Seattle was the nation's fastest growing city between 2015 and 2016,, adding 57 new residents per day.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 Recent demographic trends reflect a robust local economy based on the tech industry, and the city also leads 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 Black population is now in decline.5 Immigrants have a long history in Seattle, but many work in service jobs that make increasing rents difficult to afford. Families, especially low income and families of color, face financial constraints in supporting multiple people and attempting to find sufficiently-sized housing. Finally, a heavy military presence in the area leads veterans to settle in the region, but lack of skills after serving leaves them without high incomes.6
Seattle's displaced residents often relocate to communities south of Seattle in King County, which does not always have positive outcomes. Studies have concluded that people south of Seattle live 10 years less than similar populations in the city.7 People in these areas may struggle to access social services located in downtown 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; suburban opposition to new construction leads to competition that drives up prices and increases instability.8 Housing pressures are increasing as these communities now face gentrification problems of their own.
Policy Responses and Limitations
Seattle has taken a strong stance on addressing issues caused by the region's rapid growth. 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 may not be created in accordance with existing neighborhood plans, which can reduce community agency and sensations of instability.10
The Housing Tax Levy, which funds affordable unit construction and preservation, is a particularly strong program.11 It is successful in targeting people earning 60% of Area Median income, a lower income bracket than that used by many local housing programs. However, 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
The new Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, which requires new development to include affordable units or contribute to the City fund for affordable housing in exchange for zoning density increases, is designed to radically increase the number of affordability-controlled units in the city. 13 The policy is focused on the goal of increasing the number of such units, and may prove to be effective at achieving this goal. However, the upzonings associated with MHA have been contentious in some underprivileged communities because they are seen as giving developers too much control over how the neighborhood grows and develops. Some residents also feel that MHA does not give sufficient focus to concerns like family housing, parking, and traffic impacts of development.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.
1.Gene Balk, “Seattle once again nation's fastest-Growing big city; population exceeds 700,000,” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 25 May 2017.
2. American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, 2012-2016. Decennial Census, U.S. Census Bureau, 2010. Teresa Meek, “Largest Private Companies: Construction firms build strength,” Puget Sound Business Journal, American City Business Journals, 27 June 2014.
3. Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 15 Sept. 2016.
4. “Highlights From Research on Rents and Homelessness,” Zillow Research, 11 Oct. 2017.
5. R. Majumdar, "Racially restrictive covenants in the State of Washington: a primer for practitioners," Seattle University Law Review 30 no. 4.
6. Interview at Puget Sound Regional Council, 4 Oct. 2017. Interview with Housing Advocates in Seattle, 5 Oct. 2017.
7. Gene Balk, “In King County, your address may tell you how long you'll live,” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 3 May 2016.
8. Interview with Kent Housing and Human Services, 3 Oct. 2017.
9. “Vision 2040, People-- Prosperity-- Planet: the Growth Management, Environmental, Economic, and Transportation Strategy for the Central Puget Sound Region.” Puget Sound Regional Council, 2008, pp. 1–103.
10. Interview with Beacon Hill Council of Seattle, 6 Oct. 2017.
11. “Seattle Housing Levy,” Office of Housing, Seattle, 2016.
12. Interview with Housing Advocates in Seattle, 5 Oct. 2017.
13. “Housing Affordability and Livability," Seattle, 2016.
14. Interview with Beacon Hill Council of Seattle, 6 Oct. 2017.
15. Gene Balk, “Taxes like Texas: Washington's system among nation's most unfair.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 26 Apr. 2016.
16. Interview with Housing Advocates in Seattle, 5 Oct. 2017.
17. Gene Balk, “$35K income in Kent: Is this the middle class?” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 26 June 2015.
18. Interview with Kent Housing and Human Services, 3 Oct. 2017.