In gentrifying Seattle, low-income seniors in the Chinatown-International District are feeling the housing-affordability squeeze.
Three years ago, the sale of the Republic Hotel forced Tang Fungchun out of her home.
Her housing case manager, Helene Chin, recalls the cockroaches and mice scurrying around the deteriorating masonry of the 1920s-era single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel that now stands vacant. But Tang said it was fine. The $240 monthly rent was affordable and in the neighborhood she loves.
“I’m happy to be surrounded by friends,” Tang, 71, said in Taishanese, through an interpreter.
The cheapest room that Chin, who works at the nonprofit InterIm Community Development Association, could find for Tang was in another single-room-occupancy building at $550 a month. Tang has a fixed income of about $750 a month, so she and another former Republic Hotel resident, Wu Jinhai, squeezed two beds into a single room so they could stay in the neighborhood. Tang was recently placed into senior housing, but Wu continues to live in the room.
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In the construction-crane capital of America for three years running, low-income seniors are being priced out of a neighborhood with deep cultural and historic significance.
The past five years have seen a dramatic increase in private development in Chinatown International District, desirable for its access to public-transportation hubs and downtown Seattle.
The International Special Review District Board, which regulates construction in the neighborhood, received only three new-construction applications from 2008 to 2012 — a streetcar-maintenance facility and two affordable-housing projects.
Since 2013, there have been 16 new-project applications, the majority being mixed-use apartment buildings by private developers. That’s about 130 stories of new development, according to Seattle Department of Neighborhoods data.
Most of those applications were filed before the Seattle City Council upzoned the neighborhood this past year, but that action has only increased the pressure.
The 16 applications don’t include projects that haven’t been filed yet — such as development plans for the site of the beloved Bush Garden restaurant and karaoke bar — or several projects in Little Saigon, which only came under the board’s purview this January.
As metro Seattle property values and rent pressures increase and developers set their sights on Chinatown ID, it is increasingly difficult for mom-and-pop businesses and seniors on fixed incomes, like Tang, to stay in the neighborhood.
If low-income residents want to stay there, their options are typically limited to modest SRO units while waiting for a rare opening in senior housing. Chin’s clients wait up to 10 years for senior housing, which has low turnover. “Once you’re in, you stay until you pass away,” she said.
SRO hotels housed transient laborers a century ago, and the narrow rooms and shared bathroom facilities have since become long-term housing for low-income individuals.
There are about 600 residents who live in them, according to a preliminary study by InterIm, the neighborhood’s housing and community-development agency. But these cheap rentals are disappearing as the buildings are sold for redevelopment as market-rate housing.
“It’s kind of a feeding frenzy for outside speculative developers to come in,” said Leslie Morishita, who oversees real-estate development at InterIm. “If a seller is just interested in getting top dollar, we can’t compete.”
Because affordable-housing rates are pegged to Seattle’s area rapidly increasing median income, housing that is supposed to be affordable is out of reach for Chin’s clients — many of whom have fixed incomes of around $750 a month.
The majority of households in the Chinatown International District have an income of less than $25,000, while almost a quarter of households earn the city’s median income of $75,000 or more, according to U.S. Census data, making the neighborhood one of the densest concentrations of extreme poverty in the city.
The ability to navigate their neighborhood comfortably — to converse in their mother tongue with health-care providers, hairdressers and friends — is a high priority for many seniors in Chinatown International District, which was formed, in part, as a result of racially restrictive covenants elsewhere in the city.
“It’s familiar,” Nancy Chen said in Mandarin. “The smells remind me of my parents’ cooking.” The fragrance of zongzi, sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, wafting through the streets evokes memories of Taiwan during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Although Chen, 68, finds comfort in traditional cooking, she only boils vegetables and eggs because she doesn’t want to dirty the communal kitchen in her building. “Chinese food needs hot oil and big fire,” she said.
If Chen wants to stay in the neighborhood, she has to go without a kitchen of her own for several more years. In her SRO room, a sink is sandwiched between a mini-fridge and her bed. “There’s nothing you can do but wait.”
For Chen, America is a place where people come from “wu hu si hai” — a Chinese saying that translates to “all corners of the world” — and this neighborhood shouldn’t be any different. “I hope anyone can live here,” she said.
Renovation too expensive
While SRO buildings aren’t ideal living situations, they are often the best available option. But their stock is being depleted, too.
“It’s incredibly bleak,” said Marie Wong, a Seattle University associate professor who has studied Chinatowns extensively.
She attributes the turnover of SRO hotels to a rental-registration and -inspection ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council in 2014, which set baseline housing requirements, as well as other market forces.
Many building owners cannot afford to bring the rooms up to the new standards, Wong said. “You’re looking at a price tag of $24 million to renovate one of these buildings.”
This past July, Seattle’s City Council approved an upzone in the nonhistoric parts of the neighborhood, offering developers more height in exchange for building affordable units in their buildings, or paying into a citywide fund to build them elsewhere, through a program called Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA).
Leading up to the vote, neighborhood groups advocated for better anti-displacement measures to accompany the ordinance, voicing fears that the upzone would force out longtime residents like Tang and Chen.
Since the vote, the Chinatown International District Coalition has continued organizing to elevate the voices of seniors and others at the greatest risk of that and has made interpreters available at community meetings so non-English speakers can join the conversation.
“We’re talking about an extremely marginalized community. Once you lose that, it’s irreplaceable,” coalition member Cynthia Brothers said of the small businesses, nonprofits and residents who create the neighborhood’s unique character.
While critics see the upzone as a threat to the neighborhood’s character and affordability, the city defends the policy.
Emily Alvarado, policy and equitable-development manager at Seattle’s Office of Housing, said the city recognizes Chinatown International District as having “high displacement risk and high access to opportunity” and is committed to building more affordable housing in the neighborhood.
The city expects that most residential high-rise developers will pay into a fund rather than build affordable housing on site, but so far no projects have gotten to the stage of making that decision, Alvarado said.
She said that the payments could be reinvested in Chinatown International District, providing housing for very low-income residents.
“Without resources like MHA, we would not be able to make those investments,” she said.
The Office of Housing has funded 745 affordable-housing units in the past three decades in Chinatown International District, about evenly split between units affordable to people at or below 30 percent of the area’s median income — $21,000 for a single person — and 60 percent of area median income, about $42,000 for a single person.
An additional 527 units are under development, although less than one in five of those units will be at the lower income threshold, according to the city.
A studio for those earning 60 percent of the area’s median income is about $1,000 — which most of Chin’s clients cannot afford.
From her third-floor office in the Chinatown International District, Chin sometimes catches sight of Tang enjoying summer days at Hing Hay Park. “She loves to sit outside and soak up the sun,” Chin said.
When meeting Chin on a recent afternoon, Tang brought a small plastic bag with a few documents in English she could not understand. “I’ll look it them before we meet next week,” Chin told Tang.
Chin, a former accountant who picked up Taishanese to communicate with her many clients from the southern part of China’s Guangdong province, knows how hard it can be for Chinese seniors to live elsewhere. Speaking of one client who had to leave the neighborhood, Chin said, “She cried every day. She was lonely.”
Wu Zhong, 87, and his wife were among 600 applicants for the 96 units in Hirabayashi Place, an affordable-housing building built by InterIm in 2016. Since moving there from Tacoma, Wu has kept himself busy taking computer classes and reading the news. “I wanted to learn about world affairs, about the weather,” he said in Mandarin.
Previously a chef in delis and Chinese restaurants, Wu said he is mindful of saving money because of rent increases. They pay about $800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment plus water and utilities, with annual rent increases of about $50.
“The rent increases and our income doesn’t. It gets very scary,” Wu said.
He is careful to place the cheapest vegetables into his grocery basket and rarely eats out. Dim Sum King, where buns are 80 cents each, is popular among seniors in the neighborhood.