More than 2,000 households entered a lottery last month for 108 affordable apartments in a new South Seattle building.

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Inexpensive housing is so scarce in Seattle that competing for an affordable apartment is like playing the lottery.

There are some winners, but the odds are bad and the experience can be depressing.

Nearly 2,100 households submitted applications last month to live in a new rental building for low-income families near the Othello light-rail station in South Seattle.

Because the building will have only 108 units, nonprofit developer Mercy Housing Northwest — in the interest of transparency — scheduled a lottery-like drawing and invited the applicants to watch.

That brought hundreds to the New Holly Gathering Hall on a dreary Monday morning.

Waiting for the drawing to begin, they cradled babies, sipped coffee from paper cups and checked their cellphones.

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An anxious hush spread across the room. Then Bill Rumpf, the nonprofit’s president, picked up a microphone.

He described how the lottery would work. Names printed on slips of paper would be drawn from a box and assigned a number.

In the coming weeks, the applications would be processed and the building filled in that order. People not awarded an apartment would be placed on a wait list.

After the drawing, everyone would be mailed a postcard with their number, “So you don’t need to stay here for the whole session today,” Rumpf said. No one budged.

Wincing, Rumpf told the crowd, “We wish we could house you all.” Then he added, “Thank you, and good luck.”

“We try to help”

Mercy Othello Plaza is at Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Myrtle Street and is scheduled to open in March. Construction is nearly complete.

Residents will live within walking distance of a Safeway supermarket, several neighborhood shops and restaurants, and a park with basketball courts and an open meadow.

Light-rail trains will speed them to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, downtown Seattle, Seattle Central College and the University of Washington for jobs and classes.

Sound Transit chose Mercy Housing to develop the site in 2014 after using the property for staging during light-rail construction.

A light-rail train passes a 550-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment that will rent for between $470 and $807 at Mercy Othello Plaza.  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
A light-rail train passes a 550-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment that will rent for between $470 and $807 at Mercy Othello Plaza. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

The apartments will be divided among households making no more than 30 percent, 50 percent or 60 percent of the area’s median income. That’s $18,990 to $67,200 per year, depending on family size.

The rents will range from about $470 to $1,150 per month, depending on income and apartment size. For example, two parents who have two children and make $27,000 per year might seek to rent an apartment with three bedrooms for $599 per month.

More than half of the units will have two or three bedrooms, a mix that’s rare in new buildings with market-rate rents.

Residents will have access to a playground, a courtyard, laundry facilities and a community room with computers.

Mercy Housing will coordinate resident services such as after-school homework help, health clinics and cooking classes.

“We try to help people improve their situations and create some mobility,” Rumpf said. “Our aim is to move people through.”

The nonprofit is using various funding sources for the $35 million project, including $8.5 million from Seattle’s housing office — $4.5 million of that from the city’s housing levy.

Few homes in reach

The applicants entered Mercy Housing’s lottery — some visiting a construction trailer behind the building and others submitting applications by mail — for different reasons.

Jakayla Guiberteaux, a 19-year-old University of Washington sophomore, said she became interested because she wants to strike off on her own.

The Cleveland High School graduate lives with her father in South Seattle. She said she can’t afford UW’s residence halls, despite working 24 to 40 hours per week as a security guard in South Lake Union.

Market-rate rents also are out of reach. That’s what Guiberteaux realized when she went online to hunt for a Seattle apartment, hoping to pay under $900 per month.

“There was nothing affordable, which is crazy,” she said, her search quickly taking her to Kent, Federal Way and Tacoma. “You have to go way out of the city.”

Rather than a springboard to adulthood, a landing pad is what Renei Boone had in mind when she submitted an application.

Boone was living in Auburn until recently. Then her rent jumped $150 per month, she said. The 68-year-old retired phlebotomist has been sleeping in a cheap hotel and with friends.

Boone is battling health issues, including sciatic-nerve pain. She has medical debt and relies on Social Security — about $1,000 per month, she said.

“You can’t live on that,” she said. “I’m not lazy. I worked hard. But I can hardly make it.”

Van Nguyen, 23, Rena Espiritu, 25, and their daughter Naribella Espiritu-Nguyen applied for an apartment in Mercy Othello Plaza. They sleep in the living room of a cramped South Seattle home, which they share with several relatives.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Van Nguyen, 23, Rena Espiritu, 25, and their daughter Naribella Espiritu-Nguyen applied for an apartment in Mercy Othello Plaza. They sleep in the living room of a cramped South Seattle home, which they share with several relatives. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Rena Espiritu and Van Nguyen entered the lottery because they’re desperate for breathing space.

They and their 2-year-old daughter, Naribella, share a cramped South Seattle home with several relatives, including Nguyen’s mother.

“We’ve been sleeping in the living room for I don’t know how long, including the little one, and we have a baby on the way,” said Nguyen, 23, who stays home with Naribella while Espiritu, 25, works at a warehouse in Kent.

They would like to live in low-income housing operated by the Seattle Housing Authority, they said. But wait lists for those apartments are yearslong.

Struggling amid boom

Rents in Seattle have increased 43 percent in the past four years. In 2016, the area had among the fastest-rising rents in the country.

Nearly 10,000 market-rate apartments are set to open this year, so the increases are expected to slow in 2017.

But most of the new units will be luxury apartments, which don’t help low-income renters as much.

Only some will be in the neighborhoods that need housing the most, such as South Seattle.

Rumpf said the city’s humming economy and booming population are largely responsible for the shortage, as lots of newcomers with money enter the market.

“We have job growth in the highly-paid tech sector and in other sectors,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity area, so people are coming here.”

Too much success is a good problem for Seattle to have, and nonprofits such as Mercy Housing are trying to keep up.

Since 2015, they’ve built more than 900 low-income units with help from the city’s housing office. More than 1,500 additional units are in the pipeline, and voters last year agreed to double the housing levy.

But the lottery last month showed that many people are struggling. Nearly 73,000 King County households pay more than half their income in rent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Mercy Housing often takes applications for new buildings on a first-come, first-served basis. This time, Rumpf knew the demand would be off the charts.

He thought a drawing would be the best way to ensure a fair process. Other low-income-housing agencies also sometimes hold lotteries, though not necessarily in-person.

“This location is so desirable, and our rents are quite a bit below market,” Rumpf said.

He predicted there would be at least 1,000 applications. Even he was stunned when 2,086 rolled in. The sensation intensified when Rumpf walked into the New Holly Gathering Hall.

There the applicants were, sitting in long rows of folding chairs, hoping their names would be drawn. Some had taken off work.

Guiberteaux wasn’t able to attend. But Boone was there, as were Nguyen, Espiritu and Naribella. “This is pitiful,” Boone said, scanning the room. “This breaks my heart.”

Wait, then frustration

It took two hours to draw the first 108 names. The hush mostly persisted. Some applicants shouted for Rumpf to shake the box, and he obliged.

The drawing continued. Gilbert. Diaz. Concepcion. Dao. Cooper. Mohammed. When the count reached 108, it was time for a break.

Just one applicant in the room had celebrated after hearing her name. There were some other winners present, but they kept quiet.

Boone’s name hadn’t been called, nor Nguyen’s. Guiberteaux later received a postcard, No. 1776.

Celestine Bolton was close to tears. Many of the names drawn had sounded to the 25-year-old mother of three like those of recent immigrants, she said.

Aisha King, left, comforts Celestine Bolton as she becomes upset talking about the housing crisis. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Aisha King, left, comforts Celestine Bolton as she becomes upset talking about the housing crisis. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

“They get the refugee help they need, but the people who built this city, who’ve been in this city for years, can’t get nothing but false hope,” Bolton said, in a moment of frustration.

“Two thousand-plus people get the opportunity to fight over 108 apartments — are you serious? All this new construction going on around this city every day, these rich folks get to move in. But we got to scrounge around like roaches for 108 apartments? …This is not a happy day.”

Typically, Mercy Housing’s public events are uplifting, Rumpf said, looking forward to seeing smiles when residents move into the nonprofit’s newest building.

Last month’s lottery was different, the crowd a sea of frowns and tightened lips. The odds being what they were, Rumpf said, “Many people in the room felt disappointment.”