In January, Washington State Senator Bob Hasegawa introduced a short, simple bill requiring transit authorities to mitigate the impact of new transit facilities on parking for nearby residents through subsidized parking permits and other means. Sen. Hasegawa’s 11th District serves parts of South Seattle and several suburbs that have been impacted by Seattle’s light rail line. In mid-February, Senator Pramila Jayapal, whose 37th District serves another part of South Seattle — made significant revisions to the bill that made it specifically about Seattle and called out impacts on low-income residents. Her key additions included that Seattle must:
“1) Honor all requests for low-income restricted parking zone; 2) Charge no more than five dollars per year for low-income restricted parking permits; and 3) Allow restricted parking zone permits for registered nonprofits located within a restricted parking zone.”
On its face, Sen. Jayapal’s revision reads like a NIMBYish cry to protect her constituents’ parking as transit expands and density increases. In reality, it is part of a broader effort to protect some of Seattle’s most diverse and lowest-income communities from the high risks of displacement that rode into the neighborhood on light rail.
According to Rebecca Saldaña, executive director of Puget Sound Sage, Sen. Jayapal is addressing a problem that stems from Seattle’s Sound Transit agency not doing enough to engage community members in the light-rail planning process. Puget Sound Sage is a Seattle nonprofit focused on environmental and equity issues.
“Unfortunately when light rail was built it didn’t meet a lot of local residents [transportation] needs, so many folks that live near the light rail still rely on cars to get to job sites, to school,” explains Saldaña. “This legislation speaks to how we make sure we don’t leave behind the people that have the most to benefit from these investments and don’t push them out as we’re doing that.”
Saldaña says the light rail is an asset to the city. “We are very much in favor of public investment in public transportation that makes communities more affordable, accessible and addresses climate issues and pollution issues. I know the Senator is, too.”
But she wants to see the city and transit agency take better account of community needs. “There has to be some thought about how to make sure that people who live there [now] can grow with the [light rail] investment.”
According to a 2012 Puget Sound Sage report on transit-oriented development and gentrification, residents in Rainier Valley (which makes up a large portion of Sen. Jayapal’s 37th District) are at a high risk of displacement because of, “concentrated poverty, high numbers of renters, high rates of foreclosure, high unemployment, and over-representation in low-wage jobs.”
As of 2010, people of color accounted for about 26 percent of residents citywide. In Rainier Valley, 77 percent of residents are people of color. Thirty-nine percent of all Rainier Valley residents earn less than $30,000 a year versus 16 percent of residents in all of Seattle.
Signs of gentrification in Rainier Valley are already evident.
“In 2012, we were just seeing the possibility of recovery from economic downturn,” says Saldaña. “Private investors are now investing, projects are getting off the ground.”
According to the Sage report, before the light rail investment, no private developer had built a multifamily residential building in the area since 1974. Now there are several, with more on the way. One of the first was The Station at Othello apartments (located, of course, at the Othello light rail station). The same developers are planning to build a new mixed-use building next door with over 350 residential units and 8,000 square feet of retail space. In June last year, Seattle’s city council approved an upzone near the Mt. Baker station that increases allowed building heights from 65 to 125 feet.
Even before apartments were built, land values around the Othello Station skyrocketed. A 2013 report by the Puget Sound Regional Council said that between construction beginning on the Othello light rail station in 2004 and its opening in 2009, mixed-use parcel value increased 585 percent, while commercial land in the rest of south Seattle only appreciated by 180 percent.
Granted, not all of the new housing is high end. In April last year, Sound Transit announced it was partnering with Mercy Housing Northwest to build 108 units of housing affordable to residents and families earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. Last fall, nonprofit developer Artspace opened a mixed-use building at the Mt. Baker light rail station with 57 low-cost residential units (though they’re only available to artists).
Affordable housing is an important piece of the solution, says Saldaña. But jobs with livable wages are just as critical. “When there’s a strong economy, especially one that’s focused around high-tech industry, you end up with huge underbelly of low-wage, benefit-less service and hospitality jobs.”
She points to Seattle’s $15 minimum wage and recent priority hire and parental leave measures as steps in the right direction. “We need to make sure that when there are good jobs in the neighborhoods, like building community center or [city-funded] infrastructure projects, that people qualified in community have opportunity to work on those jobs.”
“To really figure out how to help people affected by this issue, we need to give people opportunities to be decision-makers and part of the solution.”
Sen. Jayapal’s revision of Sen. Hasegawa’s bill has been sent to the floor of the state senate for a second reading.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.