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Emge: Bringing the Learnings Home

Admittedly, my initial thoughts about what I might learn from participating in the Economy League’s GPLEX trip to Seattle in early October 2018 were far from what is now in my lasting impressions, more than a month later. From my perspective as someone who has spent his career with United Way, a community-based but now globally-networked non-profit, Philadelphia and Seattle seemed to be quite different communities. 


While Seattle has had its share of economic booms and busts, to compare their “high tides” to those in our region over the past century is like comparing a display of fireworks with a hand-held sparkler.  But after two and a half days of immersion into learning what the Seattle community enjoys and suffers through presently in 2018, I have come away from this experience with a pretty good understanding that while business and population are again booming in Seattle, some of the everyday things we take for granted in our region – like getting to and from work within a reasonable commute time – are as yet unreachable goals for our new friends in Seattle.  


One of the experiences on the trip that has left an indelible and extremely positive impression on me was the Regional Exploration to Yesler Terrace, Seattle Housing Authority’s (SHA) vibrant new redevelopment of a publicly subsidized housing community that dates back to the New Deal era of the 1940s.  The new Yesler Terrace, when it is fully completed in just a few years, will feature some 5,000 housing units in a 30-acre space that originally contained just 561 units.  Not only are the residents from the original 561 households guaranteed their choice of space in the new development, there will be an additional 1,300 subsidized homes for low- and moderate-income residents.  The remaining 3,200 homes will be leased at market rates to a region with a grossly unsatiated housing appetite.   


What was most impressive to me, again as someone who has worked at improving local communities for many years, is how the current residents of Yesler Terrace were included right from the very start in nearly all of the key discussions and decisions that ultimately transformed this former subsidized housing space to a model community not only for the 21st century, but for other communities like Philadelphia to consider emulating.  SHA actively collaborates with private developers, the City of Seattle, Seattle University, area employers, healthcare providers and other nonprofits in efforts to expand equitable opportunity along with housing.  Representatives from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate and Seattle University presented the drivers for their organizations on why they are so bullish on this investment in and involvement with the Yesler Terrace redevelopment.  This new neighborhood – as it has clearly evolved from an FDR-era “project” – will bring together folks from many backgrounds, ethnicities, and income echelons.  With the partnerships they have developed through these efforts, the goal that SHA describes in their promotional material is clearly attainable: “Partnerships will help strengthen the social fabric of the community by providing open spaces and community centers for gathering, and programs to increase health, academic achievement and economic opportunity”.


My short-term hope is the SHA and the new Yesler Terrace are successful in attaining their vision; my long-term aspiration is that we find a way to bring this collaborative way of approaching a community challenge to our plentiful opportunities here in PHL to bring about shared and equitable prosperity.


John Emge is President, United Ways of New Jersey