by Nick Turner
A new city ordinance that will allow for taller buildings in the Chinatown International District was passed unanimously by Seattle city councilmembers on Monday. This new law comes amid growing fears of gentrification and displacement in the city, especially in the Chinatown ID, a neighborhood inhabited largely by renters and the elderly. The bill, passed unanimously by eight council members—Mike O’Brien was absent—will establish a mandate for developers to build affordable housing or contribute money to a fund that the city would use at its own discretion.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, residents and members of the community were outspoken, most of them against the proposal. But, after a series of community forums which led to a more refined, substitute bill replacing the original, some of them have found a silver lining.
“It’s definitely a step forward,” said Tom Im from the Interim Community Development Association. “We’re pretty happy with the results. not everything but…we were able to integrate a lot of the requests we made.”
Those concerns surfaced during a town hall meeting two weeks ago at the Nisei Veterans Committee in Little Saigon, where council members met with local residents to gain input from community members before the vote that took place earlier this week. But, during the time between the town hall meeting and the vote, several amendments were made to the bill, some of which quelled those concerns. The new bill— also known as the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, or MHA, which is part of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, the city’s latest attempt to create more affordable housing—will give developers looking to build in Seattle two options. Option one is to allocate a certain part of the new building—seven percent in most cases—to affordable housing; option two is to instead contribute to a public fund that the city would then use in its own way to provide housing.
“I’m glad to see that [councilmembers] are supportive of the idea of protecting the unique character of the Chinatown
International District. But, what I really want to see is people holding them accountable in the future,” said Joseph Lachman, president-elect of the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. “Protecting people from stabilization, resettlement and stabilization funds: that’s where a lot of the work still needs to be done.”
For some, this bill is a sign of things to come in the Chinatown ID along with Little Saigon and Nihonmachi. At public meetings, many residents called for more affordable housing while others demanded a moratorium on all new construction that wasn’t affordable. The Chinatown ID is especially at risk, both community members and city officials said, of the dangers of gentrification and displacement. What we’re seeing here in Seattle, they explained, is but one example of the issues facing Chinatowns across the country.
“In the end, it’s not about seven percent or eleven percent, it’s about making it so that the people who have built Chinatown and created its character can actually live there,”
Lachman said. “MHA doesn’t do anything to address that. It’s a good first step in putting some protections in place, but there’s much more progress to be made.”