by Will Sweger
The neighborhood of Othello has a unique opportunity: if done right, it could develop into a pedestrian-friendly urban space away from the city center. Developers have noticed and are moving to add new homes near the Othello light rail station. Yet, in a neighborhood known for its racial diversity, debate roars over the best way to grow the community as many long-term residents find themselves unable to afford a place to live. Now, Canadian developer Woodbridge NW Communities is preparing to open Assembly 118, a 359-unit building just north of the Station at Othello Park.
Imitating El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill, building plans call for a small plaza complete with Edison bulbs spanning the divide and a large community room on the ground floor. The great room will feature retail space for a restaurant, a bar and a lobby complete with a second floor balcony overlook. Building management will decide which community events are allowed to take place on site. The interior and exterior details will feature modern styling glorifying straight lines and exposed wood.
The developers took into account community feedback to provide 257 parking spots for 359 homes to assure current residents the parking situation on the street will not worsen. They also agreed to use Hello Othello colors to avoid the drab appearance of the Station at Othello Park. Originally named Othello Station North, the developers re-titled the building Assembly 118 to incorporate the last three digits of the local zip code.
Rents at the building will run from $1,350 for a 480 square foot studio to $2,300 a month for a two bedroom, two bathroom 1,200 square foot apartment. The East side of the building will feature townhomes on the street level, while the West, facing the light rail will host bi-level homes with open fronts for small businesses and artist studios.
Rounding out the building are community rooms, a gym and a rooftop space with a dog run and patio areas for residents. The University of Washington is also planning to lease a space in the building to host satellite classes. When fully staffed, the building will employ a complement of nine and separate night security personnel. The developers expect the building to add room for 400 residents in the community, each a possible patron of Othello’s diverse collection of small businesses.
The project, rising six stories, towers over the Holly Park Community Church next door. Woodbridge NW is leasing the church’s spare lot space for trailers and construction worker parking during the day. In the lobby outside the nave, community activist and elder Mary Hackney told the story of the neighborhood.
Before Woodbridge NW acquired the land, the lot hosted a peculiar building called the Citadel. In the past, occupants had used it as a bowling alley, a church and in its final embodiment, a public market. Hackney described it hosting community events, books for prisoners program, 12 step seminars, dinner banquets and other cultural events. The location has also accommodated several private non-profits, occupational training groups and a taco truck.
When the Othello light rail station opened in July 2009, land speculation increased throughout the area. After Woodbridge NW took ownership of the building, they continued to let the community use the space for about a year. By the time Woodbridge decided to demolish the building, its roof had begun to leak significantly.
On the same lot across from the Citadel was a small apartment complex. When residents began receiving their 60-day notices of eviction, Hackney said the building tenants “needed more support” in obtaining their deposits and help contacting the previous or current owners.
Hackney said Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE) in Seattle became involved and activists staged a protest at a design review meeting in May of 2015. Describing the action, she said, “We went in there with banners. We went in there with the kids from the housing over there who had nowhere to go and the families.”
“You just kind of go on in to these meetings and you make your statement,” she said. “You actually interrupt the meeting. They allowed us to stay. It was a friendly, peaceful protest.” After the protesters made their statements, she said, they learned the representatives of the developer had just arrived from Canada and were not yet in attendance.
However, after the attention raised by the meeting protest, the representatives reached out to Hackney and the tenants facing eviction. Once a dialogue opened between Hackney and Jean-Paul ‘JP’ Grenier, Vice President of US Operations for Woodbridge NW, Grenier worked through the transition plans with each of the people living on the property.
Speaking of the exchange, Hackney said, “It brought the community closer together when JP and them got the information. They didn’t hesitate to sit down with each individual person and negotiate a pathway of financial support each person needed to relocate. As far as I know, everyone left pretty happy and satisfied.” She also pointed out that one of the first actions the developer took at the site was to bring in a minority construction contractor.
The developers even offered relocation assistance to people storing personal goods at the Citadel building. Speaking of the arrangements, Grenier said, “Oftentimes a development of this size like this will elicit a mixed response from the community, and we are hyper-aware of the social and economic equality challenges surround Seattle’s employment boom and housing supply issues. In this case, the community, through Othello Station Community Action Team in particular, has been spectacular to work with.”
Addressing the building’s affordability, he said, “There were initially some concerns about displacement, but because we replaced 11 very unsafe apartments with 70 beautiful and safe affordable housing apartments, our story was worth telling. The residents who lived in the previous building didn’t qualify for official relocation assistance but we provided it to them anyways because it was the right thing to do.”
Hackney said, “they were very community minded. I like the way they came in the community,” but added, “that building isn’t geared for low-income people.” The 70 affordable units offered at Assembly 118 will fall under Seattle’s Multifamily Tax Exemption program, which offers tax breaks for developers who provide at least 20 percent of their units at no more than 80% of the area median income.
With the cheapest apartment renting at $1,350 a month for a small one-bedroom and the minimum application criteria stating one must make 2.5 times the rent monthly, a couple or individual would have to make $40,500 annually to be allowed to move into the community. That sounds pretty good considering the median household income in Seattle as of 2015 is $80,000 according to the Seattle Times.
However, South Seattle, particularly Othello, is known for racial diversity. The median income is $49,000 for Hispanic households and $37,000 for black households. If you were thinking about starting a family and wanted to rent a two bedroom, one bath apartment, you would need to earn at least $69,000 a year. While Assembly 118 is in no way gouging its renters (the average rent for a 1 bedroom in the city was $1,412 in 2014) market-controlled prices will always leave some people unable to afford lodging.
In effect, while the building certainly provides housing at market competitive prices, because of wealth inequality, many of the people who grew up in the community are being pushed out of their neighborhoods. Without changes going forward, Othello will continue to develop in all types of diversity except income.
Under proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) legislation that could go into effect next summer, developers would have to provide some units available at below market rates or pay a fee towards a city fund earmarked for affordable housing. Many of the desirable sites near public transit like Assembly 118 are being developed now it is not clear if developers in those sites will opt to pay the fines rather than provide low-income housing.
Giulia Pasciuto, Policy and Research Analyst at Puget Sound Sage, said, “The challenge right now is that the city has put all of its eggs in the MHA basket…There needs to be other solutions that we’re looking towards to help mitigate the displacement in Southeast Seattle and other neighborhoods.”
When asked about housing models resistant to displacement, Pasciuto explained, “The most promising examples of where communities are able to resist displacement are places where there is a high percentage of land that is held in community ownership.”
“Looking towards a solution,” she said, “is about taking land out of the speculative market rather than relying on the market to solve the problem for us.”
Displacement is also affecting small businesses that were pushed out of the Citadel building and cannot afford a new place in Assembly 118. Many independent shops, like Café Red, cannot afford to rent the retail space in the building.
Jesiah Wurtz, Part Owner/Operator of Café Red initially ran his business from a coffee cart before he learned about Assembly 118 through Onboard Othello. He approached Woodbridge through HomeSight, a nonprofit focused on affordable homeownership. Wurtz said his initial meeting with Grenier’s assistant went well, but Wurtz said the meeting with the Vice President himself went sideways when Grenier showed up in an expensive suit.
Wurtz, complete with a mountain man beard and usually sporting plaid, said Grenier was not into the idea of hosting events, something the owners of Café Red considered essential. After sending a business plan and failing to hear a response, the leadership of Café Red decided to move into their current location, a fabricated building on a tiny lot sandwiched between Assembly 118 and the light rail station. “If you want this to be a community space, you have to be able to host events,” said Wurtz.
After moving, the owners of Café Red discovered the developers were doubling their initially quoted price for the space in Assembly 118’s lobby, effectively killing the deal.
Wurtz said he is still holding out hope for the new building though. “We had some preconceived notions about the Station, but we’ve met people doing all sorts of stuff. It wasn’t a bunch of yuppies as we’d imagined it would be.” He expressed concerned about Woodbridge NW’s marketing though, fearing most of the effort is geared towards attracting tech workers from out of state.
On the current website for the building you can find pictures of Georgetown and people sporting Chuck Taylors. Wurtz pointed out there aren’t any pictures of Othello on Assembly 118’s website and said “It feels very misleading…it’s not cool enough for them.”
Hackney offered a more conciliatory view, “This is a good case of developers doing the best they can with what they just walked into blindly,” she said. “A lot of these investors that come in don’t realize the state of emergency that they’re putting themselves in when they buy property here in Seattle. There’s really no go-to person who can help them have a clear vision of what’s really in place…Then they’ve got residents they can’t get rid of. The residents are holding on, bloody fingers and all, saying ‘I’m not going anywhere because I don’t want to be out in the cold.’”
Even though the building’s completion is still at least a month away, Assembly 118 has 100 signed leases so far. With delays in construction, they’ve lost 50 of their original applicants.
Urban advocates look at the area around the Othello light rail station and see what it could be, a community less reliant on cars, an example of a more sustainable future for humans to live together. Whether old neighbors will be able to move back to enjoy that new community remains to be seen. Until then, neighborhoods like Othello will keep losing those with the longest memories of the community before they can pass on that legacy.
Will Sweger is a Beacon Hill resident and contributor at the South Seattle Emerald. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle and Borgen Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger