These families defied the odds by staying in Seattle | KUOW News and Information

These families defied the odds by staying in Seattle

Jan 31, 2017

Seattle is growing fast, but it doesn’t have many kids.

Sure, the schools are overcrowded and there are babies in strollers everywhere. But as a percentage, the number of kids in Seattle is really low, because there’s not a lot of new housing designed for families.

Still, some parents are finding a way to stay in the city anyway.


Amalia Leighton helped Seattle analyze the reasons for Seattle’s lack of children back when she served on the city’s planning commission.  “The only other major city in the U.S. that had a lower percentage of children was San Francisco,” she said.

Leighton met me on Lake City Way to show me why Seattle is becoming almost as childless as San Francisco. She pointed to a big apartment building. It’s probably mostly studios and one bedrooms, she told me, which aren’t big enough for families.

And in the neighborhood beyond, it’s not like developers are putting up many more single family homes. There’s very little vacant land.

For those reasons, we’re in danger of becoming a city of only young tech workers.

“Even tech people have kids someday,” Leighton said, “We’re hoping that even they can be able to stay in the city in family sized housing and that they have options as well.”

Amalia Leighton on Lake City Way. She says multi-family housing projects in Seattle don't make much room for families. The project behind her is senior housing, which helps diversify the city but does nothing to bring in kids.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

There are things we could do, Leighton said. Seattle could allow more duplexes in neighborhoods with single family homes, or turn houses into stacked flats. That would let two families live where there used to be one.

The city could require developers to build more two and three bedroom apartments (the mayor has pushed for this).

Or you could do what nine families on Capitol Hill did: build family housing for themselves.

At the Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing building, several families are preparing dinner in their shared dining room and kitchen. At least they were, until they cranked the music and started dancing, kids and adults together. It happened again after dinner, as they prepared birthday cakes for desert.

Apparently, that's normal around here in this little family-centered community in one of the most child-free cities in the nation. 

Nine families built their own family friendly apartment building on Capitol Hill (it's the building on the right).
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Residents in this building come together for dinner three times a week. On other days they eat in their own apartments or go out. 

This dinner is special because among all the kids in the building, there are three birthdays to celebrate. And so after dinner Bambi Chavez, whose night it was to cook, pulled out and lit three birthday cakes.

“In this particular time, when I think people have felt sad and discouraged the last few months, in terms of politics and the world, it’s been amazing to have this community to come home to at night," said Kate Eriksen, who lives here with her family.

“To have everyone come together to make dinner and talk, and to lean on each other that way, has been really healthy for our family.”

These families have found a way to live together in the city. And despite everything that’s going on in politics, they can’t help thinking about the future as they watch each other’s children blow out the candles on their birthday cakes.

There's other benefits: 16-year-old Ciela Chavez Gilbride always has spending money thanks to all the babysitting gigs she gets as the oldest child in the building.

“I think you learn a lot of things being in the city,” said  Chavez Gilbride, who likes going to museums and “stuff like that.” 

“And also, these people are great!” she said, wrapping her arms around the adults to either side of her.

But it's not without compromise. For one thing, there are space constraints. Upstairs, Chavez Gilbride has her own room, as does her sister. Two newly adopted siblings share a third bedroom (the opportunity to adopt two more came as a pleasant surprise for this family). Her parents sleep on a hide-a-bed in the living room.

Ciela Chavez Gilbride, wearing 'good vibes,' chats with an adult at a group dinner at the Capitol Hill Urban Co-Housing building where she lives.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Then, there's the cost. Building this place themselves made these families dig deep into their wallets. They had to pay for the land, design and construction costs. It took years to pull off.

The process was so complicated that Grace Kim, the architect from Schemata Workshop who dreamed up the project, recommends hiring a consultant. Kim also lives in the building and has an office on the ground floor.

This cohousing example is unusual. But compromises on finances or elbow room are common for families trying to stay in the city.

Jon Scholes, who heads the Downtown Seattle Association, lives downtown with his partner and kids. “I know some families that use a closet for a bedroom or a nursery,” he said. “We have kids of opposite sex of the same age – and they share a room, and they will do that for awhile. And so, you get creative about how you use space.”

These aren’t just anecdotes, either. In downtown Seattle — the neighborhood you might expect to be the least friendly to children — the population of children is increasing at twice the rate as the general population.

It’s not enough yet to turn around greater Seattle’s slide into childlessness. But that trend could reverse, as some families seem to be rethinking how much elbow room they need. Because it's easier to lean on each other when you're crowded together.

Bambi Chavez lights one of three birthday cakes being served after dinner tonight. This building has a lot of kids.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols