“We are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, across the city but especially here in an area with a lot of elders, low income people, and a majority renter population...The very last thing CID needs is tall commercial buildings casting literal shadows across the people who live here.”

Nick Turner
July 24, 2017

The Memorial Hall of the Nisei Veterans Committee in Little Saigon was once used for kendo practice. Kids from the neighborhood would dawn the mesh mask, grip their wooden sword and try to best each other, but things changed after World War II—Japanese-American veterans returned to a less than welcoming Seattle, one in which they had to fight tooth and nail for their right to stay. And so, the kendo group donated the building and it became the home of the NVC and, inevitably, a gathering place for the community.

Decades later, just last week on Tuesday, July 18, one such gathering occurred at a town hall meeting between Seattle city councilmembers and residents of the Chinatown-International District. The topic of discussion: Mandatory Housing Affordability, or MHA, a proposal by the city meant to encourage growth and maintain housing affordability. With MHA, developers must adhere to either the “performance option” or “payment option,” according to the MHA overview. The performance option requires developers to create a percentage of affordable homes for “income eligible households” that would have restricted rents. With the payment option, developers would only need to contribute money to a fund that the Seattle’s Office of Housing would then spend as it sees fit.

Community members requested the town hall meeting to provide residents a chance to express their grievances and give the city input. Of those that spoke, a handful expressed support for the proposal, while others—a clear majority, in fact—said they were strongly opposed.

MHA

Community members packed the Memorial Hall to attend the meeting and voice their concerns about the proposed MHA. Photo by Nick Turner.

The crowd at the meeting varied in both age and ethnicity. By and large, most were afraid that MHA will only contribute to worsening conditions in the neighborhood. The few who favored the plan did so hesitantly, most of them urging councilmembers to revise and improve the policy further, pointing out that developers could opt out of building affordable housing by contributing to the fund instead. This “loophole,” one such community member said, would only displace more families.

“This community feels trampled by representatives that don’t listen to their needs,” said Joseph Lachman, president-elect of the Seattle Chapter Japanese American Citizen League. “Who do you care about most,” he asked council members. “The people who built this community, or the people who are coming here to destroy it?”

MHA

Council President Bruce Harrell sits on the panel at the town hall meeting. Photo by Nick Turner

Five of the city’s nine councilmembers made an appearance at the meeting: Rob Johnson, Lorena Gonzales, Bruce Harrell, Lisa Herbold, and Mike O’Brien. They sat side-by-side at the front of the Memorial Hall facing a crowded room packed with attentive eyes lining the walls and peering in from the doorway. Johnson, chair of the city’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee, began by laying out three agenda items: a brief overview of the proposed zoning changes, a presentation by community members and their response to those changes, and a period of allotted time for public comment. He then alluded to the last time developers in Seattle were allowed to build higher based on a rezone proposal back in 2011.

“And we are back here in 2017 to allow for slightly taller buildings to be built,” Johnson said. He made it clear that the city is not proposing any changes in the historic core of the Chinatown-International District.

According to representatives from the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development, two of whom spoke at the meeting, the MHA proposal would raise the maximum height of newly constructed buildings to allow for two additional stories. These changes, according to the representatives, would create more affordable housing that stabilizes communities and create opportunities for families.

Community members remained skeptical. Many questioned what councilmembers consider affordable while others demanded that developers be required to build more affordable housing than what the proposal currently mandates—between 5 to 11 percent depending on the area and whether the building will be a residential and highrise commercial or non-highrise commercial. When the discussion was opened to public comment, many of them stood at the microphone with prepared statements.

“Why is it that we have city officials with no attachment making decisions on the community’s behalf without the community?” one asked the councilmembers. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“This turnout tonight really speaks to how anxious our community is that city officials will not advocate for their right to live in their own neighborhood,” another said, looking over their back at the crowd that had gathered, “that city officials are more interested in attracting capital investment than ensuring stable housing for all, and that the city simply isn’t listening.”

“We are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, across the city but especially here in an area with a lot of elders, low income people, and a majority renter population,” a different speaker said. “The very last thing CID needs is tall commercial buildings casting literal shadows across the people who live here.”

Photo by Nick Turner.

Leslie Morishita, Real Estate Development Director for the Interim Community Development Association (Interim CDA)—which hosted the town hall meeting—said that residents of the International District, Little Saigon, Nihonmachi and Chinatown are no strangers to proposals like this one. She was referring to moments in history like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 and the forced removal of some 7,000 residents of Japanese ancestry during WWII; she was also referring to more recent events like construction of I-5 in the 1960s, the Kingdome in the 70s along with new sports stadiums, the link light rail in 2009, and the street car in 2014. All of these things, Morishita said, made residents lose their sense of agency in the community.

“We cannot be blind to the repeating cycle of displacement of those most vulnerable by those with power and resources. It is a recurring theme that again seeks to repeat itself with the threat of displacement of the current residents and businesses that have settled here,” she said. “This is an irony that cannot be lost.”

The city published a draft environmental impact in early June this year, and will transmit MHA citywide legislation to the city council this Summer. The public comment period is open until August 7.