OP-ED - North Highline Sub Area plan won't benefit White Center; Displacement is almost a certainty based on methodology
By Ruby Tuesday Romero
Gentrification is defined by Oxford as "The process whereby the character of a poor, urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process".
Anti-displacement is a collection of ideas and strategies developed to mitigate the effects of the aforementioned ‘g-word’. Here, in North Highline, we may never see the outcomes of either.
All this is part of King County's North Highline Sub Area plan.
Constantly facing the obstacles of being unincorporated, one problem is with the lack of representation. Data clearly shows North Highline’s Annual Median Income (AMI) is just over 58k, but King County’s AMI is almost double that (102k).
According to the HUD definition, ‘affordable housing’ units are priced at 60% of market rate and available to those earning at 60% AMI or below. Seemingly, the current North Highline residents wouldn’t be eligible to rent, or if they were, they would likely be cost burdened.
The county is aware of this discrepancy and is applying methods like affordable home ownership and property tax exemption programs in an effort to minimize the displacement of home owners.
Also, data sets from 2018 display about half of renters in North Highline live in a cost burdened household. Furthermore, many households are considered to be low-income, notably higher than the rate in King County proper (36% vs 17%). The county claims to both celebrate and aim to preserve the full range of ethnicities and backgrounds in North Highline, but those would be the most affected by displacement. Regardless of a community preference policy, if individual was living cost burdened before the development, how would they be able to afford to rent in these mixed use retail buildings?
The subarea plan would do three things:
1. Impose zoning amendments and changes, such as:
Increases in density for residential parcels, which would apply a special district overlay that incentivizes developers to build inclusionary housing, and a -p suffix which adds additional restrictions to marijuana retail and production to some parcels.
2. The proposed White Center Unincorporated Community Center would completely change the footprint of our business district. The extensive plan would provide a new urban village with updated and new amenities for higher-earning households to enjoy, instead of the current residents.
3. Make the county easy money. More density and cheaper housing equals more tax payer dollars per acre.
I will say providing new, mixed use buildings would allow for visibility in our business district, and in turn likely minimize criminal activity.
However, I don’t think incentivizing high density buildings and providing units that current residents can’t afford is the best approach. In response to the wealth gap, King County states there will be developers, stakeholders, and grants interested in providing deeply affordable units, which is affordable to those at, or below 50% AMI.
Many community members hold a belief that our current zoning is more modest than what they are proposing here, and it seems that’s largely incorrect. County officials informed me we currently have parcels zoned ‘residential-high’ in various areas of North Highline.
Over the past five years, Washington State has seen our population nearly double, and who knows how many Seattle natives have left and been replaced with net population growth. I know many have landed in White Center because it's affordable, and also it seems this pocket could be the last of its kind. The buildings exempt from fire code will tell you. White Center is a relic of an era when community members still separated their recycling and a view of Mount Rainer was more important than capitalism.
What if, like before, these plans never come into fruition? If that does happen, will these zoning changes allow for dense development without requirements? Or, if funding is generated, then where will I go? What about others like me?
As current residents, most won't experience a walkable business hub in White Center because we won’t be able to rent here, many others will leave because of the growth. So when I do leave Seattle, possibly the last one to do so, I will leave the light ON - because King County is not the modest conservationist it once was.
The White Center CDA has organized community summits here every year for over two decades. Hundreds of families of color participate in this event every year. Over and over again, we have heard from the participants; "We need more housing here, so our kids and our elders can stay in White Center".
King County heard this and is trying to incentivize more housing development here in every form, shape and price range. This is a good thing.
We are an urban area, and the more families we can house here, the more our businesses will grow, the more local jobs we will create, and the more our community will flourish. The mentality that this writer is attempting to claim is short sighted. No system is perfect or fully equitable. But adding density throughout our neighborhoods is the right decision for the thousands of families who already love White Center and want their families to also reside here near them.