The Displacement Tax: An Update from Gentrification Ground Zero

by Reagan Jackson

Rainier Beach is the new gentrification ground zero. I have a front row seat. I recently celebrated my seventh anniversary of being a homeowner. I have watched my neighbors get foreclosed on and pushed out. I have watched the house flipping teams come through and trim up the yards, slap up new fences, and paint over bright color with the neutral blues and grays white people seem to prefer. When I walk through my neighborhood now, it’s a lot less like the vibrant diverse place I chose to live in and a lot more like Pleasantville.

My house doesn’t stand out much, but my lawn signs are like a loud middle finger — “Redlining sent us south” or “Don’t displace the South End.” When I first put them up I noticed people slowing down their cars to read them. One lady rolled down her car window to explain herself. It seemed like she was hoping to engage in a longer conversation, but I let the signs speak for themselves. Now I’m ready to say what’s on my mind.

Every day I pass white people walking their dogs down the street to the bakery. I pass their newly fenced yards, see the beginnings of mother in law cottages getting built, and I feel envious of what two-income families, tech industry money, and generational wealth can afford.

My home has doubled in value, which would be good if I wanted to sell it, but since my plan was always to live in it, the increase in value is a problem. During the first 5 years I lived here, my property taxes varied, but only enough to cause a $20-40 difference in my monthly payments. In the last 2 years, my monthly payments have gone up by $284.

It happened because of my new neighbors.

They aren’t bad people. They are that specific brand of Seattle liberal. If you could sum them up in a lawn sign it would be the one that says: In this house, We believe Health Care is a Human Right, Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love.

Their beliefs aren’t driving my property taxes up, but their presence is.

So much about money and land is a mystery to me. My parents owned a home when I was born, but they sold it when they divorced, something my Dad still laments. So I grew up living in apartments. Neither parent was able to buy another house until I was 17. By that time I was getting ready to leave Wisconsin for college and my new life in Seattle, so I wasn’t really involved.

Buying my house was terrifying. I had a great realtor, a white woman who knew bankers and attorneys, and leveraged her connections to make my dream a reality. She sat patiently with me, explaining how the process worked. Still, the day before I signed the papers I sat on the floor in the empty house in the room that would become my bedroom and had a panic attack. I sobbed on the phone with my mom.

What if I can’t do it?

I’d never missed or even been late with rent before, yet somehow a mortgage, even a fixed rate mortgage, felt different. What if something major went wrong? How would I afford to fix it? This was more debt than I could wrap my mind around.

My parents, for the first time, actually weren’t that comforting. Either you can afford this on your own or you can’t, they told me respectively. There was no safety net. I had saved up for my down payment and, based on my salary, I knew I could make the payments. It was everything I didn’t know that scared me the most. I didn’t ask them to co-sign the loan and they didn’t offer. This was me adulting.

Finding equity in home equity

Fast forward to two years ago. I was invited to facilitate a conversation on the film Race the Power of Illusion for the Delridge Neighborhood and Development Association. I met up with my co-facilitators to pre-screen the film. Since gentrification was very much on my mind, I agreed to lead the portion about structural racism and the Federal Housing Administration.

The film was illuminating. Like 13th , Healing Justice, and other films that talk about the impacts of racial oppression, it didn’t provide new information, but there is something jarring and powerful about seeing it all together.

I understood how red lining worked, how banks refused to loan money to people of color for the purpose of buying houses in certain neighborhoods.

But what I didn’t know was about home equity. There is a clip in the movie where they talk about how white families have been leveraging the equity in their homes to make repairs, pay off student loans and create generational wealth. The next morning I called my bank. Did I have equity?

Yes, they said.

For an institution that is committed to sending me junk mail, here was a key piece of information no one had ever mentioned to me. Though why would they? My financial dependence is much more lucrative than my financial freedom. Besides, what should I expect from an institution that has historically gone out of its way to prevent people of color from creating generational wealth?

I went online to try to understand what this invisible resource was and what I could do with it. When I called my bank back, it was like talking to genie I didn’t know existed. Within the next couple months I refinanced my house, knocking five years off my mortgage and paying off my student loans.

I guess I could have dreamed bigger, maybe remodeled my bathroom or painted my house turquoise like I’ve been wanting to, but my biggest dream has always been not to owe anyone anything. I have come to accept that, barring divine intervention or winning the Powerball, I will be paying off this house for the next couple decades. But if I could zero out all my other debt, that would be miracle enough.

Reading the signs

I look around my home and I love it. I replaced the beige paint with bright colors, furnished the rooms with comfortable places to sit and read, fun lamps, and shelves to hold my ever expanding book collection. From the outside, my house is plain. I try to keep my yard under control. This summer, a gift from my dad allowed me to dig out all the invasive blackberry bushes that were threatening to devour my backyard.

But my house has not changed in seven years, other than some interior paint, basic maintenance, and the occasional repair. I haven’t added a room or built a fence or gotten new plumbing or a new roof. So how is my home suddenly so much more valuable?

You know the answer.

The only difference between my house now and my house seven years ago is that now I have white neighbors.

So, yes, I threw a temper tantrum with lawn signs. I got out my art kit and repurposed my Nikkita Oliver sign to read “Gentrification Ground 0,” because that is where I live. One sign didn’t seem sufficient. So I made another then another, culminating in a sequence that ends with “This House is Not for Sale.”

I knew these signs wouldn’t change anything, in the same way that having a Black Lives Matter sign doesn’t change the fact that we are still being shot in the streets. But in the way that art has always grounded me, it made me feel better to express outloud the silent conversation I’d been having with my neighborhood.

Lots of people have opinions.

“Hammer, you’re like that crazy white Republican lady shaking her fist at the new Black neighbors,” my Dad said when he saw them. Afraid of unwanted attention, he made me get a security camera installed on my porch.

An older Black gentleman who lives a block away walked over with his dog to tell me how much he loves my signs. He lived in the Central District for years because it was the only place Blacks could own property. He owned two houses there, but ended up getting pushed south.

History repeats itself

“Many African Americans who had paid off or paid down their mortgages after twenty or thirty years in their homes saw spectacular increases in the value of their properties particularly in the 1990s and the first years of the 21st Century ,” writes Henry McGee in an article outlining the impact of gentrification on the Central District. (“One three bedroom, one bath, 1,200 square foot Central District home assessed by King County as valued at $1,280 in 1938 was worth $5,000 in 1960, $190,000 in 2001, and $355,000 in 2005.”)

And here we are living history as it repeats itself in the Rainier Valley. As white people move in, property values increase, and by extension, my taxes increase. The city of Seattle was clearly complicit in allowing property taxes to become a tool of racial oppression. So now what?

When we talk about the affordable housing crisis of course those living below poverty level, those living with homelessness or housing insecurity should be prioritized. But what steps is Mayor Jenny Durkan doing to address the issue of gentrification? This is an opportunity to reevaluate how “fair” market prices are assessed.

With the help of my realtor, I am appealing my taxes (also something I didn’t know you could do). But whether or not the appeal is successful, the problem remains. If the fair market value of my house is still contingent upon a homeowner’s perceived access to generational wealth and by default, the color of my skin, there is no winning.

The husband of the white couple who moved in across the street made a point to introduce himself to me.

“I want you to know that I agree with you people,” he told me and pointed at my lawn. I felt myself bristle at being called “you people”, but I could see his hands shaking and I realized that this was an act of bravery for him. My signs had made him nervous to talk to me. I think my white neighbors think I hate them or that I am some militant angry Black woman. I don’t hate them, but I am angry.

I hate injustice. I hate that it’s 2018 and we seem to be moving backwards, that everything the civil rights movement set out to accomplish seems to be getting reversed. I hate that I don’t know if I will be able to absorb the next round of taxes and that I might have to sell my home. I hate not knowing where I will be able to afford to live.

My neighbors are not some super villains ruining my life. They are just ordinary people who, like me, wanted to buy a house and live in it.

I don’t hold my neighbors responsible for the structures in place to marginalize me. But if they truly believe everything their lawn sign says, I need their help to hold our city accountable for creating a more equitable process.

If you are looking for something to do with your unearned privilege call Durkan. Call the King County Assessor’s office and ask them to make a dispensation for people who have been disadvantaged by structural racism in the same way they make dispensations for senior citizens. Tell every elected official that will listen (and even the ones who don’t want to) that this is a problem. Take your beliefs and your caring hearts to the voting booth, but don’t stop there. Take action.

It’s not enough to only care about people of color when we are living in desperate conditions. If our lives truly matters, help us deconstruct these systems that keep me, and many others, living with the fear that in the next few years we will lose our homes, our legacies and the tiny bit of wealth we’ve worked so hard for.

Feature photo by Reagan Jackson.

23 thoughts on “The Displacement Tax: An Update from Gentrification Ground Zero”

  1. Key excerpt: “The con of neoliberalism is now widely understood across the political spectrum. It is harder and harder to hide its predatory nature, including its demands for huge public subsidies (Amazon, for example, recently sought and received multibillion-dollar tax breaks from New York and Virginia to set up distribution centers in those states). This has forced the ruling elites to make alliances with right-wing demagogues who use the crude tactics of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, bigotry and misogyny to channel the public’s growing rage and frustration away from the elites and toward the vulnerable. These demagogues accelerate the pillage by the global elites while at the same time promising to protect working men and women. Donald Trump’s administration, for example, has abolished numerous regulations, from greenhouse gas emissions to net neutrality, and slashed taxes for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, wiping out an estimated $1.5 trillion in government revenue over the next decade, while embracing authoritarian language and forms of control…”

      1. Hi Brandon. Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I did buy a bank owned property. Apparently the previous owners were Ethiopian. I never met them as the house was vacant by the time I saw it. I am wondering if your question is rooted in a lack of understanding what gentrification means. A black family replacing a black family in a predominantly POC neighborhood is not gentrification. My moving to Beach in no way changed the previous culture or impacted my neighbors’ economic ability to stay in their homes. I hope that clears up your concern. Also, just so you know it’s invasive (and quite frankly pretty creepy) for you to be looking up my property records.

      2. thats laughable that you say that. gentrification is based on economic class and not race. so if in fact you’re as concerned about gentrification of your neighborhood as you pretend to be you should take little solace in your role. maybe a little more thought and research would lead to more responsible journalism.

    1. Brandon,
      It actually appears that you may have wanted to look up the definition as well since gentrification, while tacitly being about class, is more about the wealthy (assets plus incoming money) pushing out the poor. It’s obvious to the reader that Reagan is not wealthy as they had to purchase a distressed home and does not have an Amazon income, Also, as Reagan noted, it’s about those wealthier people coming in and then changing that area’s character and culture.

      Have you been to that area? Or better? Were you ever in that area 8-10 years ago? Columbia City and Rainier Beach were two places where the Central District had extended to, two neighborhoods that folx in my neighborhood pushed poorer Black people into (yes, I did not understand gentrification very well 12-15 years ago).

      And again, your tone sounds like you are angry or upset about Reagan buying a house. I don’t understand why you don’t just talk about that instead of looking up property records and circling around your issue.

  2. I would like to see limited equity coops spread throughout rapidly gentrifying areas to help residents stay in their own neighborhoods. These should have been established decades ago, but just as they say, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

    1. I have become much more conservative and find all of this a bunch of hooey. But I am completely on board with your solution. That is people looking at their options, and coming together to solve their own problems. Too late in some neighborhoods, but certainly possible in many communities around Seattle, and would be a piece of cake in Tacoma. But will people do it? Not really. They would rather sit and complain and wait for a government solution

  3. Your predicament is really all about the Amazon boom (or it could have been Microsoft, except they set up on the eastside). To solve it you’d have to either limit economic development generally or limit the ability of affluent people to buy property in your neighborhood (a kind of reverse redlining).

    Another approach is to assure that lot’s of affordable housing is built in your neighborhood, or “social housing” as a right, as they do it in Europe. A key obstacle is that most middle class Americans view their home as their major investment, so they want the price to go up and are willing to pay the higher taxes. You and I are the exception here.

    1. agree with everything you said. it shouldnt be a surprise that most people consider their home an investment as its clearly the largest lifetime purchase. I’m looking at this specific situation and trying to understand the injustice.

      1. the author bought the home in a distressed sale from a foreclosed minority family from WELLS FARGO, the epitome of the institution she’s demonizing.
      -thjs a is reckless editorial omission

      2. she then had the ability to refinance due to increased property values from an undisclosed financial institution. I’m curious on the second time around if she used a local credit union or other alternative to big bank.
      -she could have used this $ in a variety of ways one of which would have been to put together a reserve for increasing property tax assessments if that was a priority.
      -this is the second successful major banking transaction in a short time period

      3. she now has substantial equity which is most every homeowners dream and can stay in her home due to her refinancing options or take the money and relocate

      on a side note while I unequivocally endorse her freedom of speech the signs are an eyesore to the neighborhood regardless of your chosen aesthetic palette which is curious as she made it such a point to share her preferences of paint color etc

      1. Hi Amanda. Thank you for taking the time to read my article. Yes. I bought a bank owned property from Wells Fargo which is a racist institution. I also pay taxes to the United States government which is a racist institution responsible for the genocide and enslavement of a multitude of people. And when I bought that house, to quote myself from my comments to Brandon above, a black family replaced a black family in a predominantly POC neighborhood which in no way changed the character of said neighborhood or altered anyone’s property taxes. What I find curious is how angry it seems to make white people that I was able to navigate buying a house in the first place. Since you seem very interested in my process around purchasing my home you can read about it my previous article:( As for my signs, they are not nearly as ugly as gentrification.

      2. Hi Amanda,

        I’m reading your reply and am hoping you can hear mine to you. The point is not necessarily to look at the author’s “specific situation and try… to understand the injustice”, it’s to let their experience inform our education about the injustice happening all over the Pacific Northwest that comes with gentrification. If we only took specific examples then of course, people could pick pop stars, football players, and Amazon workers who are POC to make your points.

        I too am not sure why you use what seems like hostile or angry language (reckless omission, successful banking transaction (as if they should not be allowed to succeed), eyesore (huh? have you seen the signs?)). It is a POSITIVE sign that Reagan has succeeded in Rainier Beach and can afford to stay…for now. Will you use the same language if they are driven out by rising property taxes? Someone is there to document and push for change.

        Also, as I don’t believe you live in Seattle (perhaps you saw their yard in a photo or on a visit?), calling the signs an eyesore is almost humorous considering we are discussing keeping the character of a neighborhood. I have signs in my yard too…along with some dying trees, some old lumber I keep meaning to get rid of, and soon, a merry go round horse. My neighbors across the street have a snowman(?) made of concrete.

        Protest signs while not your chosen medium are STILL a very valid method of freedom of speech.

      3. I agree. And on top of that, I would assume she has some education, or at least hsa put a lot of effort in becoming a writer. Well, good for her. But there is no reason she could not have instead gone to school and gotten a job at Amazon and made enough money to buy now or stay in the neighborhood. Why are the new buyers the demons for getting an education and working for a should crushing company taht pays a lot of money. Their choice. She chose to be an artist and journalist. Fine, but I am not going to feel sorry for her. She made her choices as we all do.

  4. “So much about money and land is a mystery to me.” Well, for one thing, your assertion below is totally false and illogical:

    “So how is my home suddenly so much more valuable?

    You know the answer.

    The only difference between my house now and my house seven years ago is that now I have white neighbors.”

    The increase in your property value (which, actually is a GOOD thing for you – yes, I know, the property taxes here suck…) is Econ 101 – simply supply and demand. No matter the color of buyers, lots of buyers chasing few properties = high prices.

    “My home has doubled in value, which would be good if I wanted to sell it, but since my plan was always to live in it, the increase in value is a problem”

    As I said above, your problem is true for ALL of us – even renters, whose rents go up when landlords (appropriately) pass on their higher taxes.

    An ultimately, you can’t keep blaming all the problems in your life on “structural racism”. God, what a “victim” complex…

    1. Frank,
      Since (I assume) you (and your friends and family) benefit from the structural racism that is part of all the systems around us, why harass someone else who is harmed by it?

      White people are in a better position to succeed and at the same time, other groups are at a disadvantage; this happens in a consistent and constant way until disparities develop. If you can’t see that there are privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color”, would you trade places? If you don’t believe this, why did we not have our first Black president until 2009? Why are white people across the country constantly calling the police on Black people for every little stupid NON-CRIMINAL little thing? (today it was bank tellers who thought a Black man’s paycheck was too high.)

      Your post was actually rather kind and helpful until the last two lines. 🙁

      1. Jen,

        Picking this back up after the holidays…

        Re your comment, “why harass someone else?”:

        Harass?! I have pretty thick skin so I don’t take offense at you calling it that but that’s a loaded word these days and I would hardly characterize my comments as “harassment”. Needlessly and incorrectly labeling speech in this way comes across as an attempt to “shame” me into silence and only reinforces my perspective that opposing comments here are not welcome. If so, that’s very sad and a loss for those interested in having true, meaningful “conversations” (not just one-way lectures) about race.

        As to, “why did we not have our first Black president until 2009? Why are white people across the country constantly calling the police on Black people for every little stupid NON-CRIMINAL little thing? (today it was bank tellers who thought a Black man’s paycheck was too high.)”:

        I understand the impatience of those eager for societal change but, the simple fact is that history throughout time has shown societal change to be a slow process, as acknowledged by MLK himself in his words, “the arc of the moral universe is long…”. We didn’t jump from the Dark Ages to the enlightened Renaissance overnight- it took hundreds of years. Sure, we’re not in utopia yet but look how far we’ve come in just the past 50 years! The rise of feminism, civil rights, broad societal acceptance of gay/lesbian relationships and legalization of gay marriage.

  5. it’s sad hearing you guys saying that most white people are like this buying expensive houses and having poor people move out. like it said in the article they just want a house to live in and they don’t know what happens to the poor people in the neighborhood. but most white people aren’t rich like you guys think most of my family is poor just we have houses because half the family is dead and they get the money. but if you look at our records w have been homeless and lived in apartments most of our lives.