Is Light Rail Driving Racial Minorities Out of Rainier Valley?
Few businesses could survive a 50-percent rent hike over a three-year period, just as few families could stay in their homes with those sorts of soaring expenses. And yet a new report argues that many Rainier Valley residents now face this problem, thanks to the addition of light rail in their neighborhood.
Issued by the community and labor advocacy group Puget Sound Sage, the study makes the case that a Sound Transit light-rail line completed in 2009 has dramatically increased property values and raised rents near stations, thereby hastening gentrification and displacement in one of Puget Sound's most racially diverse neighborhoods.
Since construction of the light-rail line, "land values around the stations have increased dramatically," says the Sage report issued on May 14. Already, minority populations in parts of Rainier Valley are dwindling, the report continues, and "the presence of light-rail stations in Rainier Valley is likely to cause more gentrification." Left unchecked, the trend may "lead to the displacement of existing people of color out of Rainier Valley."
The report comes as an unwelcome shock to light-rail advocates, who lobbied for rail from downtown to the airport partly as an amenity to South Seattle's working-class, nonwhite residents. Now it highlights the divide between two factions of the progressive community: the pro-development, mass-transit environmental camp and a social-justice camp that has long warned that light rail may entail social costs.
To make its case, Sage's report leans heavily on census data that shows neighborhood demographics have changed in a pattern starkly out of sync with the region. While the minority population grew by 47 percent in the last decade across King County (and the white population shrank by 2 percent), in Rainier Valley, the trend is nearly reversed: Racial minorities increased by only 5 percent over that same period and the white population increased by 17 percent. (However, this is a 10-year trend, a much longer time frame than the three years since light rail was completed.)
The effect is most pronounced in the northern swath of the valley, according to the report's analysis, where there has been an "in-migration of new white residents and out-migration of existing people of color."
But some pro-transit proponents are questioning the analysis in the report—titled "Transit Oriented Development That's Healthy, Green and Just"—by saying that it fails to prove that light rail is, in fact, the force that's pushing out minorities.
"Rainier Valley was going to become wealthier—and whiter—with or without light rail, simply because it is one of the last places in Seattle where single-family housing stock is still plentiful and affordable," says Roger Valdez, a former research associate at the pro-density, pro-transit think tank Sightline Institute. Asking if a train is displacing minorities is such a loaded question, Valdez, says it's as "pointless as starting a conversation with the question 'Have you stopped kicking your dog yet?'"
Sage concedes that its own definition of gentrification doesn't fully explain the area's displacement. The group simply describes gentrification like this: "Neighborhood change in which a previously low-income neighborhood experiences reinvestment and revitalization accompanied by increasing home values and/or rents." In other words, the gentrification may result from numerous causes, not just a three-year-old light-rail system.
"Correlation isn't necessarily causation," says Brock Howell, the King County program director of Futurewise, which advocates for dense urban planning and building more mass transit. "But the concern here is right. Land values around light-rail stations have gone up as much as 500 percent, and we can't ignore that it affects who can afford to live near light rail."
Sage program director Rebecca Saldaña adds, "We're talking about low-income, mostly minority renters working in retail and service-sector jobs who lost their jobs in the economic downturn in the same cycle that light rail is happening and their rents are rising. These residents have been gradually priced out as light-rail construction began. "Since 2005, land values surrounding Southeast Seattle's light-rail stations have risen by over 50 percent," the report states. Concurrently, a 2008 city-sponsored survey of locally owned, independent businesses in the area showed that "a majority of businesses had seen their rents rise by over 50 percent" in three years.
Twenty-three percent of low-income Rainier Valley residents depend on public transit to get to work (versus only 14 percent of their richer neighbors) and thus benefited the most from transit-oriented development.
Even Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, a staunch advocate for building light rail, expresses concern not only for low-income residents but for businesses in the area. "The report highlights, and we hear it over and over again, that the success of light rail threatens to destroy what we find beautiful in the neighborhood," he says. "The mix of cultural businesses is critical, and they might not exist if real estate triples in the next few years. We're pretty good about housing in the city, but when it comes to affordable retail space, it's definitely a new field for us."
City officials have long recognized the importance of preserving South Seattle neighborhoods. For example, they placed a $145 million housing levy before voters (which voters approved in 2009) to help build more affordable housing in Rainier Valley and backed a new city initiative to help out small businesses around the Othello light-rail station.
That sort of planning for affordable housing "went into the Sound Transit board's decision to put rail in the valley as a way to serve these communities that can be pretty transit- dependent," says Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray. "We feel that light rail is an incredible asset to the valley especially."
Yet the Sage report suggests even those efforts will likely "fall short of stemming the tide of displacement."
Instead, the 50-page study suggests 16 recommendations for curbing displacement along Southeast Seattle's light-rail corridor, including: hiring from the neighborhood for construction jobs, pushing for higher wages at nearby service-sector jobs (such as the Port of Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport), placing more affordable child care near light-rail stations, and supporting publicly managed housing development in lieu of for-profit development.
The report neglects to explain how many of the recommendations could, or should, be implemented. What role does the city have in dictating working wages, for example?
"One of the tricks is figuring out how to do that," O'Brien says. Over the coming months, O'Brien is organizing meetings with his fellow council members and Sage representatives to figure out how the recommendations can be absorbed by various city entities and projects.