“I do love Seattle. I love the people here. I love the environment. I love [that] it’s fast paced and slow. I love that you can have a family and still be an entertainer in the community and make it work.”— J.O., a participant of the Seattle Public Library’s “Sharing Our Stories” project.
That’s true that Seattle, until recently, has offered opportunities for households and families across the income spectrum. The city is, however, also changing rapidly. Between 2016 and 2017, the city added 75 residents a day. While the influx of people coming into the city is affecting most Seattle residents, it’s hitting communities of color particularly hard.
Seattle Public Library’s “Sharing Our Stories” project collected first-hand accounts of community change from 2014 to 2017. The project focused on neighborhoods that have experienced significant change, such as Capitol Hill and the Central Area, and on demographic groups that have been more seriously affected, such as African Americans and the LGBTQ community.
Seattle is seeing growing disparities between the lower and higher-income populations, and historic and geographic trends of isolation and segregation along race continue. Several neighborhoods that overlap with historically redlined areas are experiencing severe cultural losses where displacement pressures disproportionately affect communities of color. The complex dynamics playing out in Seattle neighborhoods, which can only be partially understood through data, is inviting the City of Seattle’s attention in unique ways.
In one first-hand account, J.Y., a Central Area resident, reminisces:
“People you grew up with and went to school with . . . you see them become successful. . . and you support them and the wonderful things that they’re doing . . . . It should be that way for everybody. Unfortunately, it’s not. We have so many issues impacting our community now. The No. 1 thing is the level of poverty. We had poor folks then, but somehow I sense that the difference between poor and the not poor is huge. You can’t bridge it.”
J.Y.’s speculation about rising income inequality is accurate. Over the last decade and a half, while Seattle has seen a reduction in the share of households making moderate and lower middle-incomes (between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income, or AMI), there was a considerable increase in the share of high-income households (above 80 percent of AMI).
While some income variation is common in a functioning economy, the widening gap and the racial dimension of the disparities—including a strong correlation between low-income communities and communities of color—are alarming and vexing for Seattleites.
“African Americans and other ethnic groups don’t feel the energy that was once there. It’s been said that it’s going to be for the betterment [of Seattle]. Well, that might be true, but when the playing field is not even . . . people can’t buy homes anymore; they can’t afford to pay rents. People are out on the street. Granted, we’ve had people on the street [before] now, but there was always some place for them to go,” says G.H., another participant of the library’s “Sharing Our Stories” project.
While the salaries of lower-income groups have been plateauing, their housing costs have risen significantly. In the last five years, average rents have increased more than 50 percent in several neighborhoods. Three quarters of low-income renter households in Seattle are cost burdened, or paying more than one-third of their income on housing. Half of the cost-burdened, low-income renter households pay 50 percent or more of their income on rent.
The main reason for the explosion in rental costs is an insufficient supply of units in the face of population growth. This increases the vulnerability of lower-income households because they must compete with higher-income households for homes.
While high-end homes, specialty eateries, art galleries, and nightclubs in downtown and adjacent neighborhoods have been created with fervor and speed, housing and services for a low-income clientele, with lower-price points and with resulting lower-profit margins, have often lagged.
Newly constructed homes included in Seattle’s massive construction boom are typically offered at 20 percent-higher-than-average rents. And lower-income households are finding it difficult to find housing even among older homes. Research shows that only 2.5 percent of the existing unsubsidized housing is affordable to very low-income households (those who earn less than 50 percent AMI).
This situation is causing various forms of displacement that is disrupting communities of color across the city.
Forced to Move
Since the data we collect to measure residential displacement does not always explain why a person moved, it is difficult to distinguish displacement from a move by choice. Residents with stagnant incomes are vulnerable to even modest increases in rent. Longtime homeowners who are unable to meet housing expenses can also often be left with an unavoidable choice to sell their homes in times of hardship.
“My uncle owned that apartment building for a long time . . . right there on Jackson. There must have been 30 or 40 families that had to move, got displaced when my uncle was forced to sell the building as part of a ‘fair settlement’ after the building was deemed condemned. And now what’s there? Businesses and some condominium stuff that were out of the price range of the people to buy back in.
“I moved out of Madrona [a Seattle neighborhood], and we couldn’t move back in . . . It would cost us three or four times what our house was valued at. That’s what happens. Everyone was thinking, ‘Let’s move away from the Central Area,’ not realizing how valuable [it was] in terms of the geographical location. I mean literally, you’re within minutes of downtown Seattle. You take one bus and you’re there,” says J.Y.
In 2015, city officials did an in-depth Growth and Equity analysis as part of the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan. The analysis identified high displacement-risk areas as having higher proportions of marginalized populations, such as people in poverty, people of color, and households that speak a language other than English.
Of the 610,000 people living in Seattle in 2010, approximately one-fourth lived in urban villages associated with a high risk of displacement. Urban villages, which roughly include a population of 210,000, are centered on transit and amenities in the city, and have been identified as locations to absorb future growth.
While the city is planning for a lower level of growth in urban villages with high displacement risks, one such village, the Central Area neighborhood, points to the changes currently happening in such areas. In 1990, the African-American population in the neighborhood was three times the population of whites. By 2000, the African-American population had dropped by half. The white population in the area, on the other hand, doubled. Other changes in the neighborhood included an increase in incomes, levels of educational attainment, home values, and housing-cost burdens.
The Growth and Equity analysis also measured access to opportunity based on neighborhood amenities and places where positive life outcomes are more likely—higher school performance and graduation rates, higher incomes, and wealth creation. The displacement-opportunity typology, though limited in telling the complete story, begins to capture some differences across the city where displacement is most likely to occur in the future, and how patterns of opportunity are not evenly distributed.
Over the past 25 years there have been large reductions in the proportions of African Americans in the high-displacement risk areas that include north Rainier, in addition to the Central Area. At the same time, the white population has increased significantly in these areas. In other neighborhoods, including all census tracts north of the ship canal and in the western parts of the city that lie across a spectrum of displacement and opportunity, white population percentages have dropped. Hispanic and Asian populations have been growing across the city although more significantly in low access to opportunity areas, particularly in Southwest Seattle. Overall, the city is becoming more diverse, but some of the city’s historic and longstanding neighborhoods with high proportions of persons of color are seeing the latter leave.
While direct displacements that typically involve building demolitions are highly visible, their proportion is relatively small. In contrast, displacement by less overt economic pressures is much greater. Direct displacements accounted for, on average, about 200 households per year, whereas shifts in demographic composition at the census tract level in income and race categories comprised changes in the tens of thousands, some that can be anecdotally associated with economic displacements.
There seems to be a regional shift where economically displaced households have moved to more affordable parts of King County. Although this assertion cannot be confirmed definitively with data, it is consistent with stories like J.Y.’s.
Amidst the narratives of displacement and income inequality, it is encouraging that there has been relative stability in the presence of extremely low-income households (who have incomes below 30 percent AMI) in Seattle. One reason is the progress that the city has made in building an infrastructure that meets the housing needs of very-low-income households (50 percent AMI) and below. In the last 36 years, the city has invested nearly $450 million in the creation and preservation of more than 14,000 affordable rental homes. It has also provided emergency rental assistance to 6,500 households.
The reduction in displacement pressures due to overall construction activity has been, however, tricky to fully unravel in Seattle’s context. As researched elsewhere, even while new housing construction has helped moderate rent increases on a citywide scale, we do not have data to confirm if or how the building activity has relieved the housing pressures for lower-income groups at the neighborhood level.
Displacement may also begin several decades before a neighborhood experiences new market-rate development. For example, the current displacement of the African-American community from the Central Area began as early as the 1980s, when the neighborhood was severely underinvested and newcomers, small-scale investors, and artists took advantage of the area’s cheaper housing and purchased homes in the area before the wave of market-led redevelopment took hold in the late 1990s. Several residents were either evicted or faced increased rents when the properties changed hands. We can likely see similar patterns of this “quiet” displacement playing out today in communities further south, such as Rainier Beach and South Park.
Another revealing statistic is that increased housing production at the census tract scale in Seattle is not associated with a loss of low-income populations between the 2000 and 2010 timeframe. It is instead concurrent with increases in both low-and middle-income households. When considering for race, there exists a moderate correlation with changes in the white population, but the correlation is not significant for African-American population or Hispanics more broadly. But since we know about the loss of these latter groups in high-displacement risk areas, we can conclude that factors aside from housing production are likely at play with respect to displacement of these groups.
When people are displaced, they don’t only lose their homes, they also lose their communities. Displacement frequently means a transition for the displaced household to an area outside the neighborhood with fewer opportunities and sometimes with even greater cost burdens, such as the increased transportation expenses for J.Y.’s family. While a loss of wealth can follow when a household is left with no option but to sell, there can be wider impacts on the community. Displacement deepens segregation and perpetuates conditions of housing instability that can have serious health, educational, and economic outcomes. Education for children can be disrupted, there is likelihood of greater joblessness, and families can be reduced to a state of stress and anxiety. As more communities of color are impacted, neighborhood polarization and friction can heighten to the point where neighborhood revitalization becomes good news for one part of the community, but creates hopelessness for another.
It can be a mixed bag. For M.M., the new groups in the Central Area today have reinforced the sense of community and enhanced the vitality of the neighborhood grocery store. “They bind together and they help one another.” The loss of older groups and families coupled with the loss of homes and old stores, however, is also much visible.
“As the economy gets better, it’s actually pretty good. It’s fun. When you’re a people person, it’s good to meet lots of new, different, diverse people . . . It’s been really exciting seeing the change. It’s been sad, in some senses, in seeing some of the people pushed out, and some of the businesses that are struggling to make it. But it’s also encouraging to see the future in the Central Area . . . I just hope we don’t lose the diversity, we don’t lose the history, [and] we don’t lose what the Central Area was built on,” M.M. says.
G.H. remembers Jackson Street being the center of a vibrant, working-class, multiracial community. Many people were employed at companies like Todd Shipyards, Bethlehem Steel, Boeing, and Sears, and the families were tightknit. People walked to barbershops and enjoyed the soul food cuisine offerings at establishments run by other families who lived in the neighborhood. Customers used the honor system at Jesse’s Grocery Store on 28th and Jackson, and “simply signed . . . credit. And they knew who you were, and they knew they were going to get their money.”
G.H. also remembers people who worked not from a position of what was best for them, but what was better for the community; people who were excited to mingle and learn from each other at a variety of social venues, whether during informal encounters at the grocery store or during a planned visit to the neighborhood library. These places served as the families’ living rooms.
“The librarian, or somebody that was working there, knew my whole family. And you’d hear, ‘Well, how’s your mom?’ or ‘How’s your dad? . . . Tell ‘em I said hello.’ See, all that is lost,” says G.H.
While neighborhood stories from the Central Area evoke nostalgia, they also obscure the negative realities of crime and safety that plagued the neighborhood in the 1970s and after when storefronts were boarded up and people felt unsafe on the streets. Starting from such a place, neighborhood changes can improve livelihoods of existing residents, offer opportunities such as access to better grocery stores and pharmacies, and reinforce mutual support and a stronger sense of belonging and identity for longtime residents.
But when a tipping point is reached, significant changes can also hurt neighborhoods. In a manner similar to residential displacement, commercial displacement can cause longtime businesses to leave. With a new resident population that may have different needs and lifestyles, more luxurious stores may compete for the available commercial spaces and can drive up rents. National chains and stores can disturb the ecosystem of decades-old mom and pop stores about which people like G.H. so fondly reminisce.
The community networks and the cultural capital built over the years in neighborhoods such as the Central Area and the Chinatown/International District can also be transformed with a greater emphasis on products and services for new residents. If the latter are only interested in the offerings and disengaged from the broader community, the process can isolate longtime residents or make them feel unwelcome. The business districts dominated by restaurants and shops that offer ethnic cuisines and artifacts but lack hardware stores and other services can generate a local economy based on entertainment and tourism, one that is associated with higher risks for local businesses and low-wage and seasonal jobs for its workers.
Where improvements benefit newcomers solely or primarily, longtime residents can find themselves excluded from their own communities. Cultural venues that invited residents to mingle and celebrate festivities can get closed when new residents raise noise concerns, and local preferences for vitality and informality can get overshadowed by new aesthetic preferences codified in new standards against blight and nuisance. Neighborhoods may undergo a certain hollowing-out phenomenon where outside dominant worldviews homogenize a unique local culture and may permanently diminish a community.
Redlining and racial covenants segregated Seattle and marginalized certain racial groups in the middle of the 20th century. However, those marginalized communities cultivated and nurtured their own cultural capital that supported the members during times thick and thin. These communities now risk losing that support as high-income households are attracted to the cultural offerings and centrality of these neighborhoods.
The collapse of an ecosystem of historic businesses that was built around mutual community support ultimately fractures the collaborative foundation that allowed the businesses to build a clientele in the first place. When businesses close or move elsewhere, it diminishes not only the chances of remaining businesses, but also the cultural capital of residents such as G.H., whose social networks were shaped through encounters at local stores.
“If we don’t do something about the level of poverty, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots, we’re headed for total desolation. If we can’t figure out a way to bring that segment of our society into the fold, how can we advance as a nation? How can we move forward if we can’t embrace the folks that are not with us?” says J.Y.
The City’s Strategies to Fight Displacement
The Seattle Library’s project asked participants, “If you could focus all the energy and resources around the change happening today in Seattle, and use it to shape the city into a place of your dreams, what would it look like?” Some responses included:
“A Seattle where everybody is content with where they are, and they’re able to be where they want to be without any kind of fears of being picked out,” says V.M.
“Public transportation that’s easy and affordable,” says L.B.
“More public spaces that give people opportunity to come together in a way that’s more inclusive,” says I.S.
“People would embrace all of the astounding amounts of difference that are here. Gentrification would stop being so awful. People would actually unite and combine and mix and mingle,” says L.B.
Similar to the rest of the country, Seattle is growing more diverse. Its added diversity gives the city another chance to uphold the promises of the American dream—to empower the different people that collectively create progress.
Seattle sees itself as a partner in this. The city’s investments and priorities have been bolstered since the recognition of its own role in the “structural racialization” that isolated and marginalized people of color. Through the 1980s and 1990s, several city departments organized efforts to address racial disparities and while there was some success in making the city a relatively diverse workplace, it was continuously hit with the same question: “In such a diverse, progressive, and prosperous city, why do all the key life indicators (income, health, education, criminal justice, etc.) fracture along a racial fault line—and more important, how can we achieve different results?”
The city moved its focus to stem institutional racism.
Seattle launched a Race and Social Justice Initiative in 2004. Its premise is to create systemic change in the city’s institutional practices to “eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in the city.” The city has since partnered with organizations, communities, and private and philanthropic sectors and is making changes and tracking progress across city departments.
The city’s strategies are currently operating at two levels—place-based and people-based. Place-based actions are more often associated with building and physical infrastructure improvement—better housing choices and affordable transportations options, and sufficient access to schools, libraries, healthy produce, and health centers—for everyone, but more narrowly for Seattle’s at-risk city dwellers.
While most prevalent in high-displacement risk areas, Seattle’s marginalized communities of color live throughout the city. Therefore, some of the city’s actions can also be understood as “people based,” which will elevate the change for better life outcomes for marginalized residents, including the homeless, youth, and the formerly incarcerated. Some actions are simultaneously place-based and people-based.
Unlike many cities in the U.S. that bypassed low-income neighborhoods in their locations of mass transit stops, over the last decade Seattle made strategic transit investments in the region’s most racially and income-diverse communities that were historically segregated along auto-oriented arterials and experienced under-investment. These transit stops, however, have also attracted speculative development activity in recent years and have increased displacement pressures for communities living in these areas.
To address these challenges, the city is employing a huge number of strategies, from mandatory inclusionary housing to business development programs that support low-income and immigrant-owned businesses to a Cultural Anti-Displacement Fund that supports arts and cultural groups at high risk of displacement in efforts to attain facility ownership. These strategies build upon the understanding of not only where marginalized populations are located but also what their unique needs and challenges are.
The Mandatory Housing Affordability program is a new requirement that developers contribute to affordable housing whenever they build within urban villages and multifamily and commercial areas in the city. The program, currently in place in several locations, has sensitively approached high-displacement risk areas. While balancing the need to make the program attractive for developers and extracting affordability in exchange, the city has carefully crafted zoning changes that minimize impacts and changes in high-displacement risk areas relative to other areas in the city. With urban villages in these areas that have mass transit stops, the higher upzones, or areas with higher development capacity increases, have been limited to only a five-minute walk of the transit stop.
Developer contributions are also proposed to be more in high-cost and high-displacement risk areas, such as the Central Area. Overall, the high-risk displacement areas will not only benefit directly from developers’ contributions of on-site affordable housing, the program will also prioritize investing of in-lieu payment contributions in areas where they are most triggered. This will encourage affordable housing everywhere new development happens, and will benefit places such as the Central Area, which in the absence of affordable housing investments, can otherwise transform in more serious ways.
Seattle is also working with ideas and initiatives that are community driven. The Equitable Development Initiative is primarily focused on capacity building among local community groups and prioritizes efforts and investments in high displacement risk areas such as the Central Area, the Chinatown International District, Rainier Beach, and the Duwamish Valley. For the Chinatown International District, the city is currently facilitating a separate conversation that was initiated by the community. The effort is not only validating the personal and community-based experiences of those most impacted, but also engaging people to create pathways that center on community’s priorities.
The city’s efforts, while focused on equitable and multifaceted approaches, haven’t yet completed the task of reconnecting all marginalized populations to housing opportunities that have access to good jobs, high-performing schools, robust transportation, and quality parks and health care facilities. The city is still very much living in the shadow of deep mistrust among many of the marginalized groups.
As Seattle tackles the displacement challenge, however, we can all learn that universal well-being is closely associated with expansion in opportunities for the marginalized. By continuing to reduce the systemic and structural barriers in connecting marginalized populations to opportunity and to other residents in the city, and by reinforcing and acting from a shared responsibility to one another, we can take deliberate steps to make the future better for us all.