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Life after the Westpark diaspora: Former residents of sprawling Bremerton housing project rebuild their lives.
Debbie Hilton feels liberated.
Since the former Westpark resident and more than 500 of her neighbors left the Word War II-era west Bremerton public housing complex, she’s felt free of the stigma that came with living in the former low-income neighborhood.
She now holds a part-time job and is trying to start her own business. Since she has shed the label of being a Westpark resident, she feels more involved.
“It’s not like, 'Oh, there’s one of those Westpark people,'" Hilton said.
Hilton, 53, who lived in Westpark for four-and-a-half years, said the prospect of moving was daunting for residents, many of whom had lived there for years. But the 82-acre neighborhood’s closure — it is scheduled to be razed, rebuilt and rechristened as Bay Vista, tossing the Westpark mantle and its connotations — proved to be a positive turn for herself and many of her friends.
Even the re-branding of the neighborhood itself represents the new incarnation of the area, said Kurt Wiest, executive director for the Bremerton Housing Authority.
“We’re changing that neighborhood,” he said. “We’re creating something new.”
But the diaspora of Westpark, completed in October when all 571 residences went dark, hasn’t been smooth for everyone.
Elaine Turso, a former relocation coach at the Bremerton Housing Authority who helped Hilton find her new home, said she epitomizes the successes of the Westpark relocation process. Many were excited to receive the Section 8 housing vouchers to help them pay for a new place. They took Ready to Rent classes taught by Turso, learning how to be good rental tenants, and took advantage of the money management and paperwork assistance the Bremerton Housing Authority offered.
But the relocation of Westpark residents has yielded mixed results for residents, said Turso, who longer works for the housing authority, especially for those who were elderly or physically or mentally disabled. Others did not take advantage of the Ready to Rent classes and have been evicted from their post-Westpark homes due to misbehavior.
Jerry VanFossen, a Bremerton landlord, said some former residents have been good tenants, others bad ones. Some did not adapt well to a more mixed-income environment.
While he has not evicted any former Westpark residents, only one of the four Westpark residents he has rented to remains in one of his properties.
Linda Hill, who lived in the housing project eight years, misses her old neighborhood.
Hill, 46, feels isolated in her new East Bremerton apartment complex. With an injured hip, it’s difficult for her to walk between her car and her apartment. She said that if she had until December to find a new place — the original deadline for the relocation - she might have found something more suited to her needs.
But she also misses the support system she had in Westpark.
“I'd rather be in a more community-based setting,” she said, adding that now she cannot rely on her neighbors.
When the new mixed-income neighborhood being constructed on the old Westpark site opens, Hill wants to move into one of the homes reserved for low-income residents. About 25 percent of the Bay Vista units - 190 units - will be available to low-income applicants.
Hill and Hilton have tried to stay in touch with their old Westpark neighbors, organizing events and meetings. But at the quarterly meeting in January, not a single resident showed up, Hill said.
“It is somewhat disappointing that we've all kind of lost touch with everything,” she said.
Hilton said a big problem among former Westpark residents is securing reliable transportation. Now that the neighbors are scattered, they can no longer meet up at the centralized community center.
"It's been a little more difficult to get people to respond,” she said.
Wiest said that about 80 percent of former Westpark residents still live in Bremerton. Most of the remaining residents live in the county, in Silverdale or Port Orchard.
Wiest said that it is highly unlikely for Westpark residents, once in their new homes, to have problems. Because they would lose their Section 8 voucher in the event of an eviction, they are motivated to be responsible tenants.
"The stakes are very high," he said.
Of the 484 Westpark households who received Section 8 vouchers, two have lost those subsidies due to violations.
Jim Adrian, landlord of about 100 houses and duplex units in Kitsap County, said he has no problem with the former Westpark residents and other Section 8 tenants.
"They're pretty responsible,” Adrian said. “I’ve had really good luck with the tenants.”
For many, Hilton said, being forced out of their comfort zone and into the community at large helped them.
"It's put us out there so we can see what everyone else does," she said.