Sitting in the shade at a new picnic table at the recently renovated Birch Creek Apartments, Susan Liffick Smith explained how the new units, parks, walkways and lights improved the attitudes of residents.
“The changes are not just to the exterior, it has brought the community closer,” said Smith, 44, who has lived 23 years at the low-income housing complex on Kent’s East Hill. “People are more social now. Before they would shut their doors and didn’t come out. It was not even safe to walk around at night. They really cleaned it up. You feel safer and it’s a lot quieter.”
Nearly 1,000 people, including 540 children, live in the 262 units at Birch Creek, formerly known as Springwood.
The King County Housing Authority, which owns the apartments, finished a $55 million, two-year renovation of the complex in June. The apartments, at 23760 129th Place S.E., just south of Kent Kangley Road, were originally constructed in 1970.
Construction crews replaced outdated exteriors of the buildings that looked like barracks and fully renovated the interiors with new finishes, fixtures, doors, cabinetry, trim, floor coverings and countertops. Plumbing, electrical and heating systems were replaced or upgraded, including new fire alarm systems. Each apartment received an extra half bath and a washer and dryer.
Crews added a central park and picnic area, an athletic field and outdoor basketball court for teens, a smaller athletic field and a smaller basketball court for pre-teens, a toddler play area and play equipment for very young children. The community now has a Pea-patch.
The complex also has the Kent Family Center and the Springwood Youth Center. The family center houses Head Start classrooms, a state Department of Health Women, Infants and Children clinic and a job counseling center. The youth center features a gym, a classroom for after-school homework assistance, a computer room and an arts classroom.
“It’s been amazing,” said Tehani Bowman, the Birch Creek senior property manager for the last four years. “Our residents have new pride in their community. Several have told me they have come out of depression because of the environment. They’re out socializing.”
A couple of families recently threw birthday parties in the park.
“We didn’t have that before,” Bowman said.
Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke and U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, were among the dignitaries at a grand re-opening party July 9 at Birch Creek.
“Oh my gosh, what a transformation,” Cooke said during the short ceremony. “There is a new name, new existence and a new sense of community. This is not only a physical transformation but a transformation of individuals for what Kent stands for and that’s adding value to your lives.”
Reichert told a story about when he worked as a King County Sheriff’s Office detective in the late 1970s and arrived at the then Springwood apartments to investigate a burglary.
“I got out of my (unmarked) car in a suit and tie and a long-haired man came up to me and asked if I would like to buy some pot,” Reichert said. “He opened up the trunk of his car and he had grocery bags full of marijuana. I bought the marijuana and I also took him in.”
Reichert said the physical improvements to the apartments create a better living environment compared to the old complex.
“These use to be mean streets,” Reichert said. “That (the marijuana story) is just a minor example of how Springwood had degraded. Now there is a feeling of excitement.”
Funding for the project included long-term bonds backed by future expected receipts from rent, the sale of low-income housing tax credits to an equity investor and some public funding through federal, state and county programs, said Rhonda Rosenburg, communications director for the King County Housing Authority.
While there is some public funding from the State Housing Trust Fund and King County, the amount is relatively small in proportion to the private monies, Rosenburg said.
The funding partners included Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Nationwide, King County, Puget Sound Energy, RBC Capital Markets, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state Department of Commerce and the state Housing Finance Commission.
About 65 percent of the adult residents at Birch Creek have jobs, but most work in low-paying jobs that do not allow them to pay private-market rents.
The average household income at Birch Creek is $18,086. Residents must earn 30 percent or less of the area median income ($81,400 for a family of four) to qualify to live at the complex.
Smith, an unemployed divorced mother of two adult sons who live with her, said the bigger bedrooms, half bath and washer and dryer in the unit has made a big difference in her unit. The housing authority moved her to Auburn for a year during the renovation, but she returned last August.
“It’s beautiful,” Smith said of the changes throughout the 26-acre community. “They’ve done a lot for the little kids with all of the play areas. They added picnic tables and benches. Now you can sit out here and have a barbecue.”
Birch Creek Apartments
• Where: 27360 129th Place S.E., Kent
• What: 262 low-income units
• Owner: King County Housing Authority
• Phone: 206-315-4360
• Web: www.kcha.org