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The Affordable Housing Crusader

December 1, 2014

State Speaker of the House Frank Chopp was a college student from Bremerton when he became passionate about affordable housing in Seattle's Cascade neighborhood. And he's been fighting for it ever since. We take a tour through Seattle with this housing crusader, who tells us why the issue is so critical, and defines who we are as a community.

FRANK CHOPP: That’s low income housing, it’s the Pat Williams House, owned by a nonprofit, beautiful new building, a lot of community effort to make it affordable. Actually, let’s go across there.

JOHN: If you really want to take the “Affordable Housing Walking Tour” with Seattle’s Frank Chopp, be prepared.  He won’t stop talking, and he won’t slow down.

CHOPP: It’ll probably take me four hours to show you everything.

JOHN: Because affordable housing, for Frank Chopp, is what he’s devoted most of his adult life to. 

CHOPP: This is the Cascade Neighborhood.
 
JOHN: This is where he started back in the seventies as a community activist before it was called “Cascade.”
 
JOHN: You know these streets pretty well. 
 
CHOPP: Oh yeah, absolutely. Right over there that parking lot used to be nice, affordable housing.  Got torn down years ago for a parking lot. This is used to be a parking lot.
 
JOHN: A parking lot Frank Chopp called home in 1974.
 
CHOPP: I rented a parking stall for about ten dollars a month, I built a geodesic dome right here where we’re at to basically protest the demolition of low income housing and the need for affordable housing in Seattle.
 
JOHN: He ran an extension cord from the church next door to power his hotplate. 
 
CHOPP: And It was a geodesic dome. It was 11 feet wide. It was covered with a plastic tarp. And I just figured “Hey, what better way of dramatize the need for housing than to build it myself.”  Very cheap.
 
JOHN: That’s pretty 70’s. You’re dating yourself. 
 
CHOPP: Well thanks a lot. 
 
JOHN: You have evidence of when you started.
 
JOHN: This is where Frank Chopp became an activist who would one day run for office, and one day become Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives; one of the most powerful politicians in the state.
 Frank Chopp still has the 1975 alternative Seattle newspaper describing him as "Leader of the Cascade Shelter Project." Chopp is described by some as a lifelong advocate for affordable housing.
 
CHOPP: There’s just so many possibilities. So many good options to do the right thing. And that’s what drives me, gets me excited. Cause I say “Oh, look at that place. Oh my God, that could be this!”
 
CHOPP: Well, we’re on the way to the Cascade Shelter project. This was our first housing project. I think it’s got about 8 units, maybe more, maybe 12. I did that thing, it’s “homes by, of, and for the people.”
 
JOHN:  Years ago, somebody thought it would be a good idea to commemorate historical moments in Seattle’s history and set them in stone. Frank Chopp still remembers those moments. He lived them. 
 
CHOPP: I think that’s Ruby Wetzel. 
 
JOHN: He still remembers the stuff that makes him proud, and the stuff that all these years later, still makes him mad. 
 
CHOPP: Over there in the new high-rise here, that used to be affordable housing and also a community church that The Seattle Times tore down. It was a shame that they did that, because it was a great performing center. They tore it down. At least that got developed for housing, which is great.  But then just two blocks that way The Seattle Times bulldozed a bunch more affordable housing units and kept them as parking lots ever since, to which I’m still angry about. They should have stayed as affordable housing.
 
JOHN: Chopp says he’s just a kid from Bremerton who came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, but he says academics just didn’t get it right when it came to affordable housing and community development. 
 
CHOPP: Well they didn’t know anything. The best thing to do is get involved in the community yourself directly, and start doing things. 
 
JOHN: How does he define affordable housing?
 
CHOPP: Well affordable gets defined in different ways. One sample way of looking at it is that you shouldn’t pay more than 30% of your income for rent.
 
CHOPP: This is one of the first buildings we were able to save.
 
JOHN: He says churches deserve a lot of credit for donating property in the Cascade that would be turned into affordable housing. In other cases he says a local public authority was there with the resources, tax dollars to acquire it and keep it affordable.
 
JOHN: So this is basically pushing on the market, isn’t it? 
 
CHOPP: I would rather see it helping people to come up from the grass roots, and take control of their own housing. The key was we got organized, we created an organization that was owned by the community and then we proceeded to go get it financed. Each housing project is financed differently.  In the case of The Brewster, there’s some public funding in here from the state, as well as the city. Remember I mentioned about the Seattle Housing Levy, that funds a lot of these projects as well. They’re all over the city. In my district alone there are 74 low-income housing projects.
 
JOHN: Housing projects like the Ernestine Anderson house on Jackson, offering affordable housing but then right next door in this walking tour, there’s a tent city.
 
CHOPP: I was doing it more. Ya know, I had a home so I wasn’t homeless. These folks are homeless, they need a place, they can’t afford normal rents. And so whatever’s affordable they’re gonna take advantage of. 
 
JOHN: And while there’s still plenty of evidence that the fight to make Seattle housing more affordable is far from over, for this activist, it’s a fight that defines this city. In the morning we spent on the “Affordable Housing Walking Tour” with Frank Chopp, community activist, he showed us as many as thirty apartment houses all across town that defined the ongoing fight for affordable housing, so many I started to lose count.
 
CHOPP: There’s just so many possibilities, so many good options to do the right thing. That’s what drives me, gets me excited. Because I say, “Oh, look at that look at that place. Oh my god, that could be this!”
 
JOHN: But then I got the feeling Frank Chopp was just getting started.
 
CHOPP: We said at the time that there was spirit of Seattle. I remember giving a speech talking about the “Spirit of Seattle.”  That we were gonna break down those barriers between rich and poor, and between city policy and the neighborhoods to build a better city. And one of the things we did actually in the spirit of that is in 1986, we did a Low Income Housing Levy on the ballot, and also a tax levy for the downtown Seattle Art Museum. We did it together and we had this great theme, but the main thing was that we were building a better Seattle for everybody. And it worked. Both issues passed, we built a bunch of housing with the funding, and the art museum  got a new art museum, which people are very proud of. It was a great statement about what Seattle is all about. 
 
JOHN: Break down the division between rich and poor? Are you a closet socialist? 
 
CHOPP: I’m a community organizer who happens to be Speaker, and I’m a Democrat.
 

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