Virtual Groundbreaking of Uncle Bob’s Place Honors Legendary Community Activist

by Ronnie Estoque

The love that the Seattle community had for legendary civil-rights activist Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos was in full bloom Thursday evening for the virtual groundbreaking of a new affordable housing development named after him. An additional Zoom overflow room had to be created to accommodate all the many community members in attendance. The CID-based InterIm Community Development Association (CDA) in charge of the development produced a video shown during the event that discussed Uncle Bob’s contributions to the neighborhood and details about the building, which is set to begin its construction in the second week of March.

The event was also a commemoration of Uncle Bob’s life, as it was held the same day as his birthday. After its expected completion in December 2022, Uncle Bob’s Place will offer 126 affordable units for low-income households, which will be designated for family households that have incomes at less than or equal to 50% of Area Median Income in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID).

“Uncle Bob advocated tirelessly, shining a light on the disparity he saw every day and the fundamental injustice of a community wrought from historic restrictive racial covenants and redlining, now facing the threat of gentrification and displacement,” said Leslie Morishita, Real Estate Development Director at the InterIm CDA.

Uncle Bob’s Place finalized sketch. (Photo Courtesy of Interim CDA)

The development will include 29 studios, 55 one-bedrooms, 28 two-bedrooms, and 14 three-bedrooms with monthly rental rates projected to range from $956 per studio up to $1,505 per 3-bedroom, according to Morishita. People interested in these units are encouraged to contact Interim CDA and ask to be added to the Uncle Bob’s Place interest list. Uncle Bob’s widow, Washington State Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, as well as Uncle Bob’s children, decided to name the project after him to honor his lifetime dedication to preserving the CID’s culture and landscape.

“He was a champion for human rights and human dignity… his life, his love was wrapped up in the International District,” said Rep. Santos, who was married to Uncle Bob for nearly 24 years. “He would never abandon the International District.”

Uncle Bob’s son, John Santos, designed the logo for the building and wanted to ensure that his father’s face and signature smile was emphasized. Uncle Bob was known for his love of karaoke and dancing, and he was a frequent regular at establishments in the CID such as Bush Garden. Currently, Bush Garden owner Karen Sakata has an agreement with InterIm CDA and the Chan family to occupy one of the commercial units being offered at Uncle Bob’s Place once construction is finalized.

“I just remember him speaking for the people who didn’t really have a voice or wanted to use their voice,” John Santos said. “He was extremely humorous — he loved making people laugh.”

According to Morishita, securing funding for financing of the development started in 2019 — a goal that was eventually met after two attempts at public funds and then three attempts at tax-exempt bonds. Uncle Bob’s Place is financed by a host of public and private sources, including the City of Seattle Office of Housing, King County Housing Finance Program, Low Income Housing Tax Credits through the Washington State Housing Finance Commission (WSHFC), Enterprise, Bellwether Enterprise, and Umpqua Bank. The development will be located at South King Street and 8th Avenue South, where the Four Seas Restaurant building is currently located.

Uncle Bob’s Place will be built on South King Street and 8th Avenue South. It is expected to be completed in December of 2022. (Photo: Ronnie Estoque)

Uncle Bob became the Executive Director at International District Improvement Association, called “Inter*Im” in the early 70s. Under his leadership, Inter*Im became an activist organization committed to improving conditions in the International District especially on behalf of the low-income, limited-English-speaking elders who lived in the neighborhood. Uncle Bob focused on preserving affordable housing through projects such as the Samaki Commons in the very same community in which he grew up.

“In a way, what he ended up doing was not allowing land developers to come in and take over and do the gentrification thing that’s been going throughout the city,” John Santos said. “He was able to make sure that the immigrants that came over [to the U.S.] were able to live in their community instead of being pushed out.”

Uncle Bob leads an anti-displacement protest in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood. (Photo: Eugene Tagawa, courtesy of Asian Family Affair)

Uncle Bob was also responsible for leading a group of other activists that attempted to prevent the construction of the Kingdome and successfully blocked the construction of a McDonald’s in the area. Uncle Bob is also known for being a member of the Gang of Four and having a gift for connecting with people and advocating for them with his time and energy.

“All of this is just a wonderful testament — in some ways such a summation of what Bob valued about the International District as a community,” Rep. Santos said regarding the virtual groundbreaking of Uncle Bob’s Place. “I could not think of a better way to pay tribute to what Bob felt was important.”

Featured image: “Uncle Bob Santos.” (Photo courtesy of Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation)

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