Illustration by Daniel Robinson

The Chinatown-International District (CID) neighborhood is one of the most transit-rich neighborhoods in the city. Minutes from downtown offices by bus or train, a 30-minute train ride away from Sea-Tac Airport, and a major stop on Seattle’s rapidly expanding light-rail, it gives many residents the freedom to not own a car. Asian grocery stores, restaurants and community centers are a further attraction for many residents. Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking banks, clínics and other services mean non-native English speakers can access necessary services without worrying about a language barrier. Add to this the number of affordable housing options in the CID and the attractiveness of the neighborhood for many lower-income Asian-Americans is second to none.

“Traditionally, the CID’s affordable housing has attracted people who really depend upon culture and services of the neighborhood – Chinese or other Asian immigrants with limited English proficiency have been able to access services in their native languages in the CID,” said Maiko Winkler Chin of Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda).

However, the attractiveness of the CID as a place to live for all people – Asian-American or not – has increased the strain on the limited numbers of affordable housing spots in the CID.

“As Seattle has become more expensive, however, a wider array of people are moving to the CID who do so for the transit-rich environment or its proximity to downtown and less so for the linguistic and cultural services and communities,” said Winkler Chin.

Increased attraction to the CID means increasing rents and increasing waits for affordable housing. Rachta Danh, manager of CID affordable housing building the NP Hotel, said there is currently a minimum wait of two years for new residents to enter his building. A 10-year resident and two-year long resident here reported having had no wait and having had a waiting period of one year, respectively, showing the recent strain on affordable housing access in in the CID.

Within the Asian-American community living in CID affordable housing, the reasons to live in the CID are diverse. The IE spoke with three current residents who talked about why they want to or need to live in the neighborhood.

Amy and her family of four live in a three-bedroom, Section-8 subsidized apartment in the CID. She and her family have lived in the same apartment for nine years. Their monthly rent this year is $684, about 30 percent or so of the total cost of the apartment if it were offered at market rate. Amy noted the exact amount her family pays fluctuates slightly based on their income. Amy is grateful that she and her family were well-insulated from the recent rise in Seattle housing costs.

Amy works 14 hours a week at the CID Community Center which allows her to raise her 10 and 14-year old. “I’m lucky I don’t have to work more and can focus on raising my children,” she said. Amy’s husband, also from China originally, is the family’s main earner.

Amy’s husband is the head waiter at a Chinese restaurant that is a 10-minute drive from the CID. “He drives to his job because public transit cannot get him there easily. As such, we do have one car. My kids take the bus to and from school. I do not need a car because I work just by my apartment and have everything I need here in the CID.”

Amy loves the proximity to Asian markets, clinics that provide care in Mandarin, and the CID community center and meeting places. Amy is a fairly strong English speaker, but still recognizes it is a major benefit to access important services in in one’s native language and in one’s neighborhood.

Theresa is a Chinese-American retiree living on Social Security and savings. She has lived in the United States since the early 1970s and is a strong English speaker. A former hairdresser who is now currently without an income, she pays $481 per month for a publicly subsidized studio in the CID. Teresa has lived in her current apartment for 10 years. She says she loves her building because it is clean and well-run. And she loves the CID’s location and the transit-richness of the area. For her, the transportation benefits were clearly the biggest draw.

“You do not need a car here. There is absolutely no reason,” she says. Not needing a car, Theresa is able to save a significant amount of money and enjoy Sound Transit’s senior discounts.

Wei is a Chinese immigrant who has lived in the United States for 10 years. She speaks English well. She has lived in her current apartment for two years after waiting for one year to secure a unit. An employed caregiver working in the CID, Wei pays $600 in rent for a publicly-subsidized studio very similar to Theresa’s. According to her apartment manager, this is 30 to 40 percent of the market rate for a studio.

Wei’s income is higher than Theresa’s, so she pays higher rent for a similar apartment. In contrast to Theresa, Wei does have a car, and she pays $125 a month to park near her apartment, and she noted that the parking fee is the largest negative for living in the CID. She uses her car to get around the city beyond the CID, especially when her American-born husband, who lives and works out state, visits her.

With Seattle’s housing more expensive and scarce, and affordable housing units not readily available for all of those who are eligible, the CID will attract people who are more interested in the convenience of the neighborhood rather than its cultural and linguistic benefits and services. For others, the transit and the cultural and linguistic services will remain an equal pull.

As Winkler Chin noted, many of the most elderly residents in the CID’s affordable housing buildings cannot drive nor speak English and most need to live in the CID. These are the very people who are left out of this article given the author’s lack of Cantonese or Mandarin language skills. According to Chin, for these elders the necessity of living in the CID is of tantamount concern.