Tanya Woo, a perennial advocate for the Chinatown International District (CID), is running for Seattle City Council, District 2. The seat is held by incumbent Councilmember Tammy Morales, who is running for re-election.
Woo said she was motivated to run after seeing inequities in the CID: Seniors struggling to afford the housing they need to age in place in their culturally-relevant neighborhood; businesses struggling to survive; a rise in overdose deaths and violent crime in the neighborhood; and a lack of outreach and other services for homeless people.
“We need to take a stronger stance on a lot of these issues that are affecting us,” Woo said. “It’s not getting any better.”
District 2 includes most of the Chinatown International District, Beacon Hill, Columbia City, Rainier Valley, Georgetown and the Industrial District.
In the last few years, Woo has been a tireless volunteer for CID public safety and the wellbeing of people living outdoors in the neighborhood. She helped start the CID Community Watch, which patrols the neighborhood at night handing out water, supplies and information, connecting people to services, sometimes de-escalating fights, stopping vandalism, and escorting seniors in the neighborhood after dark. “Whatever we saw there was a need that we could do to help, we just did,” she said.
Woo attends meetings, organizes self-defense classes, fundraises, and pushes local government to be more accountable to the neighborhood. Last year, she helped successfully organize the neighborhood in opposition to a planned King County shelter expansion at the edge of the CID. Woo and other activists wanted the County to pause their plans and do more community engagement.
Woo’s family has owned the historic Louisa Hotel since the 1960s. After a fire gutted the building in December 2013, Woo oversaw its restoration into a building with below market-rate, workforce housing, retail, and preserved murals from the Jazz Age.
Woo grew up in Beacon Hill. Her family has been in the Seattle area since 1887, though she is the first female member of her family to live in the U.S. until recently, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting immigration of Chinese women.
Woo’s grandfather opened a restaurant, allowing the family to build generational wealth, and her father Paul Woo was able to buy the Louisa building, where he opened the now-closed Mon Hei Bakery.
As a child, Woo chased rats in the bakery, and learned to spell by looking at the names of bakery goods. “I grew up running around stealing pastries, hiding under tables and then later on, you know, learning how to work the register, scrape gum off the tables.”
Woo doesn’t see her campaign as a rebuke to Councilmember Morales’s legacy in District 2. The candidates share several positions. They are both opposed to encampment removals (or sweeps), concerned about gentrification and displacement in their district, want to see more alternatives to policing, and are passionate about ensuring translation services are available for non-English-speaking seniors and business owners who attend public meetings.
Woo wants to be a strong advocate for the CID and other neighborhoods on the City Council. “I have feet on the ground. I am in the community. I’m in the encampments. I see what’s happening,” she said. “My volunteers and I are kneeling, surrounded by needles, providing CPR and Narcan, to people who have overdosed.”
When it comes to homelessness, the CID suffers from a lack of resources, Woo said, which forces night watch patrols and mutual aid groups to fill in the gaps in services. She wants to see community-based solutions expanded and funded.
Woo’s advocacy for the CID was sparked by the renovation of the Louisa Hotel. In repairing the fire-gutted building, untold stories emerged: Jazz Age murals, WWII sailors and immigrant cannery workers in Alaska who passed through. Woo saw the necessity to preserve the building as a physical reminder of the history.
She was galvanized further during the pandemic, when the CID suffered from COVID racism and anti-Asian hate. Woo then worked at KING 5, listening to police and emergency scanners during her shift. When she got off work at midnight, she would drive through the CID on the way home and sit in her car for an hour. One night, she heard smashing windows and men trying to break into businesses. She shouted at them to stop. Soon, CID Community Watch was born.
As a member of the International Special Review District (ISRD) Board, Woo saw controversial projects come before review — towering, mostly market-rate housing such as the Koda condos, and planned projects like Fujimatsu Village (which would be the tallest building in the neighborhood), Jasmine (on the site of the Bush Garden building), and a tower near Legacy House.
Woo consistently asked developers about community engagement. Given the controversial nature of their projects, had the developers conducted meaningful outreach? Did they address concerns about affordability, unit size, building height?
The experience emphasized the importance of developing more workforce and affordable housing, Woo said, and preventing gentrification and displacement.
This year, Sound Transit is poised to select a preferred alternative for its second light rail station in the CID, as part of an expanded transit network. CID advocates are concerned about the impacts to the neighborhood for the options the agency has proposed. Woo believes the community needs more time to form a consensus on whether it prefers 4th Avenue or one of the options outside the neighborhood.
When King County proposed a shelter expansion in SoDo on the edge of the CID, Woo organized rallies and marches to have the voices of the community heard, especially seniors. She and others asked King County to pause the plans to address community questions and concerns. With high rates of crime and overdoses in the CID, Woo wants the County to come up with a neighborhood plan that provides sufficient wraparound services to address the root causes of behavioral health problems.
If she wins election, Woo will be responsible for decisions that reverberate beyond the CID. She is interested in working on public safety, housing, homelessness citywide. “We’re seeing too many people die on the streets,” Woo said. “We really need to do something and make sure whatever we do is with compassion and empathy to our unhoused neighbors.”
Woo is working with political consulting firm Upper Left Strategies on her campaign. Upper Left has worked with state Sen. Joe Nguyen, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland and others. Woo has been endorsed by state Sen. Bob Hasegawa and state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos. Woo plans to qualify for democracy vouchers to help fund her campaign.
In retrospect, Woo thinks her campaign is years in the making, and comes full circle to the Louisa Hotel. The building’s community room is filled with old tables from Mon Hei Bakery. Woo’s father passed away when she was 16 years old. In renovating the Louisa, Woo felt closer to him, learning about him, his dreams and stories from community members.
“It’s all about stories,” Woo said. “Getting to know my community, and learning about how much my dad loved it.”
A silver lining of the pandemic was seeing activists fight for the CID, Woo said. “Learning how to navigate government during these last couple of years, and having these voices heard, really motivated me to run,” she said. “I’m ready to fight for South Seattle, I’m ready to put words into action. And just to get going.”