TACOMA, Wash. — “Sugar” Ray Seales still carries a piece of history in his pocket: a gold medal from the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. He’s the only U.S. boxer who can make that claim.
“I feel I’d done something that the Lord had blessed me with,” he remembers. “Not only that, my mother was there, and they sent my dad from the Virgin Islands, so now, it was a family heirloom together.”
Seales moved to Tacoma when he was 12 years old from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and says he was proud to bring this victory back to his adopted home.
“I won it for Tacoma, Washington!” he declared.
Seales enjoyed a boxing career that took him around the world for nearly two decades but ultimately decided to retire in 1984 due to an eye injury.
But soon after, he came back to Tacoma to teach children with autism at Lincoln High School for 17 years.
Yet despite all of his contributions to the city’s history, the former Olympian lives in the men’s shelter at Shiloh Baptist Church because he can’t find an affordable place to live.
Seales says he was shocked to come back to a much more expensive Tacoma last November after living in Indianapolis.
“The other day we went to an apartment, and the apartment was $800 a month. But then when we go to the apartment, it was $1400 a month!” he said.
Mark Melsness, the managing broker of Spinnaker Property Management, says Seales’ story is all too common for folks coming back to Tacoma.
“We have a lot of military renters, and I think their number one comment to us is, 'What happened?'” he said.
Melsness says Tacoma is in a unique position due to its proximity to Seattle and serves as a much more affordable alternative when it comes to finding housing.
“One of the reasons Tacoma-Pierce County has increased its rental rates is because Seattle had,” he explains. “When Seattle did their increase, it drove people out of that area because of affordability, and their choice was to go north or south.”
Melsness says that migration makes it vital for Tacoma to make housing more affordable for those who can’t afford the higher rents. But he also says the local government’s current policies make effectively building affordable housing difficult.
“When you buy the expensive real estate in the area that needs it because it’s on demand, and the infrastructure to build it is more expensive when you bring that to rent, you have to charge the high rate to make your bills. So anything that’s being built around here isn’t designed to be affordable,” he says.
But he hopes the private sector can help.
“The Tacoma Housing Authority, Pierce County Housing Authority, other communities, they can’t or don’t want to build enough housing for everybody because it takes them five times as long as a private person to build it,” he says. “Let’s go to the private market and give them some benefits to keep the rents down, so they don’t bring it to market, and see how do we do that financially so they can pay their bills.”
In the meantime, Seales says he still has more to give to Tacoma. Even though he’s hung up his gloves, Seales hasn’t retired from the sport of boxing. He plans to open up his own boxing gym, and he says he’s found the perfect building for it.
For now, Seales sees his time in the shelter as an opportunity to mentor the other men he comes across and encourage them to remember that this isn’t where their story has to end.
“I have to teach them to not worry about it and get what you’re here for: get yourself physically and mentally prepared to get out,” he says. “Give, give, give. Service to others, that’s how you pay for your room in Heaven.”