The City o f Seattle’s Growth and Equity Analysis boldly declares an inclusive vision: "Equitable growth will be achieved when Seattle is a city with people of diverse cultures, races and incomes and all people are thriving and able to achieve their full potential regardless of race or means. Seattle’s neighborhoods will be diverse and will include the community anchors, supports, goods, services, and amenities people need to lead healthy lives and flourish."
I believe in this vision, and it inspires me every day to do the work I do. But, as our city grows, I am seeing two versions of Seattle: 1) a booming urban hub for commerce, jobs, development, infrastructure, and progressive politics, and 2) an unrelenting battleground for people of color, immigrants, refugees, and low-income communities whose lives are disrupted by displacement caused by forces indifferent to their lives.
On paper, the City says that race and social equity should be applied to all policy and decisions, including planning and development. In action, however, this rarely happens. In some cases, City policies and investments have caused much harm and exacerbated long-standing disparities in communities of color and low-income. For example, the City can't simply dedicate funding to projects already in the pipeline in neighborhoods that are experiencing high displacement and call it “Equitable Development funds.”
But I am an optimist, and I am hopeful that we can grow and thrive without displacing the people who are here and make our city great. While opportunity and quality of life in our region is largely determined by race and geography, it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe that the City can realize its own vision and values through a new kind of partnership with communities of color and of low-income residents.
Three years ago, South Communities Organizing for Racial and Regional Equity (South CORE), a coalition staffed by Puget Sound Sage, formed to be a voice for community-controlled and inspired development in South Seattle. So, when the City began the process to update its 20-year, comprehensive plan—the document that guides the city’s policy decisions for growth and change—South CORE set out to embed racial equity in the plan and prioritize strategies to prevent displacement of residents and businesses. It was an effort help communities of color, low-income households, immigrant and refugee communities, and youth realize the benefits of growth. To be an effective tool, the City's Comprehensive Plan must promote strategies for community-control of land and resources so we have a city that fosters both innovation and inclusion, both economic growth and equity.
Leaders of South CORE were optimistic in mid-2015 when Council Member O’Brien sponsored Resolution 31577, to ensure race and social equity be infused in the plan. The Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan now contains equity policies for land-use, transportation, housing, economic development, community wellness, arts, culture, and community participation in City decisions.
The latest draft of the comp plan, however, falls far short of identifying actionable strategies for that equitable growth. Given today's soaring housing costs, widespread gentrification, growing suburbanization of poverty, impending climate impacts, and a historically profound civil rights crisis, the City’s lack of specific investments in low-income communities seems out of touch, compared to its stated vision.
We still have time to get equity right, though, and the City already has the tools. The Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) and Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has published a first-ever Growth and Equity Analyis (GEA), which measures growth, displacement risk, and opportunity across the city. The GEA reflects a bold, new direction for the Comprehensive Plan, clearly spelling out that the unintended impacts of growth disproportionately burden communities of color and low-income households, furthering isolation of the displaced. The OPCD followed this up with the Equitable Development Implementation Plan (EDIP), which recommends strategies to ensure that as we grow, all communities benefit.
The EDIP flips the usual story of developers changing our communities to fit their profit needs or, historically, redlining by banks and race restrictive covenants. Instead, the EDIP promotes community organizations and leaders as developers and change agents. In the EDIP, community groups in the Central District, Chinatown/International District, and the Rainier Valley who have organized as the Race and Social Equity Taskforce (RSET), have collectively identified place-based development projects that build jobs and economic development to increase community stability, cohesion, and affordability. The proposed implementation projects can begin to prevent and mitigate displacement by ensuring communities drive their own vision for change and development. The City should invest in these local projects—like the Rainier Beach Innovation District, the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation, the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center, and the Little Saigon Landmark Project—to ensure these communities thrive in place.
These targeted place-based projects could make transformational change for our most marginalized communities. Without this kind of bold action and major investment, Seattle risks becoming a city of the wealthy surrounded by rings of destitution, whereby economically disadvantaged populations are displaced to the suburbs—and along with them, the diversity that comes with a truly integrated city. As I said in the beginning, though, I am an optimist. Don’t tell me it’s not possible.
Ubax Gardheere is a program director at Puget Sound Sage. She has worked extensively with the East African refugee/immigrant community in Washington State for over 10 years as an organizer, lobbyist, human rights advocate and resource development director.