Activists Occupy Vacant Building

About two dozen housing activists who spent last night in a boarded-up, vacant apartment building today vowed to face arrest should police attempt to move them out and end their call for increased low-income housing.

The activists, calling their protest Operation Homestead, are sponsored by the Seattle Displacement Coalition.

One demonstrator, Kevin Griffith, who said he was speaking only for himself, said he and the others who broke into the building yesterday don't know if the owners will ask police to have them removed. But the activists said they will risk being arrested to make their point.

The protest began yesterday when more than 50 activists broke into, occupied and tidied up the apartment house at 1814 Minor Avenue. They said the demonstration was to dramatize their belief that the city is wasting opportunities to provide housing for low-income people.

Police stood by for about two hours yesterday afternoon while the activists draped banners from the building's fire escape, pried plywood from the boarded-up windows, and painted signs that read: "We Reclaim," "Home Sweet Home," and "It's Alive!"

Police have forcibly removed coalition members from vacant buildings they have occupied in two previous demonstrations.

The demonstrators say they plan to contact the building's owners to see if they could stay at the Arion and fix it up. The Arion's owners, according to a city notice taped to the building, are Shizuko Tamaki, of Golden Land Investment Co., and Hiromi Nishimura.

"The long-term plan is to get this building reopened as a shelter or as transitional housing for the poor and homeless," said demonstrator John Gould, 24.

The coalition has a studied agenda behind its flamboyant tactics. John Fox, coalition coordinator, said the group's members believe mandatory housing inspections in the city would force accountability on landlords who let their properties deteriorate so they can tear them down.

Fox said such actions should be discouraged so that the properties can be used to meet demand for low-income housing.

"We've lost 4,000 units of low-income housing in the downtown area since 1980, leaving fewer than 5,800 units," Fox said. "Over 500 units have been destroyed in a four-block radius of this building. We are frustrated, and out of patience."

The city has begun an inspection program, but it will survey just 30 percent of the city's rental housing stock in the next three years.

Displacement coalition members also have proposed an ordinance to forbid razing vacant apartment buildings unless the owner has formally studied how the demolition would affect the supply of low-income housing.

City Councilman Tom Weeks, chairman of the council's housing committee, sympathized with the demonstrators. The need for low-income housing is obvious, he said, even as he pointed out the city's efforts in the area.

Two levies in the past decade have pumped $50 million into affordable housing in the region, he said, and the city and county are now developing a possible $150 million levy for that purpose.

Fox said he was disappointed that Mayor Norm Rice has yet to respond to the coalition's proposed anti-demolition ordinance.

"We've learned that it took establishing a Tent City next to the Kingdome to get shelter beds," Fox said. "We've learned that only after refusing to leave the bus barn would the city commit to new shelter beds."

Anne Levinson, a spokeswoman for Rice, could not be reached for comment.

About 100 demonstrators had marched several blocks earlier in the day to the Arion building, starting by providing free food to the homeless in the mini-park at Boren Avenue and Pike Street.

Then the group set out on a walking tour of a half-dozen abandoned structures or sites where buildings that once housed low-income residents had been torn down.

The 39-unit Arion, between Stewart and Howell streets just north of the Greyhound Bus Station, abuts the long-boarded-up San Telmo, a building that once offered 130 units for rent.

A city Department of Construction and Land Use official found numerous code violations at the Arion during an inspection conducted April 10, according to a notice posted on the building.

The violations come under four main DCLU headings:

-- Inadequate maintenance. Window glazing is broken throughout the building. Wall, floor and ceiling coverings are damaged and missing.

-- Fire and life safety. The building has no guardrails on its stairwells.

-- Duties of the owner. Cockroaches and rodents infest the building.

-- Vacant building standards. Plumbing fixtures are missing, and what plumbing remains does not work.

If the city had forced the building's owners to bring the building up to code, Fox said, perhaps it would now be housing for people.

-- Times reporter Charles Brown contributed to this report.