THREE FLOORS of apartments above the dusty old Hong Kong restaurant have been gathering dead flies and public-health-hazard notices since the city shut down the dilapidated building in 1995. This is one of about a dozen unused or partially empty buildings that are wasting away in the International District (I.D.)--Seattle's historic Asian neighborhood.

The I.D. is an extremely low-income neighborhood with a vacancy rate that hovers around one percent. Having hundreds of unused housing units just sitting there is ridiculous. City planners, low-income housing advocates, and neighborhood activists recognize that this a terrible waste, and they all want to fix up the buildings. But a cultural blockade stands in their way. Family associations, formed in the early 1900s--groups of Chinese immigrants who pooled resources to help each other get by--own many I.D. buildings. Sometimes 50 people living all over the world own one building, and all of their signatures are needed to sell it. While this arrangement once gave economic strength to a vulnerable population, now it stands in the way of housing for the poor.

"Nobody's able to just buy buildings here," says Sue Taoka, head of the Seattle Chinatown/International District Preservation and Development Authority, a non- profit group that rehabilitates low-income housing in the I.D. "You have to figure out who owns the building and who has the power to negotiate."

Another low-income housing group, the InterIm Community Development Association, has recently had some success trying to turn empty places into cheap apartments. InterIm recently bought the Eastern Hotel from the Wa Sang Association, and turned it into 46 low-income units. It took a long time to negotiate this deal, says InterIm head Frank Kiuchi. "It's difficult to do real estate deals down here."

The city has been very careful to preserve old buildings and protect the I.D. from the kind of reckless development that's overtaking Belltown. However, it takes a passive role in housing rehabilitation. "We can't force a property owner to fix up their building," says Eugenia Woo, a preservation planner assigned to the I.D. "They need to take responsibility for that."

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