by Hannah Myrick
(This article was originally published by Real Change and has been reprinted with permission)
Ubah Warsame-Aden has found an irreplaceable home in one of Tukwila’s invaluable immigrant-owned business communities.
She has lived in Tukwila for five years, and in that time has grown to call this place a kind of second home. As an independent health coach and Somali interpreter, Warsame-Aden has developed relationships with residents who spend their entire day, most days of the week, at a hub of business and community in Tukwila on International Boulevard. It is a place where she and many others not only complete their day-to-day errands, but can sit down with residents of all ages to discuss the news of home and their surrounding lives over tea.
“It’s not just the purpose of the shop; it is the community place,” Warsame-Aden said. “This is one of the reasons that I chose to move here, to be honest with you.”
This majority-East-African-run community center, also housing businesses run by other immigrant communities, is now under threat from the Tukwila City Council, which aims to take the land on which these businesses stand out from under them. These 16 businesses — a travel agency, grocery stores, a hair salon and many others — are slated to be pushed out, with the vulnerable business owners and surrounding community right along with them.
In the center of this space, at South 150th Street between Tukwila International Boulevard and Military Road South, sits a quiet battle between an immigrant and refugee community’s heart and Tukwila development.
Tukwila’s newest development, the justice center, is slated for the land on which these businesses currently exist. The justice center is a proposed two-story building, which would house Tukwila’s municipal court, police station, police offices, an emergency operations center and other offices. The city of Tukwila proposed a new justice center because of the overcrowding and dilapidation of the facilities that currently house these services. It is a piece of Tukwila’s Public Safety Plan, which aims to reconstruct several outdated city facilities.
Business owners feel they were never actively included in the process of choosing the location for this new facility and found out too late to stop it. The city reached out about the formation of the new justice center and its potential new locations through postcards and fliers, but the business owners say they received the mail too late to make a stand before the final vote on its location.
This has left the business owners unsure of what their future holds, but fighting with all of their might to make sure that their and the surrounding community’s livelihoods aren’t thrown to the wayside.
“A lot of people come to this community center; these people come as far as Tacoma to buy fresh meat, or groceries, or wire money, or buy tickets, or fix their phones here,” said Tawfik Maudah, the owner of Bayview Motor Club, a used car dealership that he has owned for six years. “So many things that people come here to do.”
Tukwila’s existing public safety infrastructure, such as the Fire Stations and Police Department, were built for a community that is one-third the size of what it is now, meaning these buildings are now overcrowded and ill-prepared for emergency situations. Although these facilities are meant to serve the surrounding population in the event of an emergency, several of these buildings, including three fire stations, would be left irreparable if an earthquake happened.
The new Public Safety Plan for the city includes an update to these facilities. This includes the building of three new fire stations, police facilities, a municipal court, a public works facility and the justice center.
Similar facilities exist in Tukwila in the current City Center, which houses a Municipal Court and Police Department, along with an annex next to City Hall that contains more of the police department, as there are now three times as many police personnel as there were when the facility was first constructed.
In the November 2016 election, the city asked for a bond and attached levy that would reach no more than $77.4 million in order to pay for the three new fire stations plus equipment and the justice center. Voters approved it by a slim margin. The measure required 60 percent to pass, and it did by just 31 votes.
The original budget for the justice center alone was $28.6 million. As of January it reached $68.5 million.
Through various council presentations, community meetings and copious documents outlining the plan, the city officials, along with the surrounding community, began to narrow down what they wanted out of this area and their justifications for it being built.
“The justice center is necessary because we have a police department in the basement of City Hall, and the city has grown dramatically since that facility has been put in place,” Tukwila Councilmember Dennis Robertson said. “We’ve been using Council Chambers as a courthouse: That’s a fairly significant problem where we have to bring the prisoners through the office space, so there’s a significant safety issue there.”
It took City Council members several months to determine what they wanted from new sites to house the justice center. In an internal survey filled out by city employees, they cited a need for greater security, parking, separation of court and police functions, greater space and access in the new site.
The city proposed 13 different potential sites and eventually voted on the lot of these business centers because it had “superior access to transit, multiple access points for police vehicles, flat lot, surface parking,” according to a slideshow created by the city. It was also outside of the floodplain and on land that should remain stable in a major earthquake.
Hoping to hear the voices of their surrounding community, the city of Tukwila hosted a series of three open houses in 2017 and sent postcards out to every address in the city of Tukwila to alert them that they were happening.
The city also selected members for the Siting Advisory Committee — a seven-person group, including a public works director, two council members and four community members — which helped determine the final site for the justice center. None of those members were from the business center.
The city took out ads in the Tukwila Reporter, on social media and the city website. It sent postcards to all businesses within 500 feet of potential sites and posted fliers citywide, looking for community members for the committee. However, the city did not offer accommodations for the members of the immigrant business community, many of whom work 12 to 18 hours a day.
These business owners’ participation would have required interpreting services in Spanish, Somali and Korean, child care at meetings and other efforts from the city that would make the absence from their businesses worth the time and money lost. Although the city reached out all across the community and extended the deadline to accept committee members, it did not offer services like these, making it nearly impossible for these businesses to attend.
“If you want participation from your large and very important Somalian and East-African community, you have to put a lot of work in it,” said Howard Greenwich, the senior policy advisor at Puget Sound Sage, an advocacy group that is working with the community to help them fight against this development and maintain their roots.
The communication to the business community was limited even further when the vote for the selection of the final site came. Maudah said business owners received a postcard in the mail one week before the final vote, informing them of a council meeting that would hold a final vote for the location of the justice center.
This gave them little time to prepare for the decision on Nov. 6 that would determine the fate of their businesses.
Site logistics disputed
Tukwila International Boulevard, the street that runs in front of these businesses, is a popular stretch of road. It’s right off of Interstate 5, making it a 20-minute drive from downtown Seattle and nine minutes to Sea-Tac International Airport. These factors make the location attractive, but this is just one of the sites that sit alongside the boulevard.
Diagonal to the business center is another lot that houses one business with a sign reading “retired” and a single-family home. Maudah asked city officials why they didn’t choose the place across the street, with greater land and seemingly less impact and community value.
He says they replied that the land was soft and sloping.
“[The business center] site met the criteria better than any other site, access being a huge reason,” said Rachel Bianchi, the project manager for the broader Public Safety Plan. “At the end of the day it comes back to the site we chose being the best site.”
But for Maudah, it isn’t that simple.
“It’s not rocket science,” Maudah said. “It can be fixed with all the millions you’re gonna be spent to buy this land and fight to get it. Just fix that land and leave us alone.”
Maudah and other businesses continued to follow up with the city, asking why they chose their businesses, trying to make clear the significance and positive impact of their community.
The city has the right to take this land based on eminent domain, wherein the government has the power to take private property if its intent is to turn it into a space for public use.
A letter from the mayor’s office that Maudah received in mid-April told the businesses they must sign a lease with the city or face eviction. This meant the businesses would be eventually condemned and relocated to prepare for the new justice center. To stay, they would need to sign the new lease by May 1, 2018, in order to stay until March 2019, an extension from the original move-out date of November 2018. As of now, Maudah says he has until the end of May to sign the lease. But signing it means game over.
“And once I do that, I give up all my rights to contest to anything. Once I sign the lease I can’t talk, I can’t protest, I can’t object to anything,” Maudah said. “It’s like case closed.”
Maudah and all the other business owners asked the city to answer five requests, which if not acted on would mean the business owners would “take repeated collective action for the City’s unjust decision.”
They demanded that the project stop and that the business owners be allowed to remain in place. They wanted a seat at the table in any future decision-making process and assurances that the city studied the social and economic value of their businesses, as well as a market analysis to determine if the businesses could realistically be relocated and still survive.
The city tried to appease the owners through compensation, bringing in economic advisors to discuss the leasing, compensation and relocation process. But it was all in English and technical, making translation to Somali, Spanish and Korean difficult.
Even when overcoming language barriers, the city’s incentives came across more demeaning than productive for the business owners who have put immeasurable work into their places.
Many of these business owners are first-generation immigrants, bringing themselves and their families to the United States for an extremely different and life. They are already facing cost of living increases and have spent anywhere from a few years to two decades building up their businesses to survive. Now, in the blink of an eye, they could be gone.
Maudah has customers coming from all across the region, from cities such as Renton, Kent, Federal Way and Des Moines, for his business and the trust it offers. Nearly every business owner struggled with establishing a customer base over the first few years of their business, and to imagine those relationships being crushed for a justice center that would make life in the city for them nearly impossible, is about as unjust as possible.
“They started saying by law we don’t have to offer you anything but because we want to be nice, we’re going to offer you around $5,000 [per business]. Then they went to $10,000. Now they have between $10,000 and $15,000. Of course this is insulting, you know, to say this,” Maudah said.
Location, location, location
For the city, assistance for these businesses means financial help, favorable lease terms and assistance finding new locations for their businesses through the Small Business Development Center Directory at Highline College.
The city has also issued a Request for Proposal, wherein they can create a venue within Tukwila for these businesses to then purchase, as one of the criteria for purchase would be helping displaced businesses. The city has not yet found a piece of property for those businesses.
“We’re working to meet with everybody and working on strategies that we can assist them with,” Bianchi said. “We’re meeting in big groups, we’re meeting one-on-one. We’re getting out there.”
For the store owners, these solutions don’t work as smoothly in practice as they do on paper. The idea of having to survive in an entirely new place seems incredibly daunting, and their businesses wouldn’t have the same desirability and impact somewhere else.
The office for Maudah’s dealership is in a storefront that houses an immigration lawyer, a money exchange business, a travel agency and technology services. Traffic to one means traffic to all. Walking into the building, customers see multiple other businesses they wouldn’t have otherwise known were there.
“We all benefit from each other’s customers. Now if they take these three businesses and scatter them around, I’m going to lose half of my business,” Maudah said. “Same thing with those people. … Some of these businesses are small to the point where if they moved to a different location, they might just run out of business. They can’t afford to lose the biggest advantage they have, which is location, and move to a different one.”
The same fears around displacement are true for other business owners in stand-alone shops. For many business owners, the fear of relocating is so overwhelming it’s difficult to fathom.
“They come to us, they buy our food, but they wanna take the place. And I don’t know what we’re gonna do,” said Omar Osman, the owner of the Somali restaurant Xalwo Kismaayo.
The restaurant is open seven days a week, 4 a.m. – 10 p.m., and Osman wakes up at 1 a.m. every day to be there. Most of the customers are regulars, taxi and Uber drivers who are drawn in by the $1 menu, $5 plate of food and its proximity to the airport. Without this convenience, there would be less incentive for drivers to come to his shop, and his main customer base would be gone. This move would be a big hit to Osman, his wife and their three kids.
“Let’s say you have a job and they fire you or you quit. You can get another job. You can do it. But when you are a business and it is very hard to create a customer, first a place,” Osman said. “Business always is place, place, place, place. A good place, a good spot. And second you have to find a customer.”
Kinnon W. Williams, a lawyer who specializes in eminent domain cases who is working with these businesses, said the city of Tukwila made a severe mistake in deciding not to provide compensation to the businesses from the beginning.
Now that the city has decided that these businesses will be removed without appropriate compensation, Williams said Tukwila will clearly damage the community center and prevent the city from receiving any kind of federal funding for a project dedicated around public works.
“They’ve got a project that’s severely over budget — on a project of that size, in a city that relies heavily on some kind of federal funding, that’s crazy,” Williams said. “This is just them wanting to put the project on the backs of these small businesses.”
Many community members, the business owners and the advocacy workers believe that the city hasn’t fully realized the impact, power and influence of this community.
In a city that collectively speaks more than 80 languages in local schools and is home to a large population of immigrant and other minority groups, you would expect that celebrating diversity, specifically in this community, would be the city’s priority. Instead advocates say the city saw the qualities of this business center as ones which could be measured in the checking of some boxes, rather than as a place with immeasurable community value.
“The city is under a lot of political pressure to make this happen, and the businesses rising up is very inconvenient for this city,” Greenwich said. “I think they saw a bunch of ramshackle buildings … and said this is the cheapest place for us to buy and tear down.”
The business owners have hosted their own meetings with council members, attended council meetings ceaselessly, written letters to the mayor and held a rally at the end of April, where Warsame-Aden was the speaker and organizer screaming, “We are Tukwila; Tukwila is us,” and “It’s never too late; stop this project.”
“I actually lost my voice,” Warsame-Aden said. “I was the one who was screaming.”
They have the support of Puget Sound Sage, the Working Families Party in Washington, OneAmerica, the local branch of the NAACP and El Centro de la Raza. They’ve also had support from various local councilmembers from Seattle and Burien, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Tukwila) and various communities, giving them a greater power to fight back.
“In the very beginning, they thought we are alone and just a small dot on the radar that they can get rid of really quickly,” Maudah said.
If these businesses go, so do most of the residents. This site is not just one where people come to buy their food and leave, but one where they live their everyday lives, build relationships and find a makeshift home in a new place. It is where Maudah greets familiar faces as he walks around to various businesses. It is where retired immigrant men and women that Warsame-Aden works with travel to every day.
They go to the nearby Islamic Center of Seattle and walk to the nearby business center, staying often until 8 p.m., talking about what’s happening back home over a cup of tea and a Sambusa, a kind of triangular pastry that is fried and filled with a variable mix of vegetables and/or meat. Without this community center, the inevitability of depression rests heavy on their minds. There is a strong bond between each member of this community, a community which has shifted the environment of what came before.
Warsame-Aden talked to a regular community member who told her that if the center moves, “It’s like they’re gonna be cutting my heart out.”
The plan aims to start construction in April 2019, with a completion date of August 2020, and for now, these business owners have until March 2019 to hold onto their businesses.
“They have big plans on those big plans. Small business like this, they will be crushed. Even though we came here 20 years ago when nobody was here, nobody wants to be here,” Maudah said. “Now they say, ‘Oh no, now it’s too, too good for you to be here. You’ve got to go.’”
Featured image by Matthew S Browning