Chinatown-International District housing plan leaves out residents, advocates say

This one-story building at South Lane Street and Eighth Avenue South is slated for redevelopment as a hotel. (Photo by Yemas Ly.)

Chinatown-International District activists say the neighborhood’s existing residents will lose out on the city’s latest plan for affordable housing there.

“It’s like a slap on the face,” said Vic Vong, the founder of the Humbows Not Hotels, a coalition formed to protest the development of a 14-story SpringHill Suites by Marriott.

The city passed its Mandatory Housing Affordability bill for Chinatown-International District on Monday in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms of increasing costs of living and housing development. The bill allows increased heights for buildings in exchange for increased affordable housing.

But Vong and other activists say the measure won’t make up for the losses borne by the existing residents that will be displaced.

“The city council members [showed] themselves. They can’t deny that the community didn’t want this,” Vong said. “Are they really satisfied with producing 150 housing units over the next 10 years?”

The bill allows increasing height limits for buildings — or upzoning — in exchange for developers  dedicating 7 percent of new units to affordable housing or paying $20.75 per square foot. The city defines affordable housing as housing that is affordable to someone who earns less than 60 percent of the median income, which is $57,600 per year for a family of four. Changes to other neighborhoods have called for a greater proportion of affordable housing, including the U-District, which aims for 10 percent.

Councilmember Rob Johnson introduced the bill that will also give developers the option to reserve 10 units for people who earn less than 50 percent of the median income.

Joseph Lachman, who represents the Japanese American Citizens League says the city’s plan is not enough.

“I’m afraid that the city will be satisfied with its decision on the MHA bill and stop trying to provide more affordable housing,” Lachman said.

He called it a weak solution.

“The housing problem in Chinatown/International District is beyond the current proposal of the MHA,” Lachman said.

According to Lachman, the bill would would threaten 640 households with displacement in exchange for 150 units of affordable housing within the next 10 years.

Brian Chow, a community member who spoke during public comment during the council meeting, stressed that the increased cost in housing is pushing out many low-income residents, including the elderly.

“People went door to door telling [the residents] they are being evicted,” Chow said. “The community needs the council members to help let them know they are safe from evictions.”

Council President Bruce Harrell said the city recognized the residents’ fear of losing the Chinatown-International District but that the city needed to balance those fears with encouraging economic development.

“The elephant in the room is displacement,” Harrell said.

“Chinatown/International District is worthy of being invested in and maintained,” Harrell said. “With the historic core and other areas, we want go slowly enough for the community, but we want to also bring in economic development.”

Chinatown-International District organizers have been fighting since the 1980s to preserve the area’s cultural heritage. Lachman noted that the Chinatown-International District is vulnerable to development in general.

One of the many projects underway in Chinatown/International District is the development of a 14-story SpringHill Suites by Marriott on the corner of Eighth Avenue South and South Lane Street. and its development has been known to the community since December 2016.

According to the Northwest Asian Weekly, the hotel will be a mixed-use structure containing 158 hotel rooms and 103 apartments with retail space on the ground level.

However, many community members who will be displaced by the project cannot afford the proposed apartment units, even with the MHA bill placed.

“They say that they will give you affordability housing, but really there are not that many low-income units,” Vong said. “We need to push for real housing justice.”

Edmel Ronquillo, who has been involved with the neighborhood since her childhood, says that she has returned from a year abroad and has noticed major changes in the year she was away.

“It shocked me to come back to something new. Imagine how it affects the people who have lived here [the majority of] their whole life,” Ronquillo said.

Vong, a college student at Seattle University, felt compelled to start Humbows not Hotels to mobilize the youth to protest the Marriott project.

The older generation does not seem to mind development as long as it does not affect daily life, Vong said. The elderly care about buying veggies and seeing their friends while speaking their native language, Vong said, but they fear that can’t continue with the new development in the neighborhood.

“When I was speaking with the older generation about the development, they told me ‘You young people have to fight for us.’ We can’t let them do this to us,” Vong said.

Vong suggests the hotel should be six stories or less, as 14 stories would cast an overbearing shadow on the nearby local businesses and apartments, and that that the land should be used to implement solely permanent low-income residency.

The land has already have been bought by the developers. Developers were scheduled to start construction this summer, but now their plans must be approved by the International District special review board.

“I think they have this idea that they have us cornered, because they own the land,” Vong said.

“They’re just going to keep submitting proposals until one gets through,” Lachman said. “We’re trying to get as many benefits out of situation as possible.”