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Want Affordable Housing In Seattle? Get In Line (Literally)

Steve Graham was No. 136 among people waiting Monday, February 22, 2016, for a chance to apply 110 low-income apartments.  'I'm keeping my fingers, toes and everything else crossed,' he said.
KUOW Photo/Liz Jones
Steve Graham was No. 136 among people waiting Monday, February 22, 2016, for a chance to apply 110 low-income apartments. 'I'm keeping my fingers, toes and everything else crossed,' he said.

Steve Graham got in line late. His number was 136.

But he was optimistic about the chance of a lifetime: a shot at brand new, low-income housing in an increasingly unaffordable city.

“Number 8! Numero ocho!” came the call Monday night at El Centro de la Raza, a nonprofit in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Only 110 units are available.

“I’m keeping my fingers, toes and everything else crossed,” Graham said. “And hoping the big guy up there is looking out for me, because I’ve been praying big time.”

The housing won’t even open until this summer, but Graham is hoping that he’ll get in and have a stable place to raise his 8-year-old daughter.

“She’s the best thing I’ve ever done. She’s the reason I get up every day,” he said.

Graham was in his work clothes and a Carhartt jacket on Monday. He’s a road flagger with the city. And he struggles to find a home he can afford.

“I’m staying with my brother. I buy groceries, pay on the cable. Just, it’s hard out here. Look at this,” he said about the long line, “this is for 110 units. It’s crazy.”

Monday provided a one-shot chance to apply. People slept overnight to be first in line. The crowd steadily grew through the day.

The crowd was diverse – Asian, African, Latino, black, white. And different reasons brought them to this place.

“It is on a first-come, first-serve basis,” said Estella Ortega, El Centro’s executive director. “You know if you’re number 1 or number 200, there’s some big differences there if you get seen in the final.”

Applications will be reviewed in order.

From El Centro de la Raza, you can see the new apartment towers under construction just out the window. The housing is just steps from the light rail station, restaurants, schools, parks. It’s a desirable location.

Developers know it, too.

“This area has been picked for development by market rate housing. We’ve got to figure out how we buy up property so that it doesn’t get bought up from underneath us,” Ortega said. “And then there’s not an opportunity to develop affordable housing. That definitely is an issue and a concern.”

This project is funded with a mix of public and private money, and federal tax credits since the units are set aside for people with lower incomes.

Rents will range from about $500 to $1,300, depending on income and family size.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Daniella Flores was number 12 in line to apply for a small supply of low-income housing in Seattle on Monday.", "fid": "124463", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/centro2__1_of_1_.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones"}]]Billy Jackson was number 23. He’s had a stroke and uses a scooter to get around. He got there early.

“Try since 8 o’clock,” he said.

Why does Jackson want to move here?

“I want to be back in the community. And I want to be at home with my people.”

Jackson shares a history with these walls.  Back in the 1960s, Latino activists occupied this abandoned schoolhouse to claim a place of their own. Jackson joined them. He was with the Black Panther party.

“Forty-seven years!” Jackson said. “Our efforts and everything are coming to fruition.”

This new housing project is named for the man who led that movement in the '60s and founded this nonprofit.

David Helms raced here after his social worker called him at home in Burien Monday morning. He’s a Vietnam veteran who lives on Social Security benefits, $1,000 a month. His rent now is about $850. To live here would change his life.

“Means I would have money to actually buy food. I might not have to go to the food bank anymore,” he said. “So that would mean a lot to me. To be a citizen again, you know. Instead of using all the time off of everybody, which is what we do now because we’re low income.”  

[asset-images[{"caption": "Waiting in line at Centro de la Raza in Seattle for a shot at 110 units of affordable housing.", "fid": "124464", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/centro3__1_of_1_.jpg", "attribution": ""}]]  Daniella Flores got there at 6 a.m. She was number 12. She's a single mother still in high school.

“I’m like a person that’s been through so much, and I’m only like 19 years old,” she said.

She’s a victim of domestic violence. Her mom passed away years ago, and Flores is on her own. 

“I never actually had my own place,” she said. “This is such a great opportunity for me and my son to start a new life.”

Her face beamed as she turned in her paperwork.

“It feels great,” she said. “Hopefully I get in.”

By the end of the day, El Centro estimated, some 1,400 people had come through the door.

For 110 apartments.

Year started with KUOW: 2006