It may only be a matter of time now before a wrecking ball comes calling at the Lora Lake Apartments. But, by then, Nikole Dispenza will have already made a move that makes her mad just to think about.
She moved into the Burien apartment complex last September, renting a one-bedroom on the ground floor for $760. It has a washer and dryer in the unit and a back porch that opens to an outdoor area where her two-year-old son, Devin, can ride his tricycle. But by May 31, she has to be out.
Dispenza rents from the King County Housing Authority, whose director, Stephen Norman, is also mad. Since March, he’s been leading a heated fight to get the City of Burien and the Port of Seattle to save some of Lora Lake’s 22 buildings, which the Port owns in an area near SeaTac Airport and leases to the housing authority. But, so far, the port isn’t budging on a plan to redevelop the site, potentially as a big-box store.
Under federal aviation rules, 72 of the complex’s units stand in a noise and safety “protection zone” that the port must clear before it can open a third runway at SeaTac in 2008. But if it tears down all 234 units, Norman and other housing advocates argue, it will only contribute to a regional crisis in affordable housing that, at the bottom end, forces the poorest tenants out of the market and onto the streets.
The port says that won’t happen with Lora Lake’s tenants: Like Dispenza, who works full-time for a cargo carrier in Tukwila and has already leased another apartment, most of Lora Lake’s renters have jobs. While that’s true, Norman says, port officials don’t know what they’re talking about: Of the complex’s households, he says, 29 have no income and 29 are below 30 percent of area median income, with 13 struggling below 17 percent.
At a time when every other city and county agency is working to end homelessness by 2015, Norman says, it’s ridiculous for the port to remove the 162 units that aren’t in the noise zone. In a Port Commission meeting last week, Rev. Sandy Brown of the Church Council of Greater Seattle called it immoral and demanded the port replace the units one for one.
“They’ve argued that the units will not be inhabitable, but sound engineers say it will be fine when the third runway opens,” Brown says. And if they aren’t, it’s up to the port to do something about it, he says: “They’re building the runway. It’s their responsibility to mitigate the impacts.”
Except for Port Commissioner Alec Fisken, who expressed support, Brown got nowhere. Appeals to the Burien City Council have also failed: Last Monday, the council voted 5-1 to stick with its long-standing plan to turn the area into a commercial zone that they hope will draw business and jobs. The vote allows the Port to proceed with demolition, which is expected some time this summer.
The port bought Lora Lake from a private owner in 1998, paying to relocate hundreds of tenants from a complex that includes a big gym, two pools, and a playground. But, in the wake of a lawsuit to stop the third runway, the city and Port agreed in 2000 to let the housing authority lease the complex for five years. In 2005, they extended the lease through June of this year, with the port declining the housing authority’s recent offers to buy the property at market rate, Norman says.
“At this point, it’s time to vacate the apartments,” says port spokesperson Terri-Ann Betancourt. “The port has always had plans to work with the city of Burien to develop that property into something non-residential.”
The problem, Norman and others say, is that nothing specific is planned for the site at this time, raising the possibility that Lora Lake will end up a vacant lot — something Councilmember Gordon Shaw says is necessary to attract developers. But, “Just to the south of Lora Lake is a large vacant lot where there used to be a grocery store,” says Burien resident Cherisse Luxa. “If this is such a hot commercial area, why has no one sited there?”
To Dispenza and the majority of tenants who have already left Lora Lake, the debate is academic. On May 19, she’s moving into a second-floor apartment in SeaTac that, thanks to a move-in special she has spread across her new lease, won’t cost any more this year. But she says life won’t be the same: There’s no playground, and the unit sits behind an ocean of airport parking lots that she finds scary.
The stress and cost of the move have also been enormous. This time around, the port provided Lora Lake’s tenants with no moving assistance.
“I’ve been depressed on and off for three months because I don’t want to move,” Dispenza says. “There’s so much here I can’t find anywhere else.”
By CYDNEY GILLIS, Staff Reporter