by Andrew Engelson
Seattle City Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda sponsored an online forum on July 22 to explore issues surrounding displacement and exclusionary zoning that could fundamentally change the way Seattle grows in coming decades.
The forum came in response to the recent release of a racial equity analysis of Seattle’s Urban Village Strategy and in anticipation of potential changes to the City’s zoning policies and the creation of a new Comprehensive Plan, a document that establishes aspirations, policies, and standards that lay the groundwork for future councils to follow.
The panel featured Andrea Reay, of the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce; Maria Ramirez, chair of the Duwamish Valley Affordable Housing Coalition; Ab Juaner, a program manager with Puget Sound Sage; and Curtis Brown of South End Community Development.
The forum comes at a unique moment, when the City’s conversation about zoning is no longer about if — but rather how and when — leadership will change its single-family zoning policies, which were put in place in the 20th century with the goal of racial exclusion.
As Councilmember Mosqueda noted during the forum, the racial equity analysis of the City’s existing strategy on growth was “Centered on a plan that came together in 1994, when the population was 500,000 people. Flash forward to today when we’ve seen the population grow 50% over that … It’s supposed to be centering community and equity and racial inclusion in the policy … But the reality is over the past 40 years, the housing affordability crisis has worsened, the displacement crisis has worsened, and homelessness has continued to increase, which is a direct result of the lack of affordable housing and discriminatory policies.”
The forum set out to explore ways the City could better involve Communities of Color in preventing future displacement, brainstorm new approaches to change exclusionary zoning, and provide workable solutions to preventing residents, businesses, and organizations from being forced out by rising costs.
The process of involving BIPOC residents and community in that discussion needs to radically change, Juaner said.
“As we think about combatting displacement and addressing the legacy of exclusionary zoning,” they said, “we need to center equity in our community engagement in planning for how our city grows. We should be truly clear on what is at stake in a Comprehensive Plan. If our communities are not leading the planning, someone else is doing it for them.”
The Comprehensive Plan looks at housing, sustainability, equity, and growth. It will take several years to gather input on and shape, with a final plan released and voted on by the Council in 2024. The Council’s recent racial equity toolkit analysis of the existing plan suggests the need for revisions to the City’s zoning laws, strategies to encourage more market rate and affordable housing, and policies that benefit BIPOC households.
Forum participants suggested a broad range of ideas to prevent displacement, from rethinking zoning to include tiny houses to a fund to help apartment dwellers collectively purchase their buildings.
“I love the idea of a fund to support the acquisition of expiring units,” Ramirez said. “That’s preservation.”
Reay observed that while housing was a key issue in displacement, loss of local, BIPOC-owned businesses is also a pressing concern, especially in the South End.
“Displacement doesn’t just impact residents,” she said, “It also impacts our small neighborhood shops and businesses as well. These businesses serve as key community hubs and lend themselves to the vibrancy and fabric of the neighborhood.”
Reay pointed to providing technical assistance and community navigators to threatened businesses as a strategy the City could implement that would have the highest impact in preventing displacement.
“From the small business perspective, what do they see?” Reay said. “They get a letter from their landlord that says: ‘You need to move out, this is happening’ … What the City can do is be more proactive about providing technical assistance to the businesses that are at risk of displacement.”
Brown suggested the City could do more to guarantee loans to BIPOC residents and businesses that want to invest in the Central District and South End.
“If we could have the City and other entities do guarantees and say lend us the money, and say it’s guaranteed over here on City property, I think we could acquire literally hundreds of millions of dollars of property,” Brown said.
Juaner pointed to the recent policy brief Disaster Gentrification, which their organization produced in cooperation with the Multicultural Community Center Coalition and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition.
“Our recommendations include increasing opportunities for BIPOC communities to acquire land and buildings to preserve affordability and robustly funding acquisition and preservation funds. We need to preserve existing housing and commercial property that are serving low-income and BIPOC communities,” Juaner said. “And we need to continue investing in community-driven and equitable investment… We need to explore enabling policies like tenant opportunities to purchase that prioritize communities.”
Morales praised the range of ideas offered during the panel. “Whether it’s a range of more cohorts, requiring more community ownership in public projects, or a crowdfunding portal […] we’re looking at state law changes that are required in order to implement these ideas.”
“We started talking about policy ideas to set us up for this Comprehensive Plan,” Mosqueda noted in her closing remarks, “building off of that racial equity toolkit, rooting our analysis through this racial equity lens, and really evaluating what has happened over the last 100 years and the ways in which we must confront the continuation of exclusionary policies in our zoning practices to this day in 2021. To address those head-on, but to be led with a community voice.”
Many of these proposed solutions will require substantial funding, and Mosqueda acknowledged the challenge will be “how we must free up the capital dollars to make sure the community actually has self-determination.”
Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based writer and editor who lives in the South End.
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