In mid-2018 homeowners at the Halcyon Mobile Homes Park in North Seattle were shocked to learn their community was up for sale. Nearly all in the senior park bought their homes under the explicit promise that the land would never be sold, that the community would be a place where they could “age in peace.” The residents own their mobile homes outright, but pay rent for the land their homes rest on – seemingly one of the most affordable and stable options for seniors living on limited incomes in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
The anxiety caused by news of the sale was compounded in December when residents heard that a developer had already submitted a preliminary plan to redevelop Halcyon into 196 market-rate townhomes. This would have meant a mass eviction for the community.
Halcyon residents refused to sit idly by and watch their chance of a stable future be swallowed up by developer bulldozers. Instead they reached out to the Seattle City Council, and with the help of Councilmember Sawant’s office were able to organize a powerful resistance that was able to win a year-long moratorium on the sale of the park. This victory is a first step to guarantee their long-term stability, but the fact that the park’s eventual sale has gone from an established fact to a politically-charged debate proves the power of ordinary people to fight back against the status quo and win.
Big Developers Caused the Crisis, Community Struggle Can Fix It
Seattle is reeling from a deep crisis of housing unaffordability and is over three years into an officially recognized “homeless state of emergency”. The homeowners at Halcyon, almost all of whom are low-income seniors, saw Halcyon as an “island of affordable housing in a sea of gentrification.” With chronic health issues affecting many and their loved ones, displacement literally meant homelessness even death for many Halcyon homeowners. Among Seattle’s growing homeless population – who experience far higher rates of violence and sexual assault than the general public – marginalized groups including women, people of color, indigenous people, seniors, and people with mental illness are all disproportionately represented.
Luckily, Halcyon residents were willing to take the bold step of getting organized and fighting back. The Halcyon community alongside Sawant’s office, Socialist Alternative, the Association of Manufactured Homeowners, and others began a breakneck campaign to organize the entire mobile home community and bring the issue to the attention of the broader public. A committee meeting was called by Sawant’s office to get homeowners to City Hall to tell their stories, and to formally introduce legislation to temporarily stop all redevelopment at Halcyon through a moratorium and buy time for a permanent solution.
This put the rest of the city council in a difficult position – it’s not good publicity to side with developers and landlords against low-income seniors during an election year. Councilmember Debra Juarez tried to avoid this problem by arguing that there was no “crisis” facing the Halcyon residents in the first place, because a buyer for the land had not yet been finalized. But this flimsy excuse didn’t convince the Halcyon homeowners or their community supporters, who correctly recognized that by the time a bill of sale had been signed it would immediately become far more difficult if not impossible to stop the eviction process.
Other councilmembers and Mayor Durkan tried to sidestep the issue by arguing that any exemptions to the city’s “upzoning” plans to increase density in several neighborhoods, including the one where Halcyon resides, would lower the overall amount of housing in the city and contribute to keeping rents high overall.
There’s no disagreement that rents are far too high in Seattle – nearly half of the city’s renters and one third of all households are struggling to afford the cost of housing, and economic evictions are forcing people out on the city or onto the streets at an alarming rate. At the same time, 16% of new luxury housing units in downtown Seattle sit empty thanks to a mad rush by developers to cater to the high-end of the housing market. Waiting for private developers to solve the housing crisis by building profitable high-end housing is a totally failed strategy that has caused the gross inequality and massive suffering we see today. We need rent control and we need to Tax Amazon and big business for a massive expansion of social housing- we don’t need to evict low-income seniors from their homes.
Our movement was able to cut across the establishment’s narrative that redevelopment would be in workers’ interests was by using Halcyon homeowners connections to bring in letter after letter in support of their struggle from unions, community organizations and faith communities. Within two weeks of getting organized, Halcyon residents were on the front page of The Seattle Times. Together with Councilmember Sawant’s office they organized to pack multiple City Council meetings and force the squirming establishment to vote unanimously in favor of a temporary moratorium on the sale of the park.
Building the Power of Working Class Movements in 2019
While the fight over Halcyon is far from over and a permanent solution still has to be fought for, this is undoubtedly a victory with lessons for affordable housing movements everywhere.
Just as essential as the militant action of the homeowners at Halcyon was having a representative in City Hall who unabashedly fights as a voice of movements for working people rather than a mouthpiece for developer interests. In the just over five years since Kshama Sawant was first elected, her office has teamed up with countless groups to help organize and draw attention to their struggles. From the $15 an hour minimum wage, to passing a moratorium on slumlords raising rents while their housing violates safety codes, to blocking a 400% rent hike for public housing residents, to winning a cap on move-in fees for tenants, Sawant’s office has been able to help one community struggle after another win major victories against big business interests and an intransigent political establishment.
Because of this, there is an awareness in Seattle that ordinary people don’t have to roll over and accept the brutal consequences of the private housing market. Working people across Seattle see victories like that of the Halcyon community and see that it is possible to fight back against the rich and powerful and win! The victories that Sawant’s office has helped win give many more people the confidence to decide to resist any injustice they themselves are facing.
In 2019, the economic precarity of most working people in this country is likely to worsen as a result of increasing instability in the U.S. and global economy. The only way to avoid worsening poverty and inequality is to develop working-class movements around concrete demands while also developing our own leaders and political organizations that can fight for our demands in the electoral arena. Halcyon is just one example of how people’s lives will always come second to corporate profits as long as our elected officials represent corporate interests. When a movement like this is coupled with a working class fighter in the halls of power who doesn’t take a dime from corporations or big developers – who is accountable to activists and movements, not big business – anything is possible.