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Olive Tower clings to life—and affordable housing

Seattle’s past and present merge at Boren and Olive

Will Sweger

Rising like an art moderne ghost just west of Interstate 5, Olive Tower sustains a foothold among modern glass and steel high rises. The building stands in the middle of a maelstrom of traffic; its triangular lot borders Boren Avenue, Olive Way and the interstate, cutting through the heart of Seattle. In every direction, new construction surrounds the building like the thunder of the freeway reverberating off its concrete, stucco-covered walls.

Olive Tower has found a new way to survive through providing affordable housing. Like the building itself, its modern role serving households earning less than 50 percent of the area median income merges Seattle's past and present.

Stepping through the entrance into the lobby, the roar of the city outside fades into a distant rumble. Here, a visitor meets with ornaments of Tudor decoration: a stained-oak foyer enclosure, curved archways, and original brass mailboxes doors complete with tiny eagles, each clutching a bundle of arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other.

In the quiet of the lobby, I met Sharon Hennessy, a 13-year resident of the Tower. She first made Olive Tower her home after she left London to attend the University of Washington. An active member of the community in the Tower, Sharon happily described building cookouts, the Salvation Army clothing drives she helped to organize, and even a stray cat who once took up residence in the recess above the foyer the tenants took turns caring for. They named her Olive.

The arts community in Seattle is still the biggest draw for Sharon. She takes part by volunteering as a moderator of the popular Seattle Writers’ and Readers’ Network. Without Olive Tower, Sharon wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Seattle with her income as a caregiver. She said the building management even helped her with the process of applying for the American citizenship she obtained last year.

“It’s affordable,” she explained. “I’m able to live downtown and access all the arts, because I love the arts.”

Sharon was happy to give me a tour of her unit. Perched precariously on the south corner, the two windows in Sharon’s studio apartment frame a narrow wall holding back the roar of the city beyond. On one side, modern condos huddle above I-5. On the other, an empty expanse above the Convention Center bus station provides just enough room to contemplate the crush of skyscrapers downtown.

Soon, the new Washington State Convention Center expansion will rise from the concrete lot of the station, blocking out Olive Tower’s view of two other survivors from a similar era: the Camlin and the Paramount Theater.

As someone used to living with an urban sprawl pushing in on them, Sharon is keenly aware of the changes taking place in Seattle. “The bus routes keep changing, being added or deleted, the traffic is terrible,” she explained. “Because of all the new buildings going up, a lot of people are being displaced.”

Inside her unit, the space is cramped with wooden furniture crowded with books. A laptop sits open on a desk facing the downtown window. A small walkthrough closet leads to a step over her cat’s litter box and into the small bathroom, proudly displaying the tiny white tiles some workman knelt to install in the wave of Seattle construction in the latter half of the roaring twenties. Everywhere are reminders that this has been someone’s home for a long time.

Olive Tower in its neighborhood in 1952.
Seattle Municipal Archives

Built in 1928, Olive Tower was one of Seattle’s first high-rise apartment buildings. Originally billed as a “Gentlemen’s Apartment Hotel,” a 1929 Seattle Times ad listed rent prices ranging from $67.50 to $77.50, or about $965.23 to $1,108.22 adjusted for inflation. Building management constructed a small number of cabana units in 1952, and in 1962, one had to be moved to make room as I-5 cut off a chunk from the property.

By the 70s the building, like much of Seattle’s urban housing, was in disrepair. In the early 80s, the non-profit Seattle Housing Resources Group purchased the building with the intent to use it for low-income housing. In 1984 they renovated the building with funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and mitigation funds from the construction of the Washington State Convention Center nearby.

The current embodiment of the Seattle Housing Resources Group, Bellwether Housing, operates the building today. The non-profit offers 1,950 affordable units in Seattle and has 209 more under construction.

Susan Boyd, the CEO of Bellwether Housing, is hoping to perform needed repairs to Olive Tower within the next 10 years in conjunction with a refinance and new regulatory agreement to provide affordable housing for 35-75 years.

“We will keep renewing the life of these buildings as long as we can to maintain them as affordable,” Boyd said.

Income-restricted units in the building are regulated at 50 percent of area medium income. The subsidized studios rent for between $650 and $755.

Boyd said the building hosts “a real range” of tenants: “We have seniors who are on fixed income...we have people who are disabled…we have young people…people who are working at the margins, working in nightclubs or working in the service industry.”

Purple Puppy/Flickr

Bellwether isn’t alone in its mission to provide affordable housing in Seattle. It’s one of 17 nonprofits providing rent-restricted housing in the city. Even with the subsidized apartments, competition for units remains tight; AllHome’s point-in-time count in January counted 11,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County.

Laura Downs, the Olive Tower Building Manager, that “the phone just rings off the hook” with rental applications. She said she gets an average of five emails a day about potential openings.

Boyd said she’d seen a change amongst applicants recently. “We do just see people stressed out…maybe more than we used to.”

“We’re now so far from market [rate], it’s a whole different group of people than you see in the general housing marketplace and maybe more on the edge,” Boyd added. “Some of the impacts have been on the property management staff who are dealing with people who are going through issues that they may or may not be well-prepared to deal with.”

Bellwether has made an effort recently to provide resident services coordinators at all of their properties including Olive Tower, Boyd said. The coordinators take the lead in assisting residents with a variety of issues from physical and mental health to financial support. The new program is paid for out of a mix of building revenue and fundraising.

For now, the arrangement is working for current residents, but the city’s demand for housing remains unfilled.

Concluding my tour of Olive Tower, a glance into the maintenance shop in the basement revealed cabinets painted white, with 1950s block lettering with labels like “power tools” and “saws.” A deeper inspection revealed another secret of the building. In the middle of the small room a ladder rose through a hole in the ceiling to a loft where, the building superintendent explained, a previous building maintenance worker made a home.

More than 11,000 people are experiencing homelessness in King County [CS]

How much does the Convention Center expansion owe the community? [CS]