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High Point: From Gangs to Neighbors

Posted by Johnine Larsen on February 13, 2020
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West Seattle’s High Point neighborhood eliminated its terrifying rates of violent crime—without the usual pitfalls of gentrification. People of all sorts now live together peacefully in this master-planned and carefully developed community of 1,500 homes, a place that just two decades ago was infamous for gunshots and police sirens. This far in to the High Point experiment, it’s safe to declare success.

A walk through High Point these days takes you past modern houses, townhouses, and modest condo buildings all done up with Craftsman-style charm. The narrow, winding streets feel a bit surreal: most buildings have garages, and since street parking mostly exists on the perimeter of housing clusters, you often find yourself strolling down vehicle-less lanes, past brightly colored three-story buildings, charming pocket parks, and planting strips. High Point has a P-Patch, the West Seattle Bee Garden, walking paths, a playground, and a lagoon complete with ducks and geese, all of which seem to announce: “People come first here.” And not just in a pedestrians-over-cars way; this community prioritizes the wellbeing of all sorts of people.

20 acres of parks, open space, and playgrounds
4-acre central park
Pond, jogging trail, and pocket parks

High Point consists of an intentionally diverse mix of residents: owners and renters, senior citizens and young families, upper-middle-class and low-income. Of High Point’s approximately 1,500 units, half are for rent or sale at market rates, while the other half are low-income. And they aren’t segregated into a high-income region and a low-income region; people of difference incomes live right next door to one another. The diversity is racial, too, as well as career-based. Attorneys, teachers, retirees collecting social security—they’re all neighbors at High Point. It’s a mosaic of people, and it’s this blend that makes High Point so unique. And, as the theory goes, the diversity is what makes High Point so successful.

High Point is the last Seattle-area project in the HOPE VI program, a 1990s federal program that redeveloped public-housing projects into mixed-income communities, with the aim to remove stigma from “the projects.” The supporting idea behind HOPE VI and High Point is that both rich and poor benefit from sharing the same neighborhood, parks, walking trails, community centers, and libraries. That’s held true at High Point.

“At High Point, we have salt-and-pepper neighborhoods,” said its master planner, Brian Sullivan. “Instead of putting all the low-income people over there and all the people buying houses over here, we consciously mixed them up. When you have people in different stages of their life and at different income levels living side by side, that helps toward a better understanding, rather than having this prejudice about low-income people.”

To truly appreciate the success of High Point, it helps to step back in time. The area was first developed in 1942 as housing for men and their families who worked for companies that contributed to “the war effort” during World War II (think Boeing). After the war ended and the G.I.s came home, the 120-acre High Point turned into housing for low-income families. In 1955, the rent there ranged from an envy-inducing $13 for a 473-sq-ft one-bedroom unit to $20 for a 738-sq-ft three-bedroom.

High Point has an accurate name. The community is 520 feet above sea level, which is about 70 feet higher than either Queen Anne or Capitol Hill.

Things kept on well enough at High Point until the 1970s, when Nixon slashed funding for public-housing maintenance. Many units sat vacant, the area was cut off from public transit, and gang activity moved in. In response, the federal government tore down many of the vacant units and expanded others, which gave the place a more suburban feel—but crime worsened nevertheless. As the 1980s Seattle Police Department kept cracking down on gangs throughout the city, the displaced gangs found new territory in West Seattle, and gunfire and crime became a staple of High Point.

“It was a place that Godfather’s Pizza wouldn’t deliver to, that people wouldn’t come to visit, and that the outside world was generally terrified of,” said Jamila Johnson, who grew up across the street from High Point and now owns a condo in the newly developed community. “You would hear gunshots frequently; there were people you knew who would get injured. It was, if not Seattle’s worst crime area, one of the worst.”

In 2000, the federal government admitted things needed to change and pledged $35 million in HOPE VI program dollars to redevelop the project. The government leveled all 716 units of the very low-income housing that made up the original High Point, and Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) promised to replace them with new, improved units for low-income and very low-income tenants, with the goal that everyone how had been displaced because of the demolition would have a right to return if they wanted (or use Section 8 vouchers to move elsewhere in the city). But it wasn’t just a rebuild. SHA also pledged to add almost 800 units of market-rate housing and 56 units for low-income homebuyers, not just low-income renters. The result: today’s High Point.

Total Residential Units: 1,529
Market-Rate Privately Owned Houses: 538
Affordable-Rate Privately Owned Homes: 56
Market-Rate Rental Apartments: 104
Affordable Rental Housing: 250
Public (very low-income) housing: 350
Market-Rate Senior Housing (rental): 156
Low-Income Senior Housing (rental): 75

The new and improved High Point includes all sorts of diversity, but it prioritizes families. Almost all the condos and houses for sale have 2+ bedrooms, and on the rental side of things, more than half have 3+ bedrooms. SHA estimates that 1,400 children live among High Point’s 1,529 units, so those parks and car-less roads play double-duty. In addition to making the area pedestrian-friendly and inviting for adults, they create an environment where kids can play outside safely.

People often wondered throughout High Point’s history whether the privately owned homes could keep their value, being in a mixed-income community. Owners are “supposed” to hate renters, after all, and nearby low-income housing has often been viewed as anathema to property values. However, High Point has bucked the stereotypes. Home values in this community have rise right alongside the rest of Seattle. Most of its 2–4 bedroom homes are valued between $500,000 and $750,000.

Another High Point accomplishment, and one I hadn’t heard about until digging deeper into this community to write this blog post, is their “Breathe Easy” homes. These 60 homes are designed to reduce the risk of asthma attacks. They include ventilation systems with air filtering, HEPA filter vacuums that remove allergens, and linoleum flooring. All homes in High Point, in fact, also feature low-off-gas vinyl flooring and whole-house fans to remove moisture. All these materials and building processes work together to mitigate asthma. Children with with asthma who moved into High Point’s Breathe Easy homes experienced 63 percent more symptom-free days, and they also benefited from improved lung functioning. The benefits are many (as anyone who has a child with asthma already knows): lower medical bills, greater ability to exercise and spend time outside, fewer missed school days and workdays, and overall improved quality of life for the children and their families.

High Point makes life better for people. Not just for kids with asthma, but for just about everyone who lives there. As their website proclaims:

“Today, High Point is nationally recognized as the first dense urban development in the U.S. to achieve large-scale sustainable, low-impact design. With numerous awards for its commitment to environmentally responsible design and healthy living initiatives, as well as to diverse, multi-income community development, High Point is a focal point of study for building and design professionals from all over the world.”

Just as we build community one client at a time, High Point builds community one resident at a time. Rich and poor, families and retirees, homeowners and renters of all races. It’s side-by-side living without thought for “my team” and “those outsiders.” If we could all adopt this mentality of seeing everyone as our neighbor, no matter how differently they might look or act—well, I think the world would be a much better place.

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