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‘It’s not fair’: City evicts immigrant shop owner from SeaTac Market

A woman sweeps the floor of a nearly empty SeaTac Market on Feb. 19, 2019. The market's owner got an eviction notice on Friday to be out in five days. The market is part of a larger group of businesses that are facing displacement resulting from the sale of the SeaTac Center to Inland Group. Abshir Mohammed, brother of market owner Sahra Abdulle, says they haven't had time to find a place to relocate their business and must leave a lot of things behind. (All photos by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

As SeaTac Market sat mostly vacant, relatives of Sahra Abdulle, the Somali owner of the store and restaurant, scrambled to break down empty shelves and to clear out equipment. Volunteers from all over Seattle also scurried about, helping with various tasks, including carrying heavy furniture to trucks waiting outside.

Abdulle wandered about the space, once bustling with immigrants like herself. She looked overwhelmed, angry and near tears.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair,” she repeated.

The business she had spent 25 years building was crumbling before her eyes.

Four days earlier, the King County Sheriff’s Office had delivered an eviction notice on behalf of the property’s owner — the City of SeaTac. The Abdulle family would have to be out by the following Thursday, giving them less than a week to pack up 25,000 square feet full of inventory.

In an interview earlier this week, family members said they had found some space to store their goods through friends and businesses in the community. But, they added, much would have to be left behind, including the $5,000 buffet tables and the $16,000 cooler.

“We are like literally fighting bankruptcy at this point,” said Abshir Mohammed, Abdulle’s brother. “I get emotional just thinking about it.”

Mohammed believes SeaTac opted to evict the family because over the past year they have fought city plans to redevelop the center where their market resides.   

“I’ve been so vocal fighting this displacement, but it has had its repercussions,” Mohammed said.

The family’s lawyer, Henry Lippek, agrees, arguing the City of SeaTac has engaged in a form of retaliation.

“This is a direct assault on protected freedom of speech to someone who is an irritant to members of the city council,” Lippek said, referring to those members as “Neanderthals with respect to people who are immigrants and poor.”

“It’s become clear the city isn’t the least bit interested in resolving anything except to abuse the market in order to get them to vacate at the earliest possible time,” he said.

The city’s lawyer, Matthew Green, argued that the eviction resulted simply from the family's failure to make the rent on time. “For whatever reason known to the tenant, they did not make the required payments,” Green said, noting that King County Superior Court had ruled in the city's favor. “It’s really that straightforward from the landlord’s standpoint.”

Lippek acknowledges rent checks sometimes had been returned due to insufficient funds. The family was also on a month-to-month lease, which the city was free to terminate at any time. 

In March 2018, 11 businesses at SeaTac Center, including SeaTac Market, received a letter detailing the city’s hope to sell and redevelop the property. As a result, the center’s business owners formed a coalition to fight possible displacement.  

Within months, however, members of the SeaTac City Council voted 5-1 in favor of a proposed project by the Inland Group. The Spokane-based development firm plans to build 665 units of housing and 30,000 square feet of new commercial space next to the Tukwila International Boulevard light rail station.

As part of the nearly $16 million deal, about half of the housing units — 385 — will be dedicated to individuals and families making less than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

The plan was approved while the Somali community was still in mourning. Just days earlier, Amina Ahmed, a Somali American known as a passionate advocate for immigrants and refugees, was killed in a car crash. She had been appointed to the city council just weeks before.

The city’s plans to redevelop the property since its initial purchase in 2010 has pushed the region’s gentrification debate further south, leaving many immigrant businesses feeling like they’re at the brink of losing not only their livelihood, but also their community.

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Volunteers help pack up furniture at the SeaTac Market on Feb. 19, 2019, as property managers from Kidder Mathews, center, do a building inspection. 

Now, the Abdulle family is reeling. Although they had already been wringing their hands over the future of the business, the previous few months have made their situation much worse. An ongoing dispute with the city about what the Seatac Market owes in rent, attorney and repair fees, as well as other charges, have led to their sudden ouster.

The city contends the market owed close to $90,000, though it admits the family has already paid approximately $54,000 of that amount. The family disputes the amount owed and had asked the city to waive nearly $10,000 in late fees and $20,000 in maintenance fees for a broken pipe they say was never their responsibility.  

Lippek said he had been working with Kidder Mathews, the city’s property management firm, on an agreement that would allow the family to stay longer. He said the agreement would have stipulated that if the family paid part of what they owed now, they would be given time to pay the rest. The debt would just need to be settled by September 2019, when the other businesses at Seatac Center are due to move out.

Mohammed said that although he doesn’t trust the city’s accounting, he agreed to pay the fees in an attempt to save the business.

“We can’t face eviction. It doesn’t look good on our resume,” Mohammed said. “Leave us alone.”

Owner Sahra Abdulle walks out of SeaTac Market.
Owner Sahra Abdulle walks out of SeaTac Market on Feb. 19, 2019 as volunteers and staff help move as much as possible out of the building. 

In the end, the city refused to sign off on the agreement, leaving the family racing to salvage what they can.

Lippek argues the city acted in bad faith.

“I’m convinced that the city cares not at all about the money,” Lippek said. The point, he said, is to silence the coalition’s leaders so that they are “no longer an irritant.”

Lippek and others also cite the city’s complicated history with immigrants in the community.

In 2016, for example, SeaTac was forced to pay $18 million to a couple who had sued the city for sabotaging their plans to develop some of the same land now up for sale. The judge concluded the city’s former mayor had wanted to price out Somalis who had moved into “his neighborhood.”

That same year, SeaTac City Manager James “Donny” Payne was accused of attempting to pinpoint where Muslim residents lived out of concerns about terrorism. At the time, Payne said his efforts were to gather demographic data not just about Muslims, but all SeaTac residents, to serve them better.

Others have pointed out that the city’s current mayor, Erin Sitterley, appears to be a supporter of President Trump, who has included Somalia in his contentious travel ban.  

A lawsuit filed in December accuses her of having “expressed anti-immigrant opinions.” The complaint, filed by the coalition formed last year, says the Washington Relocation Assistance Act requires the city to provide financial assistance to any “persons displaced as a direct result of public works programs of the state and local governments.”

It is unclear whether any of the businesses will be able to move back to the center after the land is developed. But Kyle Moore, SeaTac’s communications manager, says at least one may have already found a new home. The local Refugee Women’s Alliance, a nonprofit that provides assistance to immigrant women, is negotiating a lease and plans to move to City Hall. 

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‘It’s not fair’: City evicts immigrant shop owner from SeaTac Market

About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is a reporter at Crosscut focused on race, immigration and other issues.