing and construction jobs for the community.
Jeffrey said he also supports the land-based demands from King County Equity Now, a community-led group spearheading the call for defunding the police in Seattle. King County Equity Now wants to stop the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, a public housing complex in the Central District that is a mix of deeply subsidized and market-rate homes. The project is nearly complete.
“In order to consider the legitimacy of a demand, you have to look at what was promised,” Jeffrey argued, referring to the Seattle Housing Authority, which has helped oversee the project. “They underdelivered on the promise of bringing African Americans back into the community, and they underdelivered on the promise of including African Americans in the development process.”
Kerry Coughlin, director of communications with the Seattle Housing Authority, said former Mayor Norm Rice, a longstanding African American community leader, and Black-led groups such as Africatown were intimately involved in the redevelopment of the property. Coughlin added that the redevelopment has created a greater number of affordable housing units, a large percentage of which are serving Black individuals and people of color.
Coughlin said she also wants to ensure some of King County Equity Now’s proposals don’t have the unintended consequences of leading to a loss of affordable housing. Another demand from King County Equity Now — to build affordable housing on the Seattle Housing Authority’s operations site — would mean her organization would have nowhere from which to maintain 60% of its affordable housing units. Not all of King County Equity Now’s demands involve affordable housing. The group is also asking that a Central Area nursing home — Paramount — which the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services acquired due to bankruptcy, be reverted back to Black-community ownership. To free up hospital beds during the pandemic, the state bought the nursing home this year for $13.5 million.
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