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Capitol Hill exit interview: Michael Seiwerath reflects on the fight for affordable housing and arts advocacy

Seiwerath during a 2014 neighborhood safety walk

One of Capitol Hill’s leading affordable housing and arts activists Michael Seiwerath is taking his expertise to South Seattle as the new Executive Director of SouthEast Effective Development (SEED). Recently the Vice President of Advancement and External Affairs at Community Roots Housing (formerly Capitol Hill Housing), Seiwerath oversaw fund development, communications, and government relations for the nonprofit since 2008. During that time he was the founding Executive Director of the Community Roots Housing Foundation, an independent nonprofit that helped fund Community Roots. He was also an important part of creating 12th Avenue Arts, and establishing the Capitol Hill Arts District in 2014, the first of the city’s arts districts. At SEED, he will work with partners like HomeSite, Rainer City Arts, and the City of Seattle to create affordable housing, arts and economic development for Columbia and Hillman Cities.

Before joining Community Roots Housing, Seiwerath was the Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum. During his 12 years there, Seiwerath helped start the state’s first nonprofit cinema, The Grand Illusion Theater, and oversaw the NW Film Forum’s development of its current home on 12th. (12 seems to be a magic number for Seiwerath.) He is also a film producer, having worked with Charles Mudede on films like Police Beat in 2005 and last year’s Thin Skin.

As he looks back on a legacy of creating lasting affordable housing and arts spaces on Capitol Hill, Seiwerath shared his reflections with CHS about what has changed, and what hasn’t.

Some answers have been edited or condensed for brevity.

What are some reflections on your last 12 years of working for greater affordable housing and preserving arts spaces on the Hill?

Well, it’s hard when you’ve been working on something for a decade and it’s only gotten worse. It’s encouraging that our elected officials now recognize the scale of the homelessness and affordability crisis. That’s progress. We’re still not there yet on the political will to prioritize sufficient resources to solve the problem.

A positive thing I’ve seen in [my] 12 years is partnerships. 12th Avenue Arts was an innovative partnership with performing arts groups, nonprofits, [and] affordable housing in the city. Liberty Bank Building is a partnership with a higher capacity, long standing developer and Black-led community based organizations in the Central District. We’re doing it again with Africatown Plaza across the street, and the LGBTQ-affirming low-income senior housing on Broadway. I’m really proud the goal is to have GenPRIDE own its ground floor home.”

I started at Community Roots Housing the same week that Washington Mutual collapsed. It was really heading into the depths of the great recession. In 12 years from that to this unprecedented growth and then the pandemic, we’ve just seen a lot of change. We’ve all seen our beloved Capitol HIll and Pike/Pine become one of the most desirable speculative real estate acquisition objects on the West Coast.

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What are some lessons we can learn from the success of 12th Avenue Arts?

It’s a good example of the need for affordable housing in times of prosperity and in times of unprecedented crisis. It’s also an example of a mission-based landlord like Community Roots Housing working with the theater companies to keep them in their home during a period where there’s a mandated shutdown.”

What’s your advice for affordability housing and tenants rights activists on the Hill?

Partner, and think big. Think creatively about who you can partner with. 12th Avenue Arts has pretty nontraditional partners. The costs of land are so high these days that you gotta think big about costs and who you can partner with. Pretty much every for-profit developer is trying to figure out what the heck to do with the first floor of their building before they build it, so if you can partner with a developer early, that could be helpful.

What are some challenges to affordable housing specific to the Central District?

The Central District has been historically underinvested in because of white supremacy and institutional racism. The Central District doesn’t have as strong of an affordable housing developer and community development organizations. . . That’s a big difference. I think that’s true of the commercial districts as well, the historic disinvestment due to institutional racism. The gentrifying pressures have been greater.

Seiwerath helping install a new Capitol Hill Arts District marker in 2017

What are some developments you would like to see happen on the Hill? 

Something that’s really exciting [is] the Intiman Theater working with Seattle Central College. What a great example of this large college institution partnering with an arts organization. I’d like to see more of that. The arts are uniquely good at activating spaces. I’d like to see BIPOC control, if not own, the Cal Anderson shelter house. I’d like to see a lot more affordable housing. There was a day when 12th Avenue Arts was under construction during the boom, and I went up to the roof. I could count 17 cranes from the roof and only one of them was building affordable housing. How the hell is that a plan? [We just need] that massive, massive investment in housing and arts space preservation.

When we started the Capitol Hill Arts District, in some ways we were sounding the alarm, saying, ‘We could lose all this.’ We could lose all these performing arts spaces that are within five blocks of each other, most of whom are renting and may be on a short-term lease. That alarm just needs to be louder now.

I’d like to see the new Cultural Space Agency, a public development authority the city’s creating right now, I’d like to see them invest in Capitol Hill.

Where do you think is the best place to get funding for affordable housing? 

Progressive revenue. Washington state has the more regressive revenue in the United States of America, and Seattle has the most regressive revenue in the most regressive state. It’d be hard to be worse. There’s no shortage of proposals in Olympia this week to do it. I defer to those leaders about which one is going to make it through.

Anything else you’d like to say about your time in Capitol Hill?

Tremendous gratitude to all the artists, small businesses, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ leaders, creators, and agitators that make Capitol Hill as fantastic as it is.

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3 months ago

“I’d like to see BIPOC control, if not own, the Cal Anderson shelter house.”

Instead of letting a group of extremist activists take over a public building at the heart of Capitol Hill’s central park to use as their anarchist clubhouse, why not have the newly established public development authority take ownership, subsidize the buildout of the space as a cafe/restaurant, and lease it at below market rate as an incubator space for BIPOC community members through a transparent public process?

just wondering
just wondering
3 months ago
Reply to  CHqueer

when did all black, indigenous, and people of color people become ‘extremist activists?’

3 months ago
Reply to  just wondering

Anyone who protests is an extremist according to all the “moderates” here.