Seattle’s first affordable housing high-rise tower in 50 years welcomes its first residents | KUOW NPR

The content for this article was originally featured on KUOW on May 5, 2023.

This week, people who used to live outside began moving into a new building on First Hill. It’s the first new affordable housing high-rise tower Seattle has seen in 50 years.

It represents a different approach — in terms of scale and strategy — for addressing homelessness in the region.

Kevin Thomas Kiso smiles in a sunlit lobby, inside a concrete, steel and glass high-rise apartment building on First Hill. He has just finished signing his lease, and now holds a new set of keys.

“This is the coolest day of my adult life, and I’m 57 … I spent 20 years sleeping right out here, at the Stimson Green Mansion by the park … the mansion over here,” Kiso says as he gestures out the window. “I spent 14 years in my sleeping bag, with my laptop here. And then I would go to the library and read French literature, like Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Paul Sartre, and Camus.”

Reading the French Existentialists helped Kiso get through a dark time in his life. He got addicted to heroin and spent time in prison. He’s been trying to stay clean ever since. For the last two years, he’s been living in a cubicle at a Salvation Army shelter.

“It was people milling around, and walking by, and rapping, and singing, and talking, and yakking, and you never got a moment of peace and tranquility,” Kiso said of living on the street. “And I know that that’s what I’m being granted here. And silence is going to be kind of frightening at first for me, I believe. The tranquility and … I’m not sure how I’m going to react without sirens blaring and incessant traffic and things telling me to walk and don’t walk.”

Homelessness is a problem with many faces. There are people who need help getting off the streets, and there are many people on limited incomes who need affordable housing, so they don’t get pushed into a cycle that can lead to homelessness. Experts say you have to work at the problem from both directions. The 17-story apartment tower in First Hill is therefore divided into two parts, each with its own entrance and lobby.

The bottom part is called “Blake House.” It provides “permanent supportive housing” for seniors and veterans coming out of homelessness. It’s run by a nonprofit called Plymouth Housing.

The top part is called “The Rise,” and it’s for people on modest incomes, such as teachers, nurses and other health care workers. Another nonprofit, Bellwether Housing, runs this portion.

Kiso is part of the first cohort to move into Blake House. In a few months, he’ll have 112 new neighbors. Above Blake House, another 250 families will live in the Bellwether Housing section.

The tower has a common area lounge with a view of the First Hill neighborhood, including its many hospitals. Paul Schumann uses the lounge as he studies from a medical textbook on his laptop. He moved into this top part of the high rise in March.

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