- 34% of Seattle’s Chinatown International District (CID) residents are living at or below the poverty level
- Hing Hay Coworks is a nonprofit coworking space in the CID that’s serving as a community development hub
- Eliza Chan, Program Supervisor at Hing Hay, shares the benefits and challenges of running a nonprofit coworking space
As Seattle, Washington continues to grow, the city’s Chinatown International District (CID) faces serious challenges. With 34 percent of the residents—many of whom are seniors—living at or below the poverty level, the area has issues around homelessness, health and public safety. Residents and business owners also face increasing pressures and displacement brought on by rapid development.
Hing Hay Coworks is a nonprofit coworking space in the CID run by the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDPDA). A collaborative workspace and community development hub, Hing Hay works to “catalyze the chances of success for businesses in the neighborhood.”
Allwork.space spoke with Hing Hay Coworks Program Supervisor Eliza Chan about the role Hing Hay plays in revitalizing the CID, how the space and organization actively assist area businesses, and the tight-knit community Hing Hay houses and supports. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Allwork.Space: Hing Hay Coworks works to support economic development in the International District. What are things currently like in the CID? Why is this work important?
Eliza Chan: A lot of things are happening in the neighborhood—there’s a lot of new development, specifically. It’s a changing environment with new businesses moving in and businesses being forced out. We’re trying to support in both ways by educating folks so they can compete with businesses in their surrounding areas, and we house a bunch of folks in our space that work to assist actual relocation of businesses and things like that. We do a lot of support work and try to be a resource.
Allwork.Space: What is the vision for the space and how coworking can make a positive impact in the CID neighborhood?
We’re located in the heart of the Chinatown International District. The space used to be a Korean restaurant prior to being a coworking space. The folks in the space disappeared one night because they couldn’t afford to keep it running. As property owners, as well as the people who manage the building through SCIDPDA, our larger organization, we saw what an impact this blank, black space that inhabited so much area in the neighborhood had.
Coming in to take that up and go against the non-activity, and turning this into a really lively area supported what you see in the neighborhood. It’s such a large, ample space that we really needed to show up and make ourselves known.
Allwork.Space: You mentioned that some Hing Hay members are actively working to assist businesses that have to relocate. How are the people in the space impacting the neighborhood?
A lot of what we’re building on is supporting economic development and business diversity in the neighborhood. Predominantly, the businesses here are retail and restaurants—mostly restaurants. We want people to know that the CID is more than just retail and restaurants. We can hold a lot of different services here—if not in the neighborhood, by occupying office space in the neighborhood itself, then by occupying space in our coworking space.
We give folks in our neighborhood an opportunity to see that there are resources here. The folks that come in, who occupy a community space within Hing Hay Coworks, they bring their friends in, and they bring their clients in, then they go out into the neighborhood to get a coffee or have a lunch meeting. So the capital stays within the community, as well. Being able to support that, as well as offering more than just retail and restaurants is important.
Allwork.Space: You describe Hing Hay as a resource, which is an interesting way to think of a coworking space, and I know you do more than a traditional shared workspace might do. Will you tell me more about positioning the space as a community resource?
We started our business resource program by essentially providing technical assistance to business owners here in the neighborhoods. It separated into different sections and we’re always working on different projects. Because there’s all this development happening around us, there’s a lot of focus on providing education and support to those business owners being displaced.
We help them face the challenges of starting out brand new at a new place. Sometimes there are other issues of them not knowing if they even want to keep the business. It’s kind of unrelated to our coworking space but, at the same time, it goes to support the neighborhood as a whole. Just the presence of all these varieties of folks in our space is really beneficial to the neighborhood.
Allwork.Space: Usually coworking spaces have a lot of entrepreneurs and house this wave of knowledge workers. Is there a tension at Hing Hay between the people coworking in the space and the community in the neighborhood that’s being displaced?
Because of the nature of who we are, the majority of folks we have in the space aren’t going to be actual startups with super-fresh ideas. They’re generally smaller businesses, a lot of consultants, and the nonprofits we cater to because of our nonprofit arm.
Because of that, there isn’t too much of a clash. If we were to have something that was very tech-driven, it’s not necessarily the right place for them—it just doesn’t go with everything. We want to be part of the community, we don’t want to be seen as something that’s coming in to completely change everything.
Allwork.Space: The nonprofit angle is interesting. What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a non-profit?
There are some things we can’t do. We’re never going to be like a WeWork or one of the larger spaces, which I appreciate. You lose a lot in the amount of folks in a space like that. At the same time, because we’re not larger and because we’re not funded by large amounts of money, we can’t offer kegs and some of the fun stuff that goes with coworking. But I don’t think that matters. We make up for it in the community we’re able to develop.
The strong community might also have to do with the fact that at least half of us work around the same thing. There are a lot Asian American and Pacific Islander focused nonprofit groups here, as well as locationally-based nonprofits. We end up working with a lot of them, so that might add to the community aspect, but other folks are just as willing and want to participate like everyone else. Being in the community is the benefit. We have folks who don’t even live around here, and they still come here.
Allwork.Space: I know there are several neighborhood projects Hing Hay participates in, including a neighborhood cleanup. What are some examples of what Hing Hay does with the larger CID community?
The program Hing Hay does is a neighborhood cleanup event with other tenants in our coworking space and other community members because the business improvement area is also operated out of here.
We have another community member called Apace Votes that focuses primarily on API voter engagement. They’re often here working late into the night then going out into the community to get registered folks to vote.
We also do an arts and craft fair twice a year to encourage Asian American and Pacific Islander vendors to feel like they have a marketplace to sell their goods and show them off. A lot of times the barrier to access is the cost to do that. The past two fairs, we’ve worked with other community partners to make it a neighborhood-wide event so we can get more people into the neighborhood and engaged with the larger community here.
Because of the folks we end up housing, and the community stuff that’s already happening in the space, we’re one of the few meeting spaces in the International District, so you have a lot of other community partners, as well as the city folks coming to use our space to hold their meetings. We’re right outside of the city, not in the city, which is a big draw for people.
Allwork.Space: Last time we talked, you were working on getting the message out about Hing Hay and attracting members to the space. How are things going and what are you currently working on?
Things are going well. Membership has increased and we’re to the point where we need to add more seating, which is great. We also made some physical changes to our common space areas and that helped the flow of things. In terms of working to get more folks in the space, it’s always nice to have more people, but we’re growing at such a good rate right now, that we’re nurturing the community and trying to build on that as opposed to bringing more people in. It’s not about bringing everyone in, it’s about building a community and being able to support each other.