by Kelsey Hamlin
Near the Link light rail’s Othello Station, a passerby can easily spot a new red and grey apartment building called Othello Plaza, seemingly compatible with the other developments directly surrounding it.
However, Othello Plaza is considered affordable, received over 2,000 applications and only accepted approximately 100. Othello Plaza is now full, containing 53 two-bedrooms and 10 three-bedrooms.
The new development came to fruition through Mercy Housing, a national nonprofit organization specializing in affordable housing. Mercy was founded in the 1980s by a group of Catholic women seeking to take care of other women and their families. As such, the organization maintains a long-running focus on those subgroups, though they accept all. The Othello Plaza specifically received funding from a grant from Paul Allen, some HUD support, and a Seattle Housing Levy.
To celebrate, the organization held a grand opening at their new complex this past Saturday with tables of food, involvement awards, musical bands, performances, and a handful of speeches. But the Plaza isn’t just involved in affordable housing. Its creation included many community members, and it’s a part of the transit-oriented housing.
“Finding housing you can afford can be a real challenge,” King County executive Dow Constantine said to the crowd during a short speech. “It means accepting a commute that’s long and expensive.”
Transit-oriented housing seeks to alleviate these extra financial and environmental stressors. It also locates people in such a way as to make the surrounding community, immigrant-owned businesses, schools, and other resources more accessible.
This is the third Mercy Housing Northwest (MHNW) development in Rainier Valley, and 40 percent of this project’s construction workers were locals.
Othello Plaza offers more than just housing, however. An afterschool homework club, and health and wellness programs are available. During the summer, they host a lunch program open to the entire neighborhood.
The plaza’s grand opening had many children running about, a handful of teens, and a great variety of faces and cultures. There were performances by the Lieu Quan Lion Dance Team and Somali Youth Dancers.
MHNW president Bill Rumpf noted that getting all the residents in place took a lot of paperwork and verifications, though the majority are employed. The dream, he said, is ending homelessness.
However, Rumpf thought the number of applications the plaza received was due to its location. He didn’t link it to the rise of homeless people every year in King County nor the dramatic increases in rent as tech giants and workers flood the area. Just last year, Seattle’s rent costs rose at a rate four times faster than the national average.
As of June 2017, Seattle’s average apartment was $2,210, with the least expensive residing in Rainier Beach at $1,266 a month. Meanwhile, 11,643 people are officially homeless in Seattle — this data shouldn’t be compared to prior counts because the methods have changed. That’s a lot of numbers to take in. That’s a lot of money, and that’s a lot of homeless people. While one doesn’t exactly causate the other, these two topics are nonetheless related in complicated and nuanced ways.
Rainier Valley Community Development Fund’s Wayne Lau explained that the community was initially hesitant about another new building. Usually, new buildings mean disruption, gentrification, and displacement. Lau said Mercy Housing has a good reputation. The group also constructed Emerald City Commons, another affordable housing development.
“We wanted to make sure this was going to be a site that would be very quality-development,” Lau said, “and contribute to this neighborhood.”
The plaza’s project developer, Colin Morgan-Cross, lives in the South End himself and expressed the same sentiments.
“Nothing embodies this place more than the neighborhood that surrounds it,” he said of the project.
Mona Lee, whom Morgan-Cross called “the unofficial mayor of Othello,” said the plaza is built on a foundation of hopes and dreams, and the residents are “the kind of working people who have traditionally lived in our neighborhood.”
One new Plaza resident, Allison Simon, has lived in the South End for more than five years. She’s also an energetic 12-year cancer survivor.
“I love this neighborhood, this is my neighborhood,” Simon said, who frequently volunteers. Prior to her placement at Othello Plaza, however, she was homeless.
“I really became so stressed, and I was hospitalized,” Simon explained. At first, she was skeptical, but she had been waiting for this moment, and prayed for housing. When she first arrived to MHNW’s new apartments, she was warmly welcomed.
“I’ve made so many friends here!” she exclaimed. “We cook a meal together, and we share this meal together, and we talk, and we meet our neighbors, and that’s what I love.”
At the end of everyone’s speeches, awards were handed out by Morgan-Cross. The first award went to Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase for their involvement. When Allison got hers, she walked down the aisle looking at crowd members, arm outstretched with the little cement trophy, saying “for us.”
Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter working with various Seattle publications. Currently, she’s nearly finished with her University of Washington undergraduate career with interdisciplinary Honors., majoring in journalism and a minoring in Law, Societies & Justice. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her work on her website.