by Carolyn Bick
Tony To wants to help breathe life back into the Othello neighborhood. But to do that, he said, the area needs to attract more people with money to spend.
“We are trying to help our existing businesses to be able to compete and stay in this neighborhood. There’s a lot of good, successful businesses that … went through hell to stay in this community, through the Light Rail construction, and [Great Recession], and everything else, and we want to be able to help them to really do better,” To said.
To serves as the Executive Director of HomeSight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting culturally diverse communities by advocating on behalf of the people who already live in those communities.
Though HomeSight has existed since 1990, Saturday saw the organization’s first Othello-bration, a festival held in Othello Square that was meant to formally accept a five-year, $750,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation for the continued development of the area, and unveil Safeway’s new mural and the Beet Box, HomeSight’s nutritional education center. Last year, HomeSight received a $100,000 planning grant from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation for planning in both the Rainier Beach and Othello neighborhoods.
The festival was also meant connect community members with various service providers, an area where To sees a significant disconnect. He said there are “a lot of silos” when it comes to both the community’s knowledge of available services and businesses, and big businesses’ drive to connect with said community.
“The reality is that a lot of public funding reinforces silos. … One of the really good things about the [Communities of Opportunity] and the Wells Fargo Grant is that they require collaboration,” To said, referring to the collaboration between the City and the Seattle Foundation, called Communities of Opportunity, which launched in 2014.
The free celebration was also meant for something a little less formal: giving area residents something fun to do to kick off the summer.
Giving residents something fun to do is important – not just in the summer, but all the time, To said. In his almost 14 years working with HomeSight, the area hasn’t changed much, except to see businesses shutter their doors, and families move out of the neighborhood.
“You can have affordable housing, but if people can’t buy the clothes they want to wear, or worship their religion they are part of, or eat in restaurants that are part of their culture and their cuisine, then living there isn’t really fun for them,” To said. “It isn’t a reason to live there, except that it is low-income housing. … We want to make sure … [people] will fight to stay in this community. Without the fight to stay in this community, all it is is low-income housing.”
Still, To said, affordable housing is important, if the culture of the area is to be preserved. One of HomeSight’s missions is to preserve existing homeownership in the area, as well as create affordable housing for low-income families. HomeSight has been working on the latter goal, because of the dearth of low-income ownership housing available in the area, as well as affordable rental units that aren’t income-restricted. Over the last five years, To said in an email, the organization has built almost 600 homes, and either created or saved about 200 homeowners from foreclosure statewide in each of those five years.
“Our goal is to actually build … close to 50 percent of our rental units in that 50 to 80 percent of area median income range, so many of the people that live in subsidized low-income [housing] have a place to go when they are doing better, which, currently, they don’t,” To said.
Of the other market-rate units, To said, none of them will be more than 120 percent of area median income, which he said diverges from the rest of the market, which builds at 120 percent or more of area median income.