By Nicole Einbinder
Columbia City’s historic district in southeast Seattle is a world of its own.
Trendy new restaurants line Rainier Avenue among assorted retail shops, while crowds of young people pile into bars and music venues. Above it all looms the new, six-story Angeline apartments, situated above a PCC Natural Markets and boasting amenities from a fitness center to rooftop desk and pet wash station.
The Angeline was first proposed for Columbia City in 2011 by developer Security Properties, according to Rebecca Frestedt, Coordinator for the Columbia City Landmark and International Special Review District with Seattle’s Historic Preservation Program. Since the building is located inside the historical district — one of eight in Seattle — the project was approved through a landmarks board, which dictates any changes within historic boundaries.
Construction began fast in 2013, with the 193-unit building, 25,000-square-foot grocery store, and 265-space underground parking garage opening doors this past summer. The apartment building is already more than 50 percent occupied, said Jeanne Muir, a consultant with Security Properties, while rental prices range from $1,483 per month for a studio to $2,025 per month for a 1-bedroom with den, according to their listings on Craigslist.
“Market rate housing means no constraints on rent,” explained Wayne Lau, Executive Director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund. “This is a desirable area that’s been overlooked by many people in other parts of the city, and there’s always been a perception of higher crime and undesirability so I think this is a very positive thing that it can command higher rents.”
Cragislist post for a one bedroom Angeline apartment, starting at over $2000 per month.
Craigslist post for Angeline Apartments studio apartment, starting at over $1000 per month.
As Columbia City continues to undergo large-scale development, public reaction to new projects like the Angeline has been mixed. According to some long-term neighbors, the rapid construction projects and new shops introduced over the past few years not only signal gentrification and changing demographics, but an altered culture from what originally drew them to the south side.
“When rents go up and when people come in paying a higher rent they tend to have different priorities than cultural,” said Angeline resident Paul Nelson, who has lived in King County since 1988 and came to Columbia City around six years ago. “The neighborhood has lost a lot of its soul.”
“I think it’s a different neighborhood,” added Hillman City resident Connie Cox, who moved to Rainier Valley in 1997. “As far as the Angeline goes, it went from a one story-building with a large parking lot to six stories. It’s way too big of a building and just vastly out of scale with the neighborhood.”
Resident Michelle Perry, who bought her home 39 years ago and raised two children in the neighborhood, also remembers a different Columbia City. When she first moved to the area, she was only 21 years old and just settling into her first home with her family.
“I would say on my block alone there were about four black families, one gay family, four older residents, some Jewish people to the east of us, various Asian people in the neighborhood,” she recalled. “Well, there’s only two black homeowners on my street right now and both of us are divorced women and our kids are grown.”
In 1990, Columbia City was predominantly African American, with 1,646 residents of color and 822 white residents. In 2010, there were around 1,191 African American residents and 1,139 white residents in the neighborhood.
Cox said that many long-term residents were priced out due to high rent, with single-family homes demolished for multiple-story apartment buildings to make room for the influx of new residents to the area.
“They were all homeowners,” Perry said of the former residents on her street. “I watched a lot of homes foreclose during the recession and those who took advantage of that were either investors or well-to-do young white people who were able to sweep up that property and fix it up.”
“I don’t blame them to want to move here,” she added. “That’s just the privilege that they have the means and funding to do that.”
In 2010, 1,191 properties out of a total 1,885 housing units were rentals, as opposed to owner-occupied.
“It’s not so much the Angeline as it is a whole slew of apartments,” said Miguel Jimenez, the Resource Development Coordinator at Rainier Valley Food Bank. “It’s really common for a complex to be purchased for a new coat of paint to go up, or some new bathroom fixtures, and the rent to go up $800 a month. And the thing we are seeing here at the food bank are people coming in with these stories who are fearful of what’s going to happen to their families and to their homes.”
Resident Scott Amick, who moved to Columbia City three and a half years ago, said that while the new developments in Columbia City are attracting young professionals, many of the folks who grew up in Rainier Valley are now more likely to live in tighter quarters, due to exorbitant rent prices, or leave all together for cities like Kent where housing is more affordable.
Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s recently re-elected District 3 council member and a vocal advocate of housing affordability, said that development can be positive for the city, but it depends on who benefits from these projects.
“We want development without displacement, meaning we do want good quality housing for everybody but it has to be affordable for all working people,” she said, emphasizing how many units being built across the city are only accessible for a small minority.
While housing affordability remains a major issue in Columbia City according to residents, the Angeline has made some attempts at tackling the issue by placing certain apartments in a Multifamily Tax Exemption Program. Thanks to the program, Nelson and his family were able to afford an apartment in the new building.
“There’s something nice about living in a place where no one has lived before,” he said. “It’s incredibly convenient living above the PCC and a block from incredibly fine dining.”
Angeline resident Carl Livingston, who has called the neighborhood home for the past 26 years and began living in the new apartment around a month ago, also enjoys the perks of the building.
“It’s got everything I need, the people are friendly, it’s given me a chance to kind of re-establish myself in my own neighborhood but in a different location,” he said. “I wanted my kid to remain connected to the school and the community center he attends and I know these restaurants so this has been ideal for me.”
For Mount Baker resident Carlo Davis, who moved to the area around a year ago, the PCC is an exciting addition to a neighborhood that had previously lacked a high-quality grocery store.
Nelson said that while programs like the MFTE provided him and his family with access to a higher quality of life, many low-income residents in the neighborhood do continue to struggle because there are not enough affordable housing options.
The Rainier Valley Food Bank experienced a 59 percent increase in service levels over the past four years and feeds twice as many people today than they did in 2009 at the height of the economic recession, according to Jimenez.
“I can’t say gentrification is the number one cause of the increase in people who need food at our food bank, but something is causing it,” he said.
Perry said it’s been heartbreaking to watch the cultural diversity of the neighborhood disappear over the years, especially since many of the new residents who benefit from the development lack an understanding of long-term residents’ perspectives.
“[The PCC’s location] was [formerly] a little neighborhood store, so it’s around the corner from me and it was great coming home from work, coming in, getting a bag of bread or something quick,” she said. “Now, the PCC is huge and beautiful, but now for me it’s not a quick trip. It’s going once a month because of pricing and getting everything you’re going to do in one trip because the traffic is a nightmare.”
Perry said that one of her main concerns is whether or not her home will be foreclosed on, and if her son will have the means to move back to the neighborhood and eventually take over the house she has called home for the past four decades.
“Most of our kids who are making low to middle income cannot come back to our neighborhood,” she said. “It was just said that our kids are going to get our house and it’s just uncertain now.”
Despite the drastic changes in the neighborhood, Perry said there is still a sense of community.
She hopes new residents will listen to and honor the stories of older neighbors so they can all work together to preserve Columbia City’s character for future generations.
“Not only color is changing but economic status, all kinds of businesses, family owned shops,” she explained. “It’s nice to have new energy in the neighborhood as long as they are respectful of the energy that’s been around way longer.”
“All we can do is adjust,” she said. “Whoever is left.”
Hear an audio clip of Perry’s thoughts on changes to the neighborhood.