With concerns about gentrification growing over the last few years, several council members and city officials have been looking for examples of how other cities have dealt with and overc0me gentrification. What they have found, contrary to generally held urbanist belief, is that reducing demand for housing is the most effective way to combat rising rents and gentrification, not building more housing.
On a recent fact finding mission to both cities, council members and staff met with officials from Detroit and Baltimore to learn from the nation’s leaders in combating gentrification. While council and staff have not had time to formulate any potential policies or actions, I was able to speak to one of the officials who participated.
He said that ideas generally fell into the categories of crime, education, noise and pollution, and jobs. They found that the two cities shared many of the same solutions, which helps to validate the solutions and lent credence to the idea that they could be transferable to Seattle. Most of the solutions they saw were also very low cost, if not budget positive, for the City.
Baltimore, for example, has pioneered the use of crime and drugs to keep gentrification at bay in West Baltimore despite its close proximity to Downtown and the University of Maryland. This approach was so successful that it ultimately lead to the filming of The Wire. Several council member saw parallels with the Central District, where a general decrease in violent crimes has correlated with increased gentrification. Indeed, a personal friend I’ve visited on the edge of West Baltimore lives in a amazing turn of the century row house that is astonishingly cheap to rent.
Another solution identified was to close and underfund schools. This creates a virtuous cycle of reduced housing costs leading to reduced school funding. As the quality of education declines, young couples looking to start a family will avoid areas with poor schools. This strategy is particularly well suited for Seattle, since growing Eastside suburbs like Sammamish and Woodinville have good schools. Directing families with the means to buy a house out of Seattle will directly help to reduce home values. This targeted approach was universally liked by council members.
Detroit’s high density of freeways in the center city is also a perfect example of using noise and pollution to combat gentrification. While bringing back projects like the R. H. Thompson Expressway through the Central District would be expensive, a more affordable solution staff identified was rezoning some single family areas for heavy industry, adding trash transfer stations or repurposing tsunami sirens to randomly go off throughout the night. Regrettably, Detroit has been so successful at reducing demand in the center city that the freeways in Downtown are mostly empty throughout the day, reducing their noise and pollution.
The last but certainly most urgent solution, with Amazon’s recent announcements, is the reduction of employment, especially well-paying jobs, in the city. This is somewhere Detroit really outshines Baltimore. The fact finding group talked with Detroit officials about the connection between well paying high-tech jobs in SLU and rising rents in Capitol Hill. One solution that came out of that discussion was an idea to charge a new business and occupation tax of roughly $10,000 dollars a year for every new employee it hires that lives in Seattle. This would protect existing city residents that work and live in Seattle, but help to discourage new employes that move here from living in Seattle. It would also help to reduce employment growth pressures in the city, an idea that anti-growth advocates already espouse.
Look for action on these gentrification solutions to start to emerge over the next few months. I think several staff members were looking at trying to integrate these ideas in the citywide TOD policy the Land Use committee will be working on over the next year.