In the early morning hours of March 20, 1970, an unknown arsonist set two small fires in the Ozark Hotel, then located in the Denny Triangle at Seventh Avenue and Westlake. The fires quickly swept up the stairwells and engulfed the upper stories. Though the first fire crew was on the scene in minutes, there was little that could be done. Within an hour, twenty people were dead and fifteen more injured.
A year later, twelve people died in a similar blaze at the Seventh Avenue Hotel in downtown Seattle that started with a discarded cigarette in the basement. With little warning, the fire spread rapidly to the upper floors, trapping residents inside their rooms.
These two tragedies, which were some of the worst in Seattle history, resulted in retroactive amendments to the fire code in 1970 and to the minimum housing code in 1972. The laws collectively became known as the Ozark Hotel Ordinances, and mandated extensive safety upgrades for most of Seattle's older hotels and apartments -- upgrades that many owners could not afford. As a result, thousands of low-cost housing units were lost, buildings were vacated, redeveloped or demolished, and the character of some of Seattle's oldest urban neighborhoods was forever changed.
A Legacy of Laborers
Seattle's economic history is one of boom and bust, with periods of enormous growth punctuated by periods of contraction. In the good times, Seattle has often been burdened by an undersupply of low-cost labor, resulting in high wages and marked periods of workforce immigration.
The history of the Ozark Hotel, and other housing developed for laborers, is closely intertwined with Seattle's development as a commercial center. The Ozark Hotel was an example of a housing type, technically referred to as a Single-Room-Occupancy hotel, that catered to the itinerant laborer. For a few dollars a night, a person could rent a small room with a bed and a shared bathroom down the hall. Most places rented by the night, week or month.
Seattle's economy, unlike many industrial towns, was based largely on commercial trade and seasonal resource extraction, which contributed to a community of temporary workers. A low-wage workforce with high turnover created a market for cheap digs up and down the western edge of town.
During the late 1800s, the Alaska Gold Rush caused a general labor shortage in Seattle as young men left in droves to go north. The resulting high wages attracted a proportionally large population of single, highly mobile workers to the city.
Though Skid Row (Yesler Way) and the Pioneer Square Historic District are well known for their SRO housing, during the first two decades of the 20th century these historic affordable housing solutions were widely distributed throughout the city. By 1920, there were as many as 400 residential hotels in the downtown area.
During the boom years following World War II, the residential population on the fringes of Seattle and neighboring suburban cities grew while decline and disinvestment characterized many of Seattle's urban neighborhoods. Urban decline and suburban sprawl was bolstered by the availability of cheap land in the county, the newfound popularity of the car, and the prevailing attitude that the life within the city was unhealthy, dirty and poor.
However, residential hotels remained an important part of Seattle's housing stock. SRO hotels provided a viable, affordable and independent housing option for Seattle's lowest income residents
In the 1970s, Seattle's historic residential hotels suffered a series of insults that forever changed the character of the downtown community. Most of Seattle's residential hotels were old and had not been updated for years. Many had been family-owned for decades. Because rents yielded relatively small profits, upgrades were infrequent.
The completion of Interstate 5 resulted in the demolition of dozens of hotels, and those remaining suffered the effects of new regulations and a changing economy.
Between 1970 and 1972 the Seattle City Council passed a series of amendments to the city fire code and housing standards that collectively became known as the Housing Code Amendment. The new standards applied to all hotels and apartments three or more stories in height, and mandated extensive, and expensive, safety updates. New standards required enclosed stairwells with self-sealing fire doors, the removal of veneer trim and wainscoting from stairwells and hallways, the sealing of transom windows in individual units, the replacement of hallway doors with 1-hour rated fire doors, and in many cases, the installation of sprinkler systems.
For many owners, these upgrades were financially prohibitive. Unlike apartments, SROs were not eligible for HUD subsidies because the government considered them substandard housing. Residential hotels were perceived as a primary example of the blight that plagued America's urban neighborhoods.
Moreover, the Seattle Building Code actively discouraged extensive renovation of existing SRO housing. SROs, defined as a residential unit between 70 and 130 square feet with or without a bathroom or kitchen, were allowed as existing non-conforming uses. However, the upgrades required by the new legislation were, by definition, substantial alterations under the Seattle Building Code, which meant that upgraded hotels had to comply with current regulations.
The impact on the city's affordable housing supply was immediate. The combination of significant renovation costs and lack of available government funding forced many establishments to close. By one estimate, over 5000 housing units were lost as a result of the Ozarks legislation. Much of the building stock in Seattle's older urban neighborhoods, such as the International District, became underutilized as the upper stories were vacated and left to ruin.
The economic upturn in the late 1970s escalated land value and rents, further endangering Seattle's historic hotels. Land value began to exceed improvement value in many areas, leading to demolition and redevelopment. In areas such as Pioneer Square, many units were converted to apartments and condominiums.
Between 1970 and 1980, over half of Seattle's downtown housing was lost to demolition or closure, much of which was SRO housing. By 1998, there were 4 SRO hotels left in Seattle: the Alps, the Panama, the Publix, and the St. Regis. This massive displacement of Seattle's low-income residential population, along with cutbacks in federal spending for inner city programs, removed the social safety net. As real estate prices climbed, local and federal policy contributed to Seattle's homeless population.
Hope for the Future
Revitalizing its affordable urban housing stock is a central goal for the City of Seattle, and it is also a key component of growth management planning. As a result, there are a variety of government subsidies and financing options available for both the construction of new housing and the rehabilitation of existing housing.
A key component of the successful revitalization of Seattle's downtown is the reuse of its existing underutilized stock in neighborhoods such as Pioneer Square and the International District where long-term vacancy and deferred maintenance evidences the legacy of the 1970 Ozarks Ordinances.
The existence of Housing Levy programs such as the Seattle's Multifamily Rehabilitation Loan Program, and federal programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and HUD Community Development Block Grants, make housing rehabilitation possible. These and other funding sources, combined with historic preservation incentives, are allowing developers to get into the affordable housing marketplace.
Many projects have been completed and there are more in the works. The Seattle Chinatown International District Public Development Authority has already implemented several projects such as the 1915 Bush Hotel, which now provides 96 units of affordable housing. In February of 2002, Historic Seattle purchased the historic Cadillac Hotel, which had been largely vacant after suffering serious damage in the Nisqually Earthquake. Built in 1889, its small rooms provided housing for hundreds of itinerant laborers seeking work in Seattle's bustling turn-of-the-century shipping and industrial economy.
Although private, for-profit entities rarely develop affordable housing projects, Triad Development is using incentives to rehabilitate Pioneer Square's historic OK Hotel, which has been vacant since the Nisqually Earthquake. The renovated hotel will provide 44 units of affordable housing, in addition to artist work space and retail.
It is hard to comprehend how Seattle would look if the Ozarks Ordinances had not been passed, or if the development incentives and funding options that we have now were available back then. However, with the efforts of community organizations, public development authorities and developers, many of these buildings may receive a new lease on life, and Seattle will get a second chance.
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