Neighborhood House Seattle was founded as a Settlement House in 1906 by the National Council of Jewish Women, following in the tradition of the Settlement movement, pioneered by Canon Samuel Barnett’s Toynbee Hall in London and Jane Addams’ Hall House in Chicago (among many others – Settlement bingo is a fun [caveat] game to play). Mark Okazaki, Executive Director, tells me that while its history of supporting new communities, often fleeing persecution, continues in its work today – 53% of people served in 2017 were immigrants or refugees – it also has a broader mission as a multi-service organization: a community based, neighbourhood based, social service centre.
I spoke to Mark at the Neighborhood House High Point, part of its network of buildings and satellite services across Seattle and the wider King County area in which the city sits. It’s an amazing purpose-built centre – you can’t turn a corner without coming across some new environmentally sustainable building practice, all exposed and explained for the public – delivering pre-school services, family assistance services, and providing space for community groups to come together. As you might expect, its history is very much tied to a part of American poverty and housing policy history. In 1956, shortly after the organization incorporated as an independent nonprofit, it secured premises in Yesler Terrace, a public housing community that had been established 15 years earlier as part of a slum clearance programme. This started a close partnership with the city’s Housing Authority, mutually beneficial at a time when the Federal Housing Administration was withdrawing from direct involvement in recreational and social services, according to Jean Porter Devine, author of a 1976 history of Neighborhood House. Devine also characterizes this as ‘unique’, as ‘no other housing authority brought into a project an agency that could provide a broad spectrum, multi-service settlement house program rather than a single need, single focus program.’ Those programmes experienced rapid expansion in 1964 when the Economic Opportunity Act was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his ‘War on Poverty’ with the organisation’s budget, according to Devine, jumping from $60,000 to over half a million in 18 months, with three new branches, including High Point, opening over the same period.
These new sites were in neighborhoods made up of World War II temporary factory housing, built to support the war effort; poor quality units converted into low-income housing. Different cities had different problems, and these problems were rooted in historic racial and economic segregation in cities. In 1992, Congress established a National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, which found that 86,000 out of 1.3 million public housing properties qualified as severely distressed (I am sure there are debates somewhere about exactly how that qualification was constructed), and concluded that public housing was one of the biggest and most visible failures of American social welfare policy (Popkin, Levy and Buron, 2009). From this, it established the HOPE VI programme, with HOPE standing for ‘Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere’, investing grants of up to $50 million to serve plans in a given location, which should include provisions for supportive services, and ways of decreasing the concentration of poverty in neighborhoods. There is plenty of debate on this scheme and its success (or otherwise), and with increasing homelessness, housing insecurity and the ongoing impact of gentrification in lots of US cities it is clear that systemic problems have not been addressed – see Popkin et al, Kleit, the Urban Institute, Kingsley et al and I’m sure you’ll send me others.
High Point was the third funded HOPE VI project in Seattle. Mark tells me they tore down the old temporary units to build a mixed-income community, with about 700 units of public housing as well as at least 700 units of market rate housing. Initially Neighborhood House and other nonprofits were given space for free in a dilapidated public housing unit converted to provide pre-school programmes, health clinics, a branch library, boys and girls club, tutoring programmes, a day care co-op, a health clinic, and so on, with the Housing Authority picking up the tab for utilities and other property costs. Unfortunately as the neighborhood regenerated, the economic model became less appealing to the government agency. Nevertheless, they still recognized the importance of having accessible services for the community, in the community; “they knew that the success of this neighborhood – if there were no onsite services, that they could fail. You could have new housing but without the support services the experiment would fail,” says Mark. In the end, the authority put up $1 million in seed funding for a capital campaign and a large plot of land to build the beautiful purpose-built site, to be owned by Neighborhood House, with stipulated space available to other nonprofits.
Today, this close relationship with government agencies continues, from the Seattle and King County Housing Authorities, the city and county’s councils, the state and federal government. About 82% of the organization’s $20 million operating budget comes from government grants and contracts (I want to stress though that this type of ratio isn’t unusual here – I’ll come back to it later). This inevitably comes with some practical challenges. The bureaucracy associated is quite something; “all of our funding sources require their own reports, we manage multiple databases, for tons of information. Our management information services team, there’s probably 10 full time staff just entering data on client services.” Mark adds; “the level of regulation, regulatory oversight requirements, can be oppressive, it drives us towards being a compliance oriented organization.” And there can be restrictions in terms of how services are delivered, based on the outcomes they are required to meet – a story I’m sure is familiar to organizations back home. But there is room at the edges to play with, says Mark, and they can influence policy and practice by pushing back on things that could work better. Finally, the challenge of funding the overhead is an ever-present one; grants and contracts won’t pay for anything outside of the specification, and with everyone in Seattle in the same boat, the fundraising field is a crowded one.
Mark has been Executive Director for almost 19 years (he’s actually retiring next year – congratulations!), and he’s seen some change over that time. Neighborhood House continues to serve ‘newcomers’, new changing populations of immigrants and refugees, who as they find their place in their communities will often start to set up their own organizations to serve their needs. The geography has changed as well. Mark points out that there is still poverty in Seattle, that low-income housing still has a substantial waiting list, and that homelessness is a huge and very visible problem. However, “in Seattle and King County, because of gentrification, poverty is moving into the suburbs in substantial radical ways,” he says. “If you look at the student count for free and reduced lunches, Seattle is going down, the suburbs are going up, because of poverty. Then you look at the State of Washington Department of Social and Health Services [which run] the federally funded, state administered welfare system and you look at their case-loads by geography – the in Seattle, it’s almost a ghost town. Kent, Auburn – booming. So poverty’s definitely moving south. One of the challenges not only for Neighborhood House but for other organizations with an anti-poverty mission profile – we’re in the wrong place.” But these suburban cities do not have the same level of resources as Seattle to tackle these growing problems, or to fund the organizations that want to help.
The Trump administration, finally, provides a particular challenge. As a 501(c)3 the organization cannot be party political, but it recognizes its role in challenging policy that negatively affects its constituents. Neighborhood House released a statement from Mark stating firmly that it opposed executive orders restricting entry for people from certain countries, and reaffirming its support for immigrants and refugees. Mark tells me about children in their pre-school services “telling their parents to turn the lights off at night so it would look like no one was home, because they were afraid someone was going to come take them away. Children, thinking that the government was going to come take them away. Just mortifying.” The proposed new rules that David at Washington Nonprofits mentioned around immigrants receiving government support or ‘public benefit’. “I’ve already heard – I was in a meeting yesterday where people are disenrolling themselves from healthcare, because they don’t – people who are sick who are saying I’m not going to take government funded healthcare… Even those who are here legally, the ripple effect of they could still do things to me.” Mark says they have had to consider what would happen if Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents showed up at their pre-school, and whether they hold any legally unnecessary data regarding individuals’ status.
Mark describes a sense of camaraderie and collaboration among nonprofits in Seattle and King County, which helps to face these fights. “I think that there is a camaraderie here, lots of support, nonprofit executives know each other, there’s… a lot of mutual support that goes on informally, really informally. There are times when we will band together as a common voice. There are lots of coalitions in Seattle King County, there’s King County Human Services Coalition, I belong to this group called the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition, lots of coalitions, there are health coalitions, there are homeless coalitions, lots of coalitions that meet to create common agendas, advocacy agendas. There’s a lot of collegiality so you don’t feel alone in your struggles.” But as he points out, there is still some sense of isolation, as an organization’s struggles are unique to itself. Competition, particularly for government funding, can also create tensions with partners in this community. But, Mark stresses, this never stops the organization from working with individuals and the communities in which Neighborhood House is embedded to achieve real, significant change.
 As a very local example, while High Point is a really beautiful development, it is also a food desert. Mark told me later that the area had recently failed to secure a supermarket to fill a newly renovated commercial lot, as the commercial interests weren’t great enough.