Kent Is Getting Richer – And Less Affordable | KUOW News and Information

Kent Is Getting Richer – And Less Affordable

Feb 2, 2016

At a new strip mall in downtown Kent, a truck backs up to a butcher shop. The driver opens the back and pulls out a goat carcass. This butcher shop doesn’t sell beef or pork, out of deference to its Hindu and Muslim customers.

It’s the first of many signs that this is no ordinary strip mall.

Sam Virk is building this strip mall for the immigrant community that lives here, that he’s a part of. “This concept, this place, it’s like my baby,” Virk said. “The way I want it – I’m building it that way.”

He's building prosperity in a neighborhood dogged by poverty and crime, and that prosperity comes at a cost. Kent has long been a place to find a steady job making airplanes for Boeing or pepperoni sticks for Oberto -- and find a cheap place to live. That’s changing.

Virk's butcher shop here is one piece of a bigger project. There’s also a ballroom people can rent, a boutique that sells custom saris, a Hindu astrologer and an Indian grocery store.

“I want to put in a radio station here,” Virk said. "Our Indian community – they don’t have a radio station.”

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Kent developer Sam Virk worked his way to prosperity cleaning houses, managing 7-Elevens, bussing tables, delivering pizzas, driving limousines, then renovating restaurants, sports bars, and finally a strip mall in Kent he's renaming International Plaza.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

    

Kent is a place where historically low rents have allowed people like Virk and other immigrants to get a toe-hold on the American Dream.

It’s a dream that once felt far away. As a young adult, he worked long hours doing things like managing 7-Elevens and driving limousines. One night, his limo got stuck in the snow on the side of the road.

He shivered and prayed for five hours, afraid to turn on the heat and run out of gas. Eventually the snow got slushy enough that he felt safe driving home. He collapsed on the bed at 5 a.m., just as his wife rose for her job at the hospital.

“That incident – I can’t forget it in my life,” he said.

Now he’s a prosperous developer, a big shot around here. Depressed rents and home prices helped him save money, as did a strong community of immigrant entrepreneurs.

That community is showing signs of prosperity, and that appears to be driving the rents higher. In fact, rents here have been rising faster than just about every other place in the county. But not everybody can pay those higher rents.

John Wehner and Jerry Reno play hand and foot canasta at the Kent Senior Activity Center. They have had a hard time finding affordable places to live in Kent amid rising rents.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

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At the senior center just down the road, John Wehner plays canasta with a friend; a dance goes on in the next room over. Wehner’s been living in Kent for the last three years.

“It’s not bad, it’s a nice place. The people here are beautiful,” he said. “Some people don’t like it, though. They think there’s too many rowdies and winos and such. But that’s life in the fast lane, I guess.”

When Wehner moved here, he had a job at a plastics factory and an apartment he could afford. Then the job evaporated, and he lost his apartment. He’s looking for a new place.

Kent’s low cost of living may have helped Sam Virk get ahead, but Wehner said times have changed.

“There’s people out there that own these places – and all they care about is the bottom dollar. They don’t care if the place is bad, or anything, you know,” Wehner said.

At his age Wehner said all he needs is a safe, clean place to sleep. He hopes to have a little money left over to send to his daughter every month.

“She’s important. That’s all there is left in my life, is her,” he said.

Some of Wehner's senior center buddies have hatched a plan to pool their money and rent a place together. Wehner said this plan makes him feel hopeful. 

“My life is getting brighter by the day," he said. "I’m feeling good about the way things might turn out.”

The Indian grocery story at International Plaza.

Things are looking up in Kent. Some of the region’s expanding wealth is sticking to people who live here, people who have faced obstacles in life.

That’s a good thing. But as these neighborhoods slowly rise out of poverty, they’re becoming less affordable. And unless people get creative and team up with each other, they could get left out in the cold.