Central District Affordable Housing Plan Backed With $13.8M Budget Proposal

by Ben Adlin

An entire block of Seattle’s Central District once destined for commercial development would instead be transformed into affordable housing under a city budget proposal announced last week, part of an effort by organizers to help curb displacement of the area’s Black community.

The plan would have the City buy the property, at 16th Avenue and Yesler Way, and return it to local control under operation of the Africatown Community Land Trust, which submitted the proposal to City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office last week. K. Wyking Garrett, Africatown’s president and CEO, described it as an opportunity for city leaders to put their money where their mouth is in terms of supporting racial equity.

“Budgets are value statements, right?” Garrett said in an interview last Wednesday with Omari Salisbury of Converge Media. “This is an opportunity for the City to really put forth a clear statement that our community is valued.”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, whose district is home to the project, backed the plan last Monday, proposing a $13.8 million amendment to the City’s 2021 budget. The money would fund purchase of the property from its current owner, Bellevue-based developer Shelter Holdings.

“We received Africatown’s proposal last Thursday evening, and over the weekend my staff drafted and submitted the legislation,” Sawant said in a press release last Monday afternoon. “This is a rare opportunity to use a full square block in the rapidly gentrifying Central District, to develop affordable housing to prevent displacement.”

At a budget meeting last Wednesday, Councilmember Tammy Morales signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation. The matter will be discussed further as the Council finalizes the 2021 budget over the next few weeks. Budget Chair Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is scheduled to craft a proposed budget package by Nov. 10.

The Central District property in question was formerly the Keiro Northwest Rehabilitation and Care Center, an elder housing and care facility that predominantly served the neighborhood’s Japanese and pan-Asian communities. When Keiro closed last year, Shelter Holdings bought the property, intending to demolish the building and redevelop it. 

Organized pushback by residents stopped that from happening. This past spring, Shelter Holdings signed a two-year, no-cost lease with the nonprofit Mary’s Place to turn the building into a 24/7 shelter for unhoused families with children. Shelter also indicated it would be willing to sell the land rather than developing it. 

While Sawant’s press release said Mary’s Place is still operating the emergency shelter, the organization actually vacated the Keiro facility over the summer, barely more than a month after moving in. 

“We are not operating a shelter at that location,” Linda Mitchell, chief communications officer for Mary’s Place, told the Emerald in an email. “Because the building’s future was uncertain, we prioritized the privacy and stability of our guests and moved the families staying at the Yesler family shelter to other Mary’s Place shelter locations at the end of June.”

A member of Sawant’s staff told the Emerald last week they were unaware of the change.

Mitchell said Mary’s Place nevertheless supports the property’s transition back to community control.

Under Africatown’s proposal, the current building would continue to be used as a community shelter for the short term, Garrett said. In the coming years, the entire block would be redeveloped into long-term affordable housing and below-market retail. 

“We know that land is at a premium in the city and the Central District,” said Garrett of Africatown, “and so opportunities like this have to be seized.”

The skyrocketing costs of housing have already displaced many of the historically Black neighborhood’s longtime residents. In the 1960s and ’70s, more than 70% of Central District residents identified as Black, according to U.S. Census numbers. By the mid-2010s, that number had fallen to 18%

“The economic eviction of Black households is a direct outcome of for-profit developers and big banks colluding with the city’s political establishment over the decades to systematically push Black working-class people out of Seattle’s urban core,” Sawant said in a statement. “This racist gentrification has destroyed the very fabric of the community — forcing people out of their homes, away from their friends and neighbors, their churches, grocery stores, community clinics, parks, and schools.”

Africatown’s mission is to help strengthen and preserve Seattle’s Black community by acquiring and developing land. The proposed affordable housing project, for example, is adjacent to the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, a central venue for Black artists and audiences.

“This is really about answering the question: Are there Black people in the future?” Garrett told Converge Media. “That’s the big question for Seattle.”

Last year Africatown cut the ribbon on another keystone project: a redevelopment of the Liberty Bank Building — once the Pacific Northwest’s first Black-owned bank — into a six-story, 115-unit affordable housing and retail development at 23rd Avenue and Union Street. The land trust is also working on Africatown Plaza, which will have more than 130 units of affordable housing as well as below-market commercial space.

“This is a great opportunity to have a campus that really complements what’s been laid down,” Garrett said of the former Keiro site.

After years of planning, Africatown is also finally set to take control of the Central District’s long-unused Fire Station 6, on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Yesler, and turn it into a community innovation hub. The plan has been in the works since 2012, and on Monday the City Council voted unanimously to approve it. Under the terms of the deal, Africatown will operate the facility, to be known as the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation, under a 99-year lease from the city.

Sawant has said there are a number of ways the Council could pay for the $13.8 million proposal for the former Keiro site. “Funding for the project could come either by reducing the bloated police budget, or by slightly increasing the new tax on Amazon and other major corporations,” her office said in a press release. “The project could also be funded by restoring the $30 million Strategic Investment Fund to Address Displacement, which the Mayor promised but eliminated in her proposed budget.”

Garrett said last Wednesday that he doesn’t have a strong preference about where precisely in the city budget the money comes from, but he noted that the $30 million strategic fund Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed and later eliminated was specifically earmarked for affordable housing and other anti-displacement projects. On the other hand, he pointed out that safe, stable housing is crucial to public safety.

“When we give people housing, get people off the streets, and get people connected with resources to move forward in their lives,” he said, “this is what makes our community safer.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based reporter.

Featured image: Central District Community Conversations Meeting in January 2020