Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of SCIDpda, was appointed by Mayor Harrell as director of the Seattle Office of Housing. Photo by Les Talusan Photography/Courtesy of Maiko Winkler-Chin

Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), is joining Mayor Bruce Harrell’s cabinet as director of the Office of Housing. Assuming the Seattle City Council confirms her, she will start at the job March 14.

Winkler-Chin’s departure comes after 17 years at SCIDpda, which provides affordable housing, property management and economic development for the CID and its residents.

The SCIDpda Board of Directors announced it formed a transition committee to search for a new executive director, and expects process to take six to nine months. As of February 27, Veronica (Vern) Wood will serve as SCIDpda’s interim executive director. Wood previously served as the Strategic Advisor to SCIDpda and former deputy director of the organization.

Winkler-Chin’s family immigrated from Japan to Hawaii when she was five years old. She first visited the CID over 35 years ago while attending college in the Pacific Northwest, and she has described as the neighborhood as a second home for her ever since.

The decision to accept the job as director of the Office of Housing required some deliberation, Winkler-Chin said. Unlike previous Office of Housing directors, she knows what it’s like to work with the Office of Housing on funding. Her complaints and puzzled questions over the years made her wonder how the Office could operate differently.

Still, Winkler-Chin will step into the role knowing it might be a short gig. She is quick to point out that in the last 35 years, directors at the Office of Housing typically stay for three years or less, and only two have lasted longer than six.

Winkler-Chin will lead an office with a mission to prevent displacement, in charge of helping fund affordable housing, advising the Mayor and City Council on housing policy and tracking affordability data, promoting home ownership, and running programs like home weatherization.

The Harrell administration, she said, knows Seattle is in a housing crisis and needs to ramp up production of new housing, and that communities of color want to build housing that can help them stay in the city. In a conversation with Mayor Harrell, she was assured he would support further upzones to support this goal, and as well as the upcoming 2023 Housing Levy, a tax on property taxes to build more affordable housing.

“Maiko Winkler-Chin recognizes the twin pressures of a dire need for more affordable housing and the critical importance of supporting Seattle’s longstanding communities, especially those at risk of displacement,” said Mayor Harrell in a press release. “She knows solutions to these challenges don’t have to be mutually exclusive if efforts get beyond soundbites and are instead collaborative and forward-thinking.”

The following is a Q&A with Winkler-Chin, edited for length and clarity, about her new job, housing in Seattle, and her time leading SCIDpda.

International Examiner: How did you decide to accept this role?

Maiko Winkler Chin: When it first came up, to be frankly honest, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck no.’ Sorry to swear.

I had a conversation with somebody that I hold in really high esteem. And she’s like, you’ve been at the PDA for 17 years, you can stay there, you’ll get your 400 to 500 units built in the next five years, which is part of our strategic plan that we just passed at the end of last year. You’ll have some level of impact and all this. Or, you can give out $150 million a year, Maiko, and really maybe have a slightly different level of impact.

And I’ve thought about all the times that have complained or had questions like, ‘Gosh, I wish they could do it this way.’ Or ‘Why don’t we do things this way?’

And oftentimes, at least when I think about community development work, it takes a long time, our projects take forever. And then there’s always this idea of inside-outside game that you need people on the inside who understand and can work with the outside in order to shift things. So could I be an inside person? Yeah, sure, why not.

I come at the work differently than potentially other people have. So I don’t know how many of the other directors of the Office of Housing have had to actually physically, one on one, work with residents, right? Or had to evict somebody out of their housing, which is an extremely painful and challenging process. Have the bricks fall off the front of one of the buildings that they manage and deal with the tenant relocation and all that.

And so if I’m going to bitch about something and if I’m given the opportunity to go and fix it, don’t I have an obligation to kind of try to fix it?

All of our projects tend to have commercial uses on the ground floor, whether it’s a library, a community center, a small business, the post office, and childcare.

So how does the city take the opportunity, when it’s funding part of the building, to think about the whole building, and how it fits into a community? And if you’re going to fund part of this, how does that help leverage some of the other things that can happen, like on the ground floor, in a way that is beneficial to the community? Does the community want a library? What people want is, they want a building that functions and provides something better than what the community currently has. We have disparate needs that are looked at by different departments all throughout the city, right? But if you’re looking at this place, what should be happening?

IE: Housing is such a controversial and political issue in some ways in Seattle. There are so many disagreements about how it should be. What was your thought process about stepping into this larger, city-wide role?

MWC: I gotta say, it’s not anything I’m really comfortable with. I tend to be much more of a practical kind of person – let’s get stuff done.

I think I really believe in housing. And that housing is something that everybody needs.

Housing is a tool that can be used for a variety of other things. So in certain communities, owning housing allows you stability in permanency, but can also be an asset that you leverage when you open a small business or when you do something else. I know how many of the small businesses that we have, that have probably leveraged their housing in order to get some sort of funding to help move in and to help provide capital for the business.

And you’ve heard a lot about the need for communities of color to really own their assets. And what does that look like? Does it look like a co-op model of housing, because a single family house in Seattle is frickin expensive?

I think people don’t necessarily understand who lives in affordable housing, how expensive affordable housing can be. A studio that’s quote, ‘affordable,’ I don’t know, like, $1,500 dollars? Which is a lot of money. I think incomes have gotten so high in certain sectors. So that gap has really, really grown. But I can tell you that a lot of the seniors in this neighborhood make 12.5 percent of Area Median Income. When I started, they were closer to 18 percent. Still can’t afford that 30 percent AMI unit, right?

So I understand people get really heated about housing. There’s a multitude of different reasons why. I used to think, wow, I’m dropping off my child in your care for 10 hours a day, because I’m going to work, you’re taking care of my biggest asset, which is my child. And should you not have the ability to live near here to be part of it?

I mean, I do sit here and wonder, oh my gosh, that little house I bought in Beacon Hill. I mean, I am one of those people, I’ve lived in the same house for 20 years. And we were lucky to get in. As I’m wandering around, I’m like, oh, my gosh, somebody would pay that much for that house. Because it’s crazy. It is crazy.

I think people have perceptions of who lives in affordable housing. But it’s a tool that’s made for a variety of different things. You don’t think big business needs affordable housing? Where do you think their employees are gonna live? They’re not all getting that $350,000 maximum base pay that Amazon talks about. Or whatever that is. You know, people think ooh, $20 an hour so much. If you’re making $20 an hour, you would have to live in affordable housing.

IE: You’ve talked about the importance of housing affordability for the vibrancy of the CID and places like it – that it allows people to stay here. How do you think the city should tackle the housing affordability crisis to ensure that places like the CID can be vibrant, and people can stay here?

MWC: Nobody likes to answer because it’s just really expensive. It is really, really expensive. When I think of a healthy place, I think it’d be a diverse place. I also think, diversity in age. Which then means the diversity of incomes, which means the diversity of a lot of different things, right. And so I do think we need to look at what community needs are. And it’s really, really hard sometimes to measure. The way that the housing system is developed, it’s all based on household income.

What we’re not really good about is tracking how that person wants to live, and why. So do people want to live in three bedroom units? Do people want to live in four bedroom units? People live sometimes based on what exists out there, on the market.

You have to think about what is the need that you’re trying to fill with housing. So sometimes it’s just a basic need, people need housing, to be able to be stabilized to do other things. Kids need stable housing so they can go to school comfortably and focus on that.

But sometimes housing is that asset. And that’s the way that our country has been set up. The house is the major asset, that’s actually something that got beat into my head as a kid. And you’re supposed to start off small and move and shift and do all this. Well, that may work in some parts of the country. It doesn’t work here because your entry level houses, how many hundreds of thousands of dollars, right?

So we, the Office of Housing, have to be much more an implementer of things, but how do we support that sort of work, that sort of thinking that should be done probably in the Office of Planning? What are the economic development needs of people in housing, or that housing can help provide?

They’re always like, oh, Seattle is so innovative. We have Boeing and Microsoft, and all this. So can we try to get a little innovative on this? And innovation is hard. Because housing is expensive. And people fail, right? You’re gonna fail till you figure out how to do something better. And Seattle doesn’t like failure. But if, honestly, I’m not in this long term gig, can we try it? Can we do something?

I mean, do you really want a city that has no middle to low income people? Eastern Cafe is opening up today. You know, how addicted I am to coffee and how reliant I am on coffee. That barista becomes extremely powerful. Do I not want them to live nearby? How weird it would be if seniors couldn’t afford to live in the city. It’s not a world that I think most of us want to live in. And we have this weird relationship with housing, that it’s a very personal matter, but there’s a huge public role in it.

IE: With an increase in new projects in this neighborhood, people are concerned about gentrification and displacement. But it’s not universally agreed on what that means. Developers and supporters of their projects will say, it’s not gentrification, it’s the opposite – we’re helping the housing crisis. There’s a lack of consensus, and I think it makes it kind of confusing for people. How do you view this dynamic of gentrification and displacement?

MWC: Chinatown ID proper, including little Saigon – I remember I was looking and I think ISRD had like 14 different projects going through at a certain time. We should not be surprised. Big picture, we’re one of the last development areas close to downtown. And if we didn’t have an economic downturn at the end of like 2009, it would have come earlier. If you drive around, there’s still surface parking lots, right? And you don’t see that in other neighborhoods.

There’s certain people in the neighborhood who are very worried about gentrification and displacement. But there’s also others in the neighborhood who are concerned that in order to keep up economic vitality, you need higher income people living here. And I think the truth is somewhere between the two.

If I were to look at some of the tools that were supposed to be around for affordability – there’s the housing levy, right, that builds housing. And I’ve heard some things where people are like, no, our neighborhood has too much affordable housing. I tend to disagree. I’ll tell you that a restaurant worker in Chinatown probably can’t afford to live [in units priced at 60 percent of AMI].

In this neighborhood, we have some of the highest poverty rates in the city. And that’s just a statement of fact, that’s not guilt. And that’s because we have so many seniors that rely on living in this neighborhood for a variety of different reasons. And they make $840 a month, on average. That’s their Social Security, that’s their supplemental security income. At the other side, you’ve got other people within the API community that make way more than that makes the average of two, we look pretty good. The people that have extremely high income can afford the market rate units and all this. And so the market exists, and they’re able to move into that. There’s everybody that can’t, their importance to this community and how we allow them to stay. I don’t think we should ever forget that. But I do think we need a middle.

The gentrification and displacement question is huge. I think it’s real. So it’s like, okay, how do we know when a neighborhood flips? And who keeps that information? Well right now, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development. And so for me, I’m like, how does OPCD and OH work together? What is the data that’s being shared? And is the data in conflict? Or does it kind of align? So when you’re thinking about it, what is the housing that should be provided? What’s the housing that’s needed? Where should it be? What are the other things that need to happen around there to make sure that the neighborhood is healthy?

IE: What are you most proud of about your time at SCIDpda?

MWC: One of the things I think I’m proud of is just, we’ve sustained and solidified our focus on our values over the past 17 years. And we were able to do that, because we’ve become financially stronger. We managed our money better. And just in the weird ways that we’ve stepped up over time. They’re not flashy. We’re not a flashy organization. But we’ve had to over time.

IE: What have the biggest challenges been?

MWC: So I think money is always a challenge. I know that we’re quasi governmental, but we’re functioning very much like a nonprofit. So from that perspective, it has been tough and, you know, going through two economic downturns, oh joy, those have been challenges. And that those resources have been tied to some of the challenges that we faced.

Would I have wanted to buy more properties and secure more stuff? Sure, I would love to, but I don’t have access to capital that moves that quickly. Land in this neighborhood has gotten super expensive. And because of the rules of that sort of funding where I have to pay appraised value, well there’s people that aren’t tied to appraised value, and they can just throw down a bunch of cash. And so looking at a site like the one in Little Saigon, or looking at the old Tsue Chong noodle factory and all this, that is a lot of money. It would have eaten up several pots that are designated for the entire state or the region on those projects.

It takes a long time, some of these projects, because of the type of capital that we do, because of the financing that we do. And I think it’s the diversity of thought, and opinion in the way that it’s presented. And in this neighborhood, there’s almost a challenge sometimes. It’s very rich, and trying to understand why people feel certain ways. That involves time, that may involve trust, it always involves trust. It may involve language. It’s very complex and rich. And I feel like outside of this neighborhood, people fail to understand that. Or it’s inconvenient for them.

IE: You’ve talked and written about how the CID has meant a lot to you personally, over the years. So how are you feeling about no longer working exclusively in this neighborhood now?

MWC: I’m not acknowledging it. I’m not. And I have to be mindful as I step into this new role that this relationship I have with this neighborhood changes.

I will always care about this neighborhood. I’ll have the luxury of maybe not feeling personally responsible for things in a certain way. But dude, I still need to go there to shop to eat. It’s on my way home.

But can you ever really leave that? I don’t know. How would you do that? You know, there’s so many good and bad memories in this neighborhood. In typical Maiko fashion, I’m just not acknowledging that emotionally.

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