Can Do
[Sunset Court, 50 new units of affordable housing in Sunset]
[Sunset Court, 50 new units of affordable housing in Sunset]

RENTON – Just like the little engine that could, the Renton, Washington Housing Authority has just proven it can.

“Can” as in “can” transform a distressed neighborhood just as its much-larger neighbors - the Seattle and King County housing authorities – have done. A neighborhood like Sunset, a low-income, high-crime area Mayor Dennis Law once described as “dominated by a lot of substandard housing” and “few neighborhood amenities” but thanks to Renton’s “can-do” attitude, is now, the Mayor says, a place “anyone would want to live in.”

His comment was made at the October grand opening of Sunset Court, 50 new units of affordable housing in Sunset. Sunset Court is the latest of three developments the Renton Authority has built since 2012 to replace the 100-unit Sunset Terrace public housing complex that for 60 years had provided affordable housing to generations of families but, by 2012, was worn-out and well past its useful life.

It’s not been easy.

In 1989 Congress established the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. It found that more than 100,000 units of HUD-funded public housing were dilapidated, uninhabitable and should be torn-down, prompting Congress to create HUD’s HOPE VI Public Housing Revitalization grant program. The Seattle and King County authorities competed for and won a number of HOPE VI grants, generating more than $200 million in HUD funds to revitalize seven public housing communities in neighborhoods all around Renton.

No such luck for Renton. It had to find other ways, other funding sources to pay for the overdue demolition and replacement of Sunset Terrace. Fortunately, with HUD’s blessing, the Renton Authority tore it down and sold a portion of the land to the City where built a new park creating a much-needed community gathering space. Meanwhile, HUD allowed the Renton Authority to pool proceeds from the sale with Low-Income Housing Tax Credits from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, HUD HOME funds from King County, an investment from the Royal Bank of Canada and loan from Banner Bank and build Sunset Court.

Sunset Court’s now fully-occupied. That’s not the end of the story, but more like the start. Since the Commission on Severely-Distressed Public Housing’s report, HUD has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to replace dilapidate, worn-out housing in more 150 communities. And almost everywhere it’s done so, demolishing bad housing has sparked a neighborhood’s transformation.

As it has in Renton. Private developers are snapping up adjacent properties for new market-rate rental apartments, for-sale townhomes and retail shops. The City and Authority also are working with the non-profit, Homestead Community Land Trust to create affordable homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income families that will remain affordable for generations to come. The Renton Authority also hopes to use HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program to attract private capital to upgrade and maintain its entire housing inventory. Adjacent to the Sunset Neighborhood Park and the Sunset Court apartments, the City also invested in a new library, a stormwater facility to improve neighborhood drainage and improved streets and sidewalks.

Since 2010, Mayor Law reported at the grand opening, “well over $100 million” public and private investments have been made in the neighborhood. And it all started by tearing-down dilapidated housing.

“You don’t have to be big to be bold,” HUD Regional Administrator Jeff McMorris commented at the grand opening. “Just look at Sunset Court. I was told Renton recently received its seventh Governor’s Smart Communities Award” including three (in 2013, 2014 and 2015) for its work in Sunset. “I believe you’re the only city to have seven of those under your belt. And with everything going on around here, I would not be surprised if eight and nine are around the corner rather soon.”

Just goes to show, we’d suggest, what a can-do attitude can do.