Over the past few weeks, I have watched with increasing dismay as, once again, the Chinatown International District is being asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of responsibility for filling resource gaps it did not create.
As reporter Greg Kim reported extensively last Sunday, at issue this time is the expansion of a shelter facility to add 150 sobering center beds, an RV lot, an area for “pallet shelters” and a behavioral health center, bringing the total number of beds in that location alone to 419.
There is no doubt the added housing is desperately needed. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, or KCRHA, estimates in their new 2022 point in time count that 13,368 people experienced homelessness in King County, with 57% of that total living unsheltered. (Another method of counting the problem uses the number of people seeking services, and the 2022 number for that was 40,800.)
We need all the additional beds and services we can find, as well as thousands of more affordable housing options for our out-of-control housing market. We also need to address the root causes that drive homelessness in the first place. But the way the already fragile, predominantly Asian American neighborhood is being treated in this process repeats the harms of the past.
Leslie Morishita of the Chinatown International District’s InterIm Community Development Association described the ongoing fight over the location of the shelter as “very, very, frustrating.”
Morishita said: “It falls into this, ‘Oh, it’s the CID versus homeless people.’ And that is totally missing the point of where we’re coming from.”
Some of the reaction to Kim’s story illustrated that, with even people in other parts of the country calling the expansion opposition from some in the CID a classic “NIMBY” response.
But that characterization is ahistoric and unfair.
As I wrote in late August about another massive project facing the neighborhood, a huge new Sound Transit station, the CID is home to only about 3,000-4,000, mostly people of color and many vulnerable Asian American elders, and the neighborhood has a poverty level twice the city average. The median income of the neighborhood is half the city average.
Even by the CEO of the KCRHA’s own admission, homeless shelters have been “aggressively sited” in the CID and Pioneer Square while wealthier and whiter neighborhoods like Magnolia have none.
Morishita said the consequence of the concentration of poverty and need in one small area of the city has created ripple effects that threaten displacement for longtime residents, particularly Asian American elders.
“At InterIm, we advocate for homeless services, and we want everyone to be taken care of, but at the same time, it’s very frustrating to keep telling our public officials or the [KCRHA], ‘Listen to the community, this place is saturated, we can’t take anymore.’ ”
Before the NIMBY accusations start, InterIm itself was born out of the anti-displacement and cultural preservation efforts led by community activists in the 1960s and beyond. Uncle Bob Santos, known as the unofficial mayor of CID, served as the executive director of the agency for many years and fought for housing for low-income residents. The agency not only advocates for affordable housing but builds affordable housing of its own, some of which houses formerly unhoused people, Morishita said.
She said in recent years there has been an increase in crime and vandalism to the point that residents of InterIm buildings are moving out. She said some elders don’t feel safe riding the bus anymore or leaving their homes. The one full-service pharmacy that served the neighborhood closed and an affordable Asian grocery, Viet-Wah, had its last day on Friday after more than 40 years.
Morishita said it is not unhoused people that are the cause of the increased safety issues — unhoused people are more likely to be victims of crime — she said it’s more the concentration of poverty and people who prey on unhoused people. In addition, the rise in anti-Asian American hate incidents has only added to the fear.
“We fight displacement and we fight for the revitalization of the neighborhood, especially on behalf of the low-income, limited-English-speaking immigrants and refugees and many elders in the neighborhood,” Morishita said.
In the past few weeks, a number of neighborhood elders have marched multiple times to protest the expansion and testify before the Seattle and King County councils.
But even as King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said safety in the CID “is at an all-time low,” elected officials say the urgent need for more housing outweighs the CID’s concerns, which is a familiar refrain.
The CID seems to have become the neighborhood of first resort. Somehow in this entire city and county, it’s the only place that can provide desperately needed housing and services.
“And we’re asking, what other locations have been considered? When you look at the whole county, there’s such disparity in the way these things are placed,” Morishita said.
According to the KCRHA, the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing units in King County was 7,338 in 2022. A spokesperson for the KCRHA said the agency did not yet have a map of shelter spaces by neighborhood but is expecting to have that ready soon.
It was systemic racism in the form of redlining and racially restrictive covenants that created the CID, which then turned exclusion into a culturally rich, vibrant community. Today, advocates feel systemic racism is once again making their needs and priorities secondary, now under the guise of expediency.
The urgency is undeniable. But are we to believe that there are no alternative options in the parts of the city that currently carry a disproportionately smaller share of the responsibility for housing our most vulnerable neighbors?
I can think of some more affluent neighborhoods that could pull more of their weight: Madison Park, Broadmoor, Windermere, Magnolia and Queen Anne, for starters. Laurelhurst, in particular, still has a 21-acre site for sale that could house a multitude of shelter and affordable housing options, if there was political will.
I can anticipate the arguments why these locations are ridiculous: “They aren’t near social services” (create some); “The neighborhoods aren’t zoned for it” (change the zoning). If we are in such an urgent crisis that one neighborhood must make sacrifices for the greater good, why shouldn’t all of them? In the early 2000s, Magnuson Park in the Sand Point neighborhood created transitional housing and services where none had existed before against community opposition — that could be done again.
Morishita said every elected official and agency involved say they care about racial equity and the CID. But their actions tell a different story.
“If their actions would follow what they say they believe in,” she said, “that would be amazing.”