By Jerrell Davis
The Rainier Beach neighborhood in Seattle has been a mecca of culture, vibrance, and style for decades. Over the last 10-15 years, there has been a process in motion that has drastically affected who still lives in this neighborhood. Regardless of what you believe, the impact this process has on a community is complicated. Take, for example, changes occurring at Rainier Beach HS, the “crown jewel of Rainier Beach.” Folx are excited that Seattle Public School District (which has been dragging their feet for years) is finally going to invest in a renovation of the building – a building that hasn’t had any major construction since it was built in 1962. This is a complicated paradox because the scholars (current and upcoming) deserve a school with updated technology, clean water faucets, a fully functioning performing arts center, and a building that doesn’t make graduates from the 1960’s say “it’s just like I remembered!” Analyses that we must hold at the same time, after witnessing changes that occurred at Garfield HS, Cleveland HS, and Southshore K-8, is that school renovations absolutely contribute to displacement that occurs as a result of gentrification.
This paradox of development is not new. We saw this occur in the CD in the 1990’s and 2000’s – and now we’re watching the process conclude in the South End. Black and Brown communities deserve the highest quality resources, the highest quality houses and apartments, and the highest quality of educational facilities. Unfortunately, there are very few examples of places that undergo dramatic development and keep the same cultural diversity. Asking the question quite plainly: does development displace Black and Brown folx? If your answer is “NO”, then the burden of proof is on you.
In Seattle, the term gentrification is as overused as social justice and equity. People use these terms with no real understanding of their impact, or how we contribute to the oppression that brought these concepts to mass media. In 2020, because of global uprisings and the COVID-19 pandemic, pressure has been put on institutions to prove their commitment to Black and Brown communities. So, we’re seeing Black folx in commercials and advertisements. We’re seeing foundations and corporations identify as “anti-racist.” We’re seeing politicians lay out platitudes that give the impression that they are committed to eliminating racism, sexism, homophobia, and homeless (among other things that oppress us and our Loved ones). This may make folx start to believe things are “getting better.” How nice. It would behoove us to learn more about what happens behind closed doors, and quite literally, right in front of our faces. In this era of COVID-19 (disaster), corporations are applying age-old practices that ensure their profit margins don’t budge while exacerbating the experience of those of us who are on the economic margins of society.
“Disaster gentrification” is when the private sector and corporate institutions take economic advantage of the consequences of “disasters” (i.e. earthquakes, COVID-19, economic crashes, etc.). They do this by acquiring land at reduced prices (flipping), putting businesses in particular areas, and profiting off of communities that are in need of resources. Again, this isn’t new. We watch this process unfold right before our eyes and oftentimes we participate in it. They call it “falling for the okey-doke,” believing that people “care” about the hood. Private corporations and even bigger public service organizations like Sound Transit buy land and sit on it until opportune moments when the market value of that land increases. Sound Transit is currently sitting on hundreds of acres of land throughout King and Pierce County that is being underutilized because they are waiting for the wave of gentrification to hit the area, and for developers to start bidding for the land. It’s all a game. The consequences of this game are that property taxes increase, which leads to property owners and landlords raising rent. This does not necessitate that incomes increase as well – so, when rent increases but wages don’t, folx get evicted if they cannot make due. Homeowners who can’t keep up with the rising property taxes will be persuaded by predatory realtors that want them to sell their home. This process upends and manipulates the decisions of folx who live in low-income neighborhoods, and limits their options. This is gentrification in motion! The only way folx can seem to survive is to go somewhere else, where it is affordable – which is oftentimes outside of their city, away from their chosen communities, and away from resources that they may have relied on.
People often say that gentrification is a process that cannot be slowed down or prevented. We must challenge this state of mind. The problem lays in how folx defines equity. Equity in practice should be building sustainable autonomous communities while simultaneously eliminating the things that harm them. In other words, the City of Seattle’s feeble attempts to implement equity is missing the mark by a long shot. The reality is this: while they espouse language that seems to be in favor of equity and ending violent economic processes like disaster gentrification, their actions are in step to perpetuate the inequity. Jenny Durkan recently announced that she will be taking $30 Million out of the Equity Fund that was created to combat displacement and advance community equity. This is happening while the Seattle Police Department’s budget continues to be fully funded, despite COVID-19, a homelessness crisis, mass displacement, and exacerbated income polarization in the city. We are past the point of asking “what can we do?” without developing robust action plans to follow through. Our survival and our futures depend on it.
Tune into the next installation of this Disaster Gentrification series, where I will lay out some actionable solutions to combating displacement and ways to establish true equity in our communities. Be forewarned, the solutions require us all to analyze our privileges and make drastic changes to our relatively comfortable lifestyles.