FIERCE FIGHT FOR HOUSING IN SEATTLE Are all these people really artists? We shall see. They slept out for new low-income artist housing this weekend.
  • JG
  • FIERCE FIGHT FOR HOUSING IN SEATTLE Are all these people really artists? We shall see. They slept out for new low-income artist housing this weekend.

The crowd that turned up for a shot at low-income artist housing this past weekend set a record—this was the biggest turnout ever for an Artspace project in Seattle, according to VP Cathryn Vandenbrink.

Two reasons were most likely: one, rocketing housing prices are, perhaps, causing people to discover their inner artists; and two, the new lofts are in a neighborhood that's gentrifying—and artists of color were out in force to keep their neighborhood theirs.

"I want to have a presence there, to say we're not going to be pushed out by the quote-unquote market," said Jamil Suleman, 30, a Muslim and a hip hop artist, native to Seattle, working a day job as an after-school teacher of refugee kids in the South End. "You hold your stance as strong as you can. That's why we make music. That's why we make art."

With him was Syed Taqi, another local whose Seattle Capoeira Center will be on the ground level of the new Mt. Baker Artist Lofts project.

Artspace has said it wants a more racially mixed population at Mt. Baker—which is directly across from Franklin High School, where the population is 90 percent people of color. The trick is that housing laws forbid Artspace to give preference to any racial group.

Artists of color took things into their own hands. A whole crew of 22-to-25-year-olds who graduated from Franklin High School got the call from a friend around 9 pm Friday to get down there. One, 22-year-old Bo Kim, said she went to an informational meeting and was depressed to hear that at Hiawatha, the most active resident committees are "gardening and noise complaints." (A current Hiawatha resident confirmed this, adding that it was cultural: "For people like me, bass and drums are the heartbeat. That's the heartbeat of certain cultures," he said, asking to remain anonymous.)

"We put it on ourselves to bring our homies here," said Ari Glass, 25, a painter/illustrator/designer. "To freshen it up."

"Fresh Prince," echoed the older white poet guy sitting next to them, endearingly adding on, followed by much friendly laughter from the very post-Fresh Prince crowd.

But the issue of housing in South Seattle is serious.

"Our people are definitely getting pushed out," said Jordan Nicholson, 24, a photographer/videographer/dancer.

BONDING One of these artists has a baby grand piano, another told childrens stories at a library for work, and a third was an undercover gang cop in NYC. Maybe theyll all live together. This is them around 11 pm on Friday night.
  • JG
  • BONDING One of these artists has a baby grand piano, another told children's stories at a library for work, and a third was an undercover gang cop in NYC. Maybe they'll all live together. This is them around 11 pm on Friday night.

By 11 on Friday night, the temperature had dropped to 54 degrees but it felt so much colder. The first person who'd arrived—before the break of dawn on Friday, at 6:30 am—was a photographer named Michael (he declined to share his full name). Michael and his brother only brought hard backyard sitting chairs, but dwelt in them like kings.

More than 24 hours after that first arrival, by Saturday at 8 am—the witching hour, when applications were finally taken by Artspace—more than a hundred bleary-eyed and hungry creatives with sleeping bags and pillows lined both sides of the street outside Hiawatha Lofts.

Some made alliances with future buildingmates; some discovered the unloved restroom at the gas station around the corner on Rainier Avenue. After a night of leaning and lying against concrete sidewalks and walls, most had pains in strange places. A notable exception was the woman who brought her own twin bed on wheels, outfitted with purple covers.

"I knew it was gonna be a big line," said musician/actor Evan Mosher, best known as part of the band "Awesome." "But I didn't know it was gonna be, like, an iPhone line."

Mosher's assigned number in line was 91. He'd arrived that Saturday morning. He's a legit artist, and many artists work day jobs that qualify them as low-income. They're secretaries, line cooks, massage therapists, ad copywriters, bookstore clerks, and so on. Mosher has a decent shot, but he won't find out for another few weeks.

There will be 57 units of affordable live-work artist housing in the still-under-construction Mt. Baker Artist Lofts, which will open in June at the soonest. In the next two weeks, Artspace will weed out applicants who don't qualify financially: who make too much money.

Then, a panel will qualify the remaining applicants according to two principles: first, commitment to their art (not accomplishment or sales), and if they pass that test, then what position they held in this weekend's line. Say you were number 1 in the queue, and you qualified financially and artistically. You'd be given a slot, and you'd also get your first-choice loft (for your appropriate number of residents—a certain number of lofts are reserved for families).

One sleeper-out called the process "Darwinian," and it was harsh in various ways. It's hard to say how to improve it, but maybe offering child care would help next time. Thirty-four-year-old Salonica Rachal, another Franklin graduate who now has three daughters and lives in the Central District, arrived just before 8 am on Saturday and had to be at her bank job at BECU in Kent by 8:45. She couldn't even carve out enough time to submit an application at the back of the line.

Desperation was behind lots of stories. People told of being pushed out by development around Amazon. By rents raised dramatically simply because landlords could. By hard times.

Irene Kung, a photographer and sculptor who works the graveyard shift at Google in tech support, said her husband died a month ago, and by then, their house was underwater. The bank repossessed, and she couchsurfed, but had outstayed her welcome now and needed a spot at Mt. Baker.

"I'm just glad I had somewhere for the winter," Kung said.

Another woman who asked to remain anonymous (she has reason to believe she would be stalked) responded to the question "What kind of artist are you?" with, "Oh, I make jewelry, I storytell, I write, I paint, do you want me to dance? What do you need?" She said her former studio went up in flames.

So far, Mt. Baker is Artspace's third Seattle building. Tashiro-Kaplan and Hiawatha are the others. Nothing concrete is in the works for more, but I wish Artspace could do five more of these. For art, race, and class reasons.

"This will keep me in Seattle, to be honest with you," said 41-year-old Shannon Hanks Mackey, a poet and managing editor for The Black Scholar journal. Hanks Mackey and her 17-year-old son rode the bus to Hiawatha to sleep out. Their position on line was 31, so it looked good for them. I'm crossing my fingers. "I've been thinking about Oakland," she said. "The rents are comparable and there's more diversity. That's been changing since I arrived in the '90s, but not fast enough. There's, like, a couple cats out here—brown folks. I'm like, yeah."