By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A property that once provided shelter for Japanese American war veterans is likely to become the site of subsidized housing that could be owned by Black community organizations.
After a long journey through multiple phases and owners, the now-shuttered Keiro Rehabilitation and Care Center is currently on its way to be sold to Africatown Community Land Trust, a consortium that promotes the return of dispossessed Blacks to the Central District, said K. Wyking Garrett, its president and CEO.
“The developer halted their proposed development of 250-plus market rate units and has agreed to divest from the property to make way for equitable development. We are working through the details of the transaction to acquire,” said Garrett, in an email.
The sale ends the controversial acquisition of the property by Bellevue-based Shelter Holdings, which bought the property last year. Shelter Holdings purchased the property for $11 million after Keiro ran into financial problems.
Originally, Shelter Holdings had planned to tear down the skilled nursing and rehab center and construct a mixed-use building with apartments and retail outlets. But some opposition from the Japanese American community to the sale emerged, including community members writing letters to the attorney general asking about financial transparency.
At the same time, it is not clear how recent fluctuations in the Seattle real estate market may have factored into Shelter’s decision to part with the property.
As of press time, Shelter Holdings had not responded to questions for this article.
Proceeds used to sustain Nikkei Manor?
Since the sale of the Keiro property, located at 1601 East Yesler Way, vocal members of the Japanese American community have hoped any proceeds would go to help the operations of Nikkei Manor, the still-operating assisted living community. But Keiro board members have routinely refused to commit to making any commitment about the funds.
Bryce Seidl, interim president of Keiro NW and Nikkei Manor, would not guarantee that the funds from the sale would go to sustaining Nikkei Manor. “Our current operations are concentrated at Nikkei Manor. However, the Keiro board of directors has a responsibility to its mission of supporting the needs of aging Japanese and Asian American residents. The ways they choose to fulfill the mission may well go beyond the operation of Nikkei Manor. Nikkei Manor must be able to become financially sustainable over the long run,” he said in an email.
The vow that Nikkei Manor must become financially sustainable had been repeated by management even before the sale. Current Keiro NW board members did not respond to email queries for this article.
At the same time, the advent of COVID-19 and its disastrous impact on assisted living and other retirement communities may have complicated the future of Nikkei Manor.
Before the pandemic, Nikkei Manor had a waiting list of over 100 people, according to family members with residents. But now, the assisted living community, like many others of its kind, has vacancies, in part at least due to the widespread fear of moving elders into places typically hit hard by the coronavirus.
“Nationally, vacancies have increased everywhere with the fears everywhere about any senior living environment. The data shows nursing homes have taken the brunt of the impact from the virus with much less trouble at assisted living facilities,” said Seidl.
Still, Nikkei Manor, unlike other high-end assisted living communities in the area, has maintained a zero infection rate, he said.
“Nikkei Manor, because of its wonderful staff and site leadership and help from the families of the residents, has remained COVID-19 free!” he said.
“We do have vacancies and are actively marketing them as the COVID-19 restrictions are moving towards more leniency. Now, where restrictions are being lifted, vacancies are filling. We expect to be able to meet the pent up needs as this happens around here,” he added.
The future of the Keiro property
The future of the Yesler property, which is one mile from Nikkei Manor, is part of a vision of Africatown as a thriving community that empowers marginalized groups that have been systematically oppressed.
The Keiro building would be torn down and replaced with affordable housing for multiple income levels, giving preference to those with roots in the area, according to a new program by the city that offers incentives for such developments.
“We envision a heritage rich, anti-displacement project that honors the communities that have been displaced from the neighborhood, including indigenous First Nations and Japanese/Pan-Asian communities, and we’ve launched a cross-community planning process,” said Garrett.
While the details of the project are still under development, he said the project has already received support in the communities they plan to serve.
“We are fortunate to have good support and participation from stakeholders in both communities thus far,” he said.
Some of the earlier projects of Africatown may give a hint what the property might accommodate or even look like. One of these was the Liberty Bank Building, affordable housing developed in a partnership between Africatown and several other non-profits.
The cheapest unit in the building starts at $476 per month, according to Garrett. The minimum annual income for that apartment would be $11,424.
The building developer and property manager, Community Roots Housing (formerly called Capitol Hill Housing), pledged to make the building available to Black ownership in 15 years.
Community Roots Housing was developed in partnership with the Black Community Impact Alliance, Byrd Barr Place and Africatown to provides the opportunity for African American community-based ownership of the building. Byrd Barr Place has both a right of first offer and first right of refusal to acquire Liberty Bank after 15 years.
For Garrett, the project is the beginning of a long process to try to mitigate hundreds of years of preventing Blacks and other people of color from gaining significant equity.
“Blacks were here before the founding of Washington as a state, but today, Blacks have nearly nothing in terms of real equity, no commercial space, no high rises, no manufacturing space, no port space, no companies of significant size,” he said.
“How do we ensure that there even is a Black community in the future, or a pan-Asian community, in Seattle?” he added.
Their coming together, he said, would be “monumental.”
To search for housing in the Liberty Bank Building, go to libertybankbuilding.org. https://communityrootshousing.org/building/liberty-bank-building/.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.