Seattle is a boomtown, leading the nation in growth at 57 new residents per day between 2015 and 2016.1 Between 2010 and 2016, 90,000 new people moved to Seattle and construction began on 32,000 new units, giving Seattle the nickname the “city of cranes.”2 Given a history of economic rebirth in Seattle, recent trends are unsurprising. Recent demographic trends reflect a robust local economy based on the tech industry, resulting in the city leading the nation in median household income growth, with a 13% increase in 2015 alone.3 These dynamics -- in a region geographically constrained by water bodies and mountains -- have led to increased housing pressures, with every 5% increase in rent being related to 258 additional people falling into homelessness.4
Who is vulnerable?
Until the 1960s, redlining and restrictive covenants concentrated African-Americans chiefly in the central district, where the African-American population is now in decline.5 Immigrants have a long history in Seattle, but when they work low-wage service jobs, there is no way for them to afford increasing rents. Families, especially low income and families of color, face financial constraints to support multiple people and are therefore a focus in Seattle plans. A heavy military presence in the area leads veterans to settle in the region, but their lack of skills after serving leaves them without high incomes.6
Seattle's displaced residents often relocate to communities in South King County, just to the south of Seattle. Displacement to the south leads to negative outcomes. Studies have concluded that people south of Seattle live 10 years less than similar populations in the city.7 Another outcome is a lack of access to social service providers in Seattle, which is especially hard for immigrants who cannot speak English. Displacement also leads to lengthier commute times and higher transportation expenses. There is also a lack of affordable housing outside of Seattle, due in part to community opposition to new construction, leading to competition competition that drives up prices and increases instability.8 These pressures are increasing as these communities now face gentrification problems of their own.
Policy Responses and Limitations
Seattle has actively addressed issues of growth, with some success. The City's Vision 2040 Growth Strategy designates Urban Villages to concentrate growth on a manageable scale.9 This plan pushes for sustainable communities with transit oriented development, mixed-use development, and affordable housing. While good for concentrating growth, density increases are often not created in accordance with existing neighborhood plans, which can reduce community control.10
Another success is the Housing Tax Levy, which funds affordable unit construction and preservation.11 It is successful in targeting 60% AMI, an income bracket lower than that used by many local housing programs, but this lower rent cap means fewer total units get built because each unit requires a greater subsidy than if the rent cap were higher. The pool of funding is simply not large enough to meet the demand for units at this level of affordability.12
Some local policies are contentious because they do not address some issues of interest to communities. The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) aims to improve housing affordability through several strategies, including Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), which requires new development to include affordable units or contribute to the City fund for affordable housing through zoning changes.13 While addressing housing concerns, HALA and MHA are contentious because issues of family housing, parking, and traffic impacts are not considered.14
Kent is a suburb south of Seattle that is currently undergoing a major transformation. Unlike the other case studies, this is the story of a middle class suburb that for the past fifteen years has been receiving low income families displaced from Seattle.17 This has increased the need for housing and services, while causing a backlash from existing residents that do not want to see their formerly quiet suburb change.
Today, these problems continue to get worse as high income people who are unable to buy in Seattle are moving to Kent, resulting in down-renting and domino displacement, in which people who were displaced to Kent are now being displaced again further south in what we have termed domino displacement.18
These outcomes have been difficult for Kent to resolve. One reason is simply a lack of funding and capacity of government to effectively support social services for the increasing population of low income residents. Suburban areas typically have lower capacity than central areas, and what limited state and national funding exists tends to flow primarily to Seattle. Kent also spends a great deal of funding on criminal justice. Kent also has limited capacity to enact policies that can truly break the circuit of gentrification because the process extends over municipal boundaries.19
Nevertheless, Kent has many strengths from which to build to mitigate the displacement that has already occurred and prevent domino displacement from increasing. Despite low capacity, Kent has various dedicated government service providers for low-income residents because the local government is very aware of displacement issues. Though they have ideas for tackling issues of housing instability, the local government lacks the funds to implement many of them as they would wish. Another strength is a strong network of community groups, particularly immigrant groups that formed to help to receive immigrants into Kent. Lastly, there is a strong network of nonprofits and organizations that work on issues related to housing and other services.20
There are many opportunities to confront its housing pressures. Kent is comprised of single-family homes on relatively large plots of land, making it low-density. There are also low-density commercial corridors with parking lots and ample space. The low-density provides opportunities for new development with more efficient use of space. Another opportunity is the demand for higher income housing, which means that the construction of market-rate units can be built without many restrictions or community opposition. In addition, because the Seattle region has precedents of regional planning with the Puget Sound Regional Planning Commission and inter-city cooperation through Washington State’s Growth Management Act, there is a greater possibility of using regional coordination to address housing issues at the regional level. The Growth Management Act also provides Kent with a framework for building higher density areas.21
Possible Policy Responses
Since Kent is simultaneously dealing with the results of late-stage gentrification in Seattle and in the early stages of gentrification itself, any policy response must balance the needs of long-time residents facing price increases and recently-displaced persons who have taken up residence in Kent and who are now facing poor living conditions or domino displacement, all while allowing Kent to receive people who are new to the area entirely. A property tax abatement for long-time residents would help them stay in their communities and decrease resistance new, higher-density construction, which is often seen as increasing prices. Community resistance is one of the only things holding back new construction.22 Creating linkages to construction jobs would also increase new construction by decreasing its cost, all while helping people displaced to Kent find new, stable work. Kent is already increasing inspections to combat exploitation of immigrants and displaced persons, but they could benefit by offering more money for repairs, as inspections might increase evictions. To address the lack of funds for such a program, Kent could reinvest the money it currently spends on criminal justice and/or take part in a program to reinvest dividends from companies like Amazon and Boeing in addressing housing shortages and other issues.