By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly
As South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and other neighborhoods in Central and North Seattle have prospered in recent years, South Seattle has been largely left out of the growth boom. However, a combination of easy access to transportation, cheaper property costs, and work from community agencies is in the process of making the neighborhood more attractive while attempting to preserve its diverse residents.
When planning began on Sound Transit’s Central Link light rail, one of the conditions of the project was the creation of a community-driven investment fund to help mitigate the negative effects of the construction in the Rainier Valley.
The city of Seattle and King County awarded a total of $50 million to the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund (RVCDF) to administer with the stipulations that the RVCDF be community controlled and run to last for generations.
“We put out about $16 million of our initial funding as what we called ‘supplemental mitigation assistance’,” said Wayne Lau, the current executive director of the RVCDF. “This was money that we gave as outright grants for businesses that needed to relocate. Other businesses that didn’t relocate needed to show how their revenues were impacted. They would give us financial information and we would make up the difference.”
The program was a major success. RVCDF received a community development award, and their work ensured that 85 percent of the businesses pre-construction continued to operate. With construction finished, RVCDF became a lending fund dedicated to aiding area businesses.
“After the construction was completed in 2009, we became a lending fund,” Lau said. “We still follow community development block grant rules that said that we were here to help businesses, create jobs, and serve area benefits … One of the worries is that this area will become gentrified with the light rail. … One of the things we do is if a businesses wants to stay here, but can’t because their rents are going up, we can lend funds to help them buy a business premise. We don’t want anyone getting priced out of the neighborhood.”
“This area has a large number of ethnic businesses in this neighborhood — they’re not the mainstream businesses you’d find in other areas of the city,” Lau continued. “They have special challenges when it comes to obtaining business credit … It’s very difficult for a large bank to reach out to small and ethnic businesses and that is where we feel there is a real need for what we do, and that we’re a real resource for this neighborhood.”
Currently, RVCDF has roughly $6 million on hand to loan. Loans from RVCDF range between $50,000 and $2 million and can be used to purchase inventory, pay for new equipment, and on other business expenses. In total the RVCDF loan fund is between $20 and $25 million.
For Pepsi Cola, which operates a distribution, manufacturing, and administrative office in South Seattle, the area has been a boon to the business.
“Being in South Seattle has been great,” said Tim Lew, general manager of Pepsi Northwest Beverages. “You’re not in the depths of downtown, but you still have access to the highways, which is perfect for our business. We have a good source of water, a cheap source of energy, and can attract a very diverse workforce. It’s ideal from a business standpoint.”
The South Seattle operation employs between 250 and 300 people full time through a mix of union and non-union jobs. Seasonal positions are also available.
The company’s presence in South Seattle has inspired it to give back to the neighborhood through the Pepsi Valley Partnership, a philanthropic operation started in 1995. The partnership provides dozens of Rainier Valley organizations — including Wellspring, the Boys and Girls Club, Atlantic Street Center, and CISC — with board leadership, volunteers, fundraising help, publicity, and donations.
“For me personally, the partnership lines up with the company and my values,” said Northwest Market Director Keith Kawachi, who was born in Beacon Hill. “We have a responsibility to be a good neighbor, to give back to our community. That’s really what drew me to the program, the position we were in to make a positive impact on the valley.”
“We actually call the Rainier Valley the Pepsi Valley,” added Lew, who is also a member of the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club board of directors. “Rainier Valley resembles the community I grew up in. Our work is focused on driving business forward, and as a company we have a broad reach, but Seattle really is local to us. All of our decisions are based on the local geography, and we take what we can and we put it in the Pepsi Valley Partnership.”
Though housing costs in South Seattle are some of the most affordable in the city, the window for home ownership will peak in the next several years, according to Tony To, executive director of HomeSight a nonprofit organization that participates in the community. Founded in 1990, the organization provides residents of Southeast Seattle, South King County, the Central District, and parts of Snohomish County with home-buying education classes and low-cost home loans. The organization also builds affordable condos and houses. Over the past 23 years, HomeSights has built over 500 homes, and approximately 200 to 250 prospective homeowners go through the organization’s consoling process annually.
“Southeast Seattle is more affordable, but interest rates and prices are starting to come back up again,” To said. “There’s a small window in the next two to three years.”
To also said that the neighborhood was starting to see some changes, especially in the past six months.
“There’s definitely a lot more rental units going up, especially in Columbia City,” To said. “…Columbia City is interesting. A lot of the owners in Columbia City came in before the neighborhood took off. They took a lot of risks. Seven or eight years ago, most people would come to the neighborhood for the farmer’s market.”
“Now there’s a more vibrant business district, and that means a lot more people who were here are not here any longer, and there are new people moving into the neighborhood,” To continued.
But through the work of HomeSight’s affordable housing programs and other affordable housing projects such as the Impact Family Village, which RVCDF is involved in, there is hope to preserve the culture of South Seattle.
“We’re trying to preserve as much as we can,” To said. “South Seattle has always been the gateway community for immigrants. It’s a very welcoming community, and there’s no dominant ethnic group, everyone is evenly distributed. You get this feeling here that you don’t get in other neighborhoods in Seattle.”
“The whole package of diversity is down here, ethnic groceries, community institutions, churches, temples, and mosques, just everything,” he said. “People get along; everyone gets along.” (end)
Charles Lam can be reached at email@example.com.