I’ve finally made it through Puget Sound Sage’s much-hyped report “Transit Oriented Development that’s Healthy, Green, and Just.” I read it warily, but was pleasantly surprised by many of the conclusions, even as I had issues with some important omissions. As it happens, the argument the report makes is largely orthogonal to the apartment-tower-vs.-single family home debate that rages on the internet, and in that sense it’s quite refreshing.
For those of you who are interested in this issue, the sixty pages are totally worth your time. The executive summary is pretty good too, but for the extra-lazy here’s my summary:
- Gentrification (an influx of higher-income residents) is happening in the Rainier Valley, encouraged by light rail and other factors.
- Through a variety of mechanisms, gentrification is likely to lead to displacement of the poor into South King County, with various moral, social, and environmental consequences.
- The set of policies usually grouped under “affordable housing” must expand to more directly consider the obstacles to disadvantaged people remaining in place.
There’s a lot to agree with here, although I think the report applies a much more negative tone to the idea of gentrification than I would. In particular, I find the emphasis on the relative proportion of various racial groups as opposed to their absolute numbers to go well beyond avoiding displacement. (In fact, the report shows that the population of color has continued to increase, although not as much as other areas and perhaps not sustainably.) Gentrification is essentially inevitable in an improving neighborhood, so we should either resolve to not improve the neighborhood, or else look to mitigate some of gentrification’s less attractive consequences.
One theme is the need for better access to “living-wage” jobs. This largely consists of standard-issue left-wing labor market reforms and set-asides*, but also emphasizes the importance of zoning to preserve locally-owned businesses that serve low-income people. PCC Markets is specifically called out as an example of an employer with enlightened labor practices. What’s interesting is that PCC is definitely a creature of affluence: it depends on the willingness of the well-off to pay above market prices for food and a clear conscience.This is an example of how gentrification can enable new solutions for the very problems it creates, with the added bonus of an improved neighborhood.
Another is education, an area that seems curiously soft-pedaled in all the talk about quality jobs. If Microsoft were to open a lab at Othello next year, that would certainly bring quality jobs, but they wouldn’t exactly be hiring many kids out of Rainier Beach High School. I’m no wizard on education issues, but it seems fairly self-evident that a large influx of high-socioeconomic status parents into a school is likely to improve its academic performance for all of its attendees, beyond a bump to the average from the new students themselves.
Low income students will benefit if they can remain in place. I really appreciated the new ideas about how to bring more low-income housing online. The conventional approach to making this happen is to levy a de facto tax on development. The report, regrettably, doesn’t talk about this much, but the long term affordability strategy has to be density. There are lots of wonderful, inexpensive dense homes on Capitol Hill, not because of a zoning set-aside but because they’re 100 years old. More construction is a necessary but not sufficient condition to prevent displacement. It’s unfortunate that we’ve been cannibalizing our long-term solution to fund our short term one (and discouraging new construction jobs).
There are too many other good little ideas to list here (e.g., encouraging smaller storefronts and larger apartments.)
* The merits of which (or lack thereof) are well beyond the scope of who lives in Southeast Seattle.
Disclaimer: The author owns his home in the Rainier Valley, and would certainly experience a nice little bump to his net worth if the Valley eventually turned into Medina.