The Rainier Center building, home to a plethora of area nonprofits, caught fire on Feb. 19. The Seattle Fire Department (SFD) responded to the second story blaze at around 1:30 a.m. The fire quickly spread to the third floor, leaving a man in his 30s seriously injured and gutting the northwest corner of the building. SFD contained the fire in half an hour, and the victim was taken to Harborview in serious condition. However, according to Barbara Ohno, the building manager, the building remains shut down and without power, a major blow to operations for its tenants.
“The whole life of this building has been giving little businesses a chance to make it on their own. The rents are really cheap, they’re way below market. It’s really sad,” Ohno said.
Ohno said that the building is primarily occupied by nonprofit organizations, a conscious choice on the part of the owner. Rainier Center is home to a mix of homelessness, mental health advocates, global health and refugee organizations, prisoner re-entry assistance and nonprofit support, all at below market rate rent. Operation Nightwatch, Seattle Clubhouse, the Seattle Indian Center, Interaction Transition, Defy Ventures, the Coalition for Refugees from Burma, Guatemala Village Health, Washington Nonprofits and several other organizations operate out of the building in addition to Carniceria Azteca, a Mexican grocery, and Supreme Cornershop, an immigrant-owned convenience store on the ground floor.
Even the convenience store is a pretty community-minded business, Ohno said. Zenny, the woman who owns the store, is a friend to the homeless community, giving seniors who come to Operation Nightwatch odd jobs and helping those in need around the neighborhood. Ohno hopes to get at least the first floor tenants — the convenience store, the carniceria, Seattle Clubhouse and the Seattle Indian Center — operating again soon, noting that “they can’t work from home.” Both Seattle Clubhouse and the Seattle Indian Center offer programs that are dependent on having a physical space for people to gather.
“There’s just so much stuff we’ve got to do before we even get to square one,” Ohno said. For now, tenants are able to enter the building to access key documents and equipment, but without power they can’t do much else. The city can restore power and repairs can begin once SFD completes its incident report, but Ohno said they still don’t have a timeline to reopen. “Everybody’s asking me that. It’s the $64,000 question.”
It’s especially frustrating, she added, as COVID-19 has already been difficult for many of the tenants: “If anyone’s made it through the pandemic they get a gold star. And now they’re hit with this and it’s just tragic. We’ve been trying to help all of them but there’s only so much we can do.”
The Seattle Indian Center, which offers a variety of services to the area’s low-income and unhoused Indigenous people — including 14 affordable hostel beds, a drop-in center and several meal services — had a sign in the window as of Feb. 25 saying it would be closed until further notice. A call to the organization’s main line inquiring about future plans was not returned as of press time, although the sign listed a staff member’s cell phone number for any clients seeking more information (Mark Bangi, 206-485-1115).
Greg Gardner, the executive director of Interaction Transition, one of the building’s tenants that works with prisoners after release, said that while it would be hard not having a place to meet clients and provide them with essentials like interview-appropriate clothing and cell phones, they’d be able to adapt.
“For us, I think we’ll be okay,” he said. “The real tragedy for me is the Indian Center and Operation Nightwatch. Those are such critical services for the people they serve.”
Operation Nightwatch, at least, can keep the core of its services going, said Rev. Rick Reynolds, Operation Nightwatch’s executive director. While the fire shut down most of their administrative functions, their main kitchen and shelter space across the street is still functional.
“We can still do the programmatic stuff,” Reynolds said. “We just have to figure out how we’re going to manage things like mail and bank deposits and fundraising and all the stuff we’ve got to do to make the whole thing run.”
Gardner said he’s actively looking for a temporary space, but plans to just meet clients at coffee shops for the time being. He joked that there should be something like “a WeWork [but for] nonprofits” to help the displaced organizations continue operating. But free office space can’t, unfortunately, replace the low-income housing that’s temporarily offline.
“Fourteen Indian Center guests were displaced,” Ohno said. But the fact that so few people were hurt is still the most important thing. “Thank God they’re all safe. The whole community is traumatized, but it happened at a time where there weren’t many people there,” she said.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is Real Change’s associate editor.
Read more of the Mar. 2-8, 2022 issue.