Children sit on a mosaic bench designed by more than a dozen young artists. • Photo by Nicholas Nolin
Children sit on a mosaic bench designed by more than a dozen young artists. • Photo by Nicholas Nolin

On June 16, residents of the Lake Washington Apartments welcomed city officials, non-profit leaders, and philanthropic supporters in order to showcase the recent completion of the property’s extensive restoration project. The Southeast Effective Development (SEED)-sponsored initiative resulted in nearly $50 million worth of renovations for the Rainier Valley community. Located between the Rainier Beach light rail station and Beer Sheva Park, the multi-building residential estate is comprised of 379 units and is home to nearly 1,100 people.

Having originally been built in the late 1940s, Lake Washington Apartments have undergone a series of restoration acts over the previous decades. SEED first became involved with the property when it purchased and renovated the campus in 1998. The series of upgrades and improvements that took place over the next 15 years were supported by a combination of tax credits and public spending, according to SEED’s executive director Lance Matteson. These upgrades were much needed at the time as Matteson said the area “had been quite rundown and a bit of a crime hot spot” during the late ’90s.

While the aim of SEED’s first project was to bring the apartments out of a state of disrepair, Matteson said the more recent initiative was undertaken “with the intent of keeping it affordable for decades to come.”

The Lake Washington Apartments received nearly $50 million worth of renovations. • Photo by Nicholas Nolin
The Lake Washington Apartments received nearly $50 million worth of renovations. • Photo by Nicholas Nolin

The most recent renovations have not only made a significant impact on the financial value of the property but have also been demonstrably beneficial for the residents as well, Matteson said. The scope of the project saw a virtual overhaul of the living accommodations. Elas Kolonja, Lake Washington Apartments’ community director, said that the tenants “rave about the new cabinets, flooring, new appliances, and the convenience of being able to do laundry in their own home.” The inclusion of in-suite washers and dryers have also allowed for the space-consuming commons center to be repurposed into 13 new living units. In addition to these more superficial features, funds were also used to examine the structural integrity of the buildings, replace the rapidly-aging plumbing system and install eco-friendly sidings and windows.

A new technology program co-sponsored by CenturyLink is also set to take effect, which will see Internet services and laptops offered to residents. Some of the other social services that will be available include daycare, cooking classes, and ESL programs. While these projects are invaluable in contributing to a higher quality of life for the residents, Matteson said that Lake Washington Apartments “also preserve all the [traditional] amenities that make up quality of life such as pedestrian access to recreational parks along Lake Washington, shopping, health care services, schools, the library and the community center.”

This clear emphasis on quality is a welcome sight when it is often the matter of quantity that dominates the headlines when it comes to affordable housing throughout King County. It is obvious that both need to be taken into consideration, especially as Steve Walker, Director of the Office of Housing for the City of Seattle, has said that “getting to the [Mayor’s goal of 20,000 affordable housing-units] requires a tripling of our current pace of unit production.” However, while there is an immediate and dire need for more affordable housing, it is important to ensure that those at risk of displacement are not only prevented from sliding further down the socio-economic ladder but are given a legitimate opportunity to climb higher. The concerted message amongst SEED, the City of Seattle, business leaders, and the various other actors involved in the Lake Washington Apartments project reinforced this sentiment and in turn gives way for a cautious optimism regarding the future of affordable housing in Seattle.   

That same afternoon marked the grand unveiling of a mosaic bench designed and created by some of Lake Washington’s youngest residents. In what will become the most sought after seat for an untold number of impromptu soccer matches over the coming years, the group of more than a dozen artists gathered in front of the bench and spoke about how enjoyable it was to be involved in the creation of the bench. Impressive in its own right, the true value in this mosaic bench is its immense symbolic importance as a physical reminder of our ability to contribute to and help shape the communities around us. The fact that this bench lays at the geographic heart of the Lake Washington Apartments is, perhaps, rather fitting.  

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