Illustration of a red bulldozer rolling through South Seattle with words like "recession" and "eviction" and images of the coronavirus following it.

OPINION: Stopping Disaster Gentrification Post-Pandemic Will Require Robust Action

by Gregory Davis

It was one year ago this month that a journalist thrust into the ether an idea that the pandemic was going to have a disproportionate impact on People of Color. He shared stories about friends and their current and impending struggles. One poignant detail he shared: “The coronavirus has magnified stubbornly unbalanced accounts between those with plenty and those barely holding on.” 

That journalist was Marcus Green, the venerable editor of this very publication. Green also cited urban sociologist Junia Howell, whose research was on earthquakes, wildfires, and windstorms — and their impact on King County’s wealth disparities between 2005 and 2015. Howell discovered that the wealth gap between whites and Black/Latino communities and between renters and homeowners grew following these events.

Later that fall, as the pandemic raged on, Jerrell Davis, aka Rell Be Free, a local organizer/artist/educator, crafted another article that was a harbinger of things to come. Davis offered a stirring observation: “People say gentrification is a process that cannot be slowed down or prevented. We must challenge this state of mind.” These authors’ efforts aligned well with the previous coming together of organizers to identify solutions — for instance, challenging current states of mind in the form of a community policy brief. 

Three organizations, Multicultural Community Center Coalition, Puget Sound Sage, and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, have been collaborative problem solvers for the last five years through King County’s Community of Opportunities investments in Rainier Valley. Together we recalled the 2008 recession and what happened then; this is the driving force behind the community policy brief. We all know who the winners and losers were in 2008. Lest we forget, banks made out like crazy. According to Michael Lewis in his book The Big Short “Basically, the banks pulled off the largest fraud in history — probably of the better part of $7,000 billion dollars — that was kept from the public. And when told, the public shake their shoulders in disbelief. That could not have happened.”

Photo of the "Disaster Gentrification in King County: And How to Stop It From Happening Again" community brief report.
Three organizations, Multicultural Community Center Coalition, Puget Sound Sage, and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, issued a report in May 2021 on the risks of disaster gentrification after the COVID-19 pandemic and what local governments can do to alleviate impacts on BIPOC communities.

Of the things it is going to take to counter the above from happening again can be summed up in a proverb “It’s better to dam the brook than a creek.” The impact on salmon notwithstanding, this proverb suggests there are already powers positioning themselves to benefit from the pandemic at the expense of the less fortunate. We refer to this positioning as disaster gentrification and it must be dammed before it becomes a creek. If not, the creek becomes a river, and by that time it’s too late to stop it. 

The brief’s recommendations include the following: 

  • Creating opportunities for BIPOC communities to compete with the private sector by robustly funding acquisition and preservation funds. 
  • Preventing affordable housing from going to private real estate firms and developers and creating the possibility for tenant ownership by passing a Tenant/Community Opportunity to Purchase Act. 
  • Increasing BIPOC leadership in planning and development by establishing local planning and accountability in high displacement areas through the creation of Equitable Development Zones. 
  • Stopping harassment of vulnerable homeowners by creating Non-Solicitation/Cease and Desist Zones 
  • Deterring speculative property flipping by advocating for the imposition of a flipping tax on real estate transactions. 
  • Decreasing evictions and foreclosures by taking an aggressive approach toward debt suspension, debt forgiveness, and eviction and foreclosure moratoriums. 

We are encouraging all our elected officials to read the Community Policy Brief. It includes ideas from the most impacted. Once read, the elected will find the low-hanging fruit that, if implemented immediately, will benefit thousands. Some of the recommendations will require campaigns. So coalitions and alliances that may not have existed before will need to be formed, and that’s okay, because new actions need to be taken, actions we have not seen before. As Rell Be Free wrote, “We are past the point of asking what we can do without developing robust action plans to follow through. Our survival and our lives depend on it.” 

Here is a parting proverb to take with you. It was adopted by the team crafting the community policy brief: “If you want to go quickly, go alone — if you want to go far, go together.” Ultimately, we have to go far quickly, and this means we have to quickly find a way to change our community’s consciousness about exactly what we are facing and why we have to work together to solve it.

You can read the full report, Disaster Gentrification in King County and How to Stop it From Happening Again at Puget Sound Sage’s website.

Gregory Davis is a founding member and managing strategist of Rainier Beach Action Coalition, Soufend, Seattle, WA.

📸 Featured illustration by Vlad Verano.

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