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Investing in our community: the Tenant Improvement Fund 

Pilot program provides $3.4M to local businesses, including 33 BIPOC-owned businesses, for commercial space improvements

In 2022 and 2023, the Seattle Office of Economic Development piloted a new program aimed at addressing displacement and building community wealth: the Tenant Improvement (TI) Fund. Through OED, the City invested $3.4M in 34 businesses, 33 of them Black, Indigenous, and People of Color owned businesses, to support upgrades, renovations, and improvements to their spaces. Many are now completed and opening in 2024.  

Running a business presents many challenges, and for BIPOC owners, it can come with additional systemic barriers such as lack of access to capital, displacement, discrimination, inequitable public policy, and more. The pandemic exacerbated both the rise in commercial vacancies, propelled by online retail and shifts to online and home-based work in some industries, and the continued challenges BIPOC communities face to acquire affordable commercial spaces.   

Seeing these challenges in the landscape, OED worked with businesses and business district partners to design the TI Fund to respond to the immediate need to fill and retain storefronts within our city and to support the economic recovery of Seattle through inclusive and intentional investments. This program helped fill gaps in existing funding for commercial space improvements, especially in communities and populations that have faced disinvestment, displacement, and a lack of access to capital and wealth generation. In addition to receiving funding, awardees received in-language access to commercial space technical assistance like expedited permitting services, space planning, selecting a general contractor, and managing the build out process. 

“The TI Fund made all the difference for my business! Because of the improvements, I was able to hire three additional employees, and attract a broader clientele increasing my earnings. What the bonus is when I come to work, I now feel refreshed and excited, it is such a nice place to work and I want to thank OED and my Project Manager for getting me through the process, I am forever grateful,” said Frank Taylor, owner of Frank’s Barber + Beauty Salon. 

Markham McIntyre, Director, Seattle Office of Economic Development, said, “Encouraging a diverse and resilient economy and supporting BIPOC business owners are priorities for the Office of Economic Development and require new solutions to combating displacement and breaking down barriers to opportunity. The TI Fund has enabled these businesses strengthen their communities and grow in sustainable ways.”  

TI Program Impacts: 

  • More equitable leases: Some of the improvements made to spaces opened the door to businesses negotiating stronger leases. Multiple businesses were able to engage landlords in new ways and signed leases on spaces they had operated without the protection of a lease. Others were able to secure contributions from landlords for their renovations to the space, or free rent periods as they moved into new spaces, including one as long as a full year.   
  • Growing business: Several businesses, including Boon Boona Coffee, The Postman, and The Station were able to expand to second or third location.  
  • Environmental upgrades: The TI Fund also supported the health and safety of existing businesses. For example, Kingway Hair Salon added an HVAC system to keep their clients and themselves cool in the hotter summers, and warm in the winter. Adam Tailor, a business who owns their hundred-year-old building, was able to install a new roof, upgrade their electrical unit and install a HVAC system. 
  • Permitting: The TI Fund leveraged the city’s expedited permitting and coaching program in partnership with SDCI. On average, businesses saved 105 days from the time they submitted their application to the time they had their first intake appointment to submit their plans for permit, this was a game changer for businesses.  

OED received 507 applications representing $37,368,480 in total requests from across the city. All proposals were reviewed and scored against the funding criteria by staff and our technical partner, Grow America. Criteria included: 

  • Equity (projects serving high COVID-impacted, high displacement risk neighborhoods and/or projects focusing support for BIPOC, women owned businesses). 
  • Impact (projects at risk of displacement or relocation of businesses that were displaced or business owners providing social and/or public benefits that show positive impact in the community). 
  • Viability (business sustainability such as historic sales or annual gross sales, and business or industry experience). 
  • Project readiness (status of physical space, project description, budget detail and commitment of other funding sources). 

For 2024, the TI Fund is evolving to better support businesses at different points in the tenant improvement development process. This includes more emphasis on technical assistance and professional services through service packages.  

Moving forward, the program will be designed to assist businesses in different aspects of their development journey. This will include businesses hoping to open in their first brick-and-mortar location, current storefronts who need improvements, and businesses hoping to expand into a new location.