What will be left of Seattle's Chinatown International District? | KUOW News and Information

What will be left of Seattle's Chinatown International District?

May 30, 2017

Once again, residents are being forced out of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. More than a century ago, a wave of anti-Chinese violence hit the West Coast. Hundreds of Chinese workers were made to leave Seattle by ship.

Then came World War II, when thousands of Japanese Americans were taken away.


This time, there's a more subtle villain that is poised to push out the Asian community: the region’s hot economy and housing market.

Tang Fung Chin was forced out of her apartment in Seattle's International District back in 2015. But she didn't want to leave the neighborhood and head to a cheaper place.

She explained why in her native Taishanese, through an interpreter: "Because of the language barrier, this is like China — everybody speaks the same language so, they don't have any choice."

Chin is originally from the southern part of the Guangdong Province in China. She’s now 70 years old and had been living at the old Republic hotel that still stands on the corner of King and Eighth Streets. It's an old masonry building that was built back in 1910.

The rent was cheap — around $300 a month, but there was a problem: "The condition was not livable.”

The city's new rental inspection ordinance was signed into law in 2014 to protect renters. But in this case, “the owner didn't have the resources to fix up the building,” explained Leslie Morishita, head of real estate development at InterIm CDA, a nonprofit affordable housing organization.

According to Zillow, rental listing prices in Seattle have jumped nearly 90 percent since 2011.

She explained that the owner was then forced to sell to another developer who, in turn, plans to renovate the building to create market rate housing.

Morishita said in some ways the pressures people like Chin face in the International District are similar to what’s happening all over town.

Dozens of people move to Seattle every day. Everyone needs a place to live. But there isn’t enough supply to meet demand.

So, landlords charge what they can get. According to Zillow, rental listing prices have jumped nearly 90 percent since 2011.

But Morishita said the International District is relatively unique in that it originally was built because of historic, racial restrictive covenants. "It was the only place where those immigrants were allowed to settle," she said.

Leslie Morishita with InterIm Community Development association outside the old Republic Hotel
Credit KUOW Photo / David Hyde

Over the years the community built businesses, schools and a system of informal networks that still tie it together today. But Morishita worries that the fabric of that community is now at risk of being ripped beyond repair.

"This neighborhood is experiencing physical displacement, economic displacement and cultural displacement,” she said. "So we are calling on the city to recognize that."

Seattle has a complicated system for creating affordable housing. One part asks developers to build some affordable units or pay into a fund.

Where affordable housing could go in Seattle's Chinatown-International District.
Credit City of Seattle

That approach, which is now in place in the University District and South Lake Union, is being hotly contested as it rolls out in the Chinatown-International District. A public hearing on a rezone for the neighborhood is scheduled for June 1 at 6:00 p.m.

The city would require 7 percent of all new construction in this neighborhood to be affordable units.  Under the city’s Mandatory Affordable Housing (MHA) formula, for instance, a family of three that earns $49,000 a year would pay about $1,200 a month for a two bedroom unit.  

In return, developers would be compensated by being allowed to build higher — an extra 10 to 30 feet — to also create more market rate housing.  

Morishita and some other community leaders here say 7 percent is not enough. They want the city to push for more from developers.   

Others, like Doris Koo with the Yesler Community Collaborative, agree that 7 percent won’t meet demand.  But, she said if the current MHA process is delayed, more buildings will go up with zero affordable housing.

Koo said developers would likely sue under state law, which requires cities to compensate for any zoning change that takes value from their property. 

Doris Koo with the Yesler Community Collaborative backs the current city plan because she says affordable housing is badly needed now.
Credit KUOW Photo / David Hyde

That debate in this community is mirrored in the Seattle mayor’s race.

Activist and lawyer Nikita Oliver calls for developers to set aside 25 percent of new construction for affordable units. Former U.S. attorney Jenny Durkan is more positive about the current system for building new affordable housing.

Unlike many residents, Tang Fung Chin’s story ends somewhat happily. She found a new place to live in the International District – and it’s cheap, around $300 a month. Her current income is just $773 a month.

But, it’s a studio apartment that Chin shares with a roommate, which she describes as “a little cramped.”