The addition of light rail is driving up rents and hastening gentrification in one of Puget Sound's most racially diverse neighborhoods—Rainier Valley—and without aggressive new jobs and housing policies that favor working class families, the fabric of the neighborhood will be destroyed, argues a report released yesterday by Puget Sound Sage (formerly known as the Seattle Alliance for Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone, or SAGE).
"Since construction of the light rail land values around the stations have increased dramatically," says the Sage report. Already, minority populations are dwindling, the report continues, and "The presence of light rail stations in Rainier Valley is likely to cause more gentrification."
While the minority population grew by 47 percent over the last decade in King County (and the white population shrank by two percent), in Rainier Valley, the trend is reversed: Communities of color only increased by 5 percent over that same period—and the white population increased by 17 percent.
The study notes that 23 percent of low-income Rainier Valley residents depend on public transit to get to work (versus only 14 percent of their more affluent neighbors)—and thus would benefit the most from transit-oriented development.
"The report highlights, and we hear it over and over again, that the success of light rail threatens to destroy what we find beautiful in the neighborhood," explains Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, a staunch advocate for more light rail who expressed concern not only for low-income residents but for local businesses in the area. "The mix of cultural businesses is critical and they might not exist if real estate triples in the next few years. We're pretty good about housing in the city, but when it comes to affordable retail space, it's definitely a new field for us."
City officials have already recognized the importance of preserving south Seattle neighborhoods—most recently around the Othello light rail station, with a newly-launched city initiative that seeks to stabilize small businesses in the area and build a multicultural center for residents (here's a .pdf of the initiative). But Sage's new report, "Transit Oriented Development that’s Healthy, Green and Just," suggests it's not enough:
"Existing efforts are likely to fall short of stemming the tide of displacement or realizing a vision that puts racial justice at the center of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) planning," the study states. The goal of transit-oriented development is, of course, to encourage the growth of dense, walkable communities with healthy public transit options to reduce our reliance on cars.
Although it's short on details, the 50-page study lists 16 recommendations for curbing displacement along southeast Seattle's light rail corridor, including:
· Create "local, high quality jobs in TOD projects in Rainier Valley—including both short-term construction jobs and long-term, on-site jobs."
· Turn surplus Sound Transit property into affordable housing and affordable commercial development projects through "joint development projects."
· Include communities of color in TOD decision-making, not just stakeholder meetings to achieve racial equity outcomes.
But the report neglects to explain how many of the recommendations could, or should, be implemented. What role does the city have in dictating working wages, for example?
"One of the tricks is figuring out how to do that," O'Brien says. Over the coming months, O'Brien is organizing meetings with his fellow council members and Sage representatives to figure out how the recommendations can be absorbed by various city entities and projects.