Anyone familiar with Seattle’s Rainier Valley knows it’s a place in transition.
Long one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the Northwest, it has for many decades struggled economically. In recent years, some areas of the valley such as Columbia City have gentrified rapidly even while nearby neighborhoods were rocked by the economic downturn, experiencing high rates of foreclosure and unemployment.
It was in that complicated geography that the Puget Sound’s first light rail line arrived, bringing with it both the promise of new investment and, for some, the threat of economic dislocation. To evaluate the changes Puget Sound Sage just published a new report: Transit Oriented Development That’s Healthy, Green, and Just.
I highly recommend it, in large part because the report invites a valuable equity perspective into a conversation that has not often focused on social justice. I also recommend it because it’s well-grounded in data and research.
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I even learned a few things, such as this fascinating demographic comparison:
The new light rail line is, of course, hardly the sole driver of change in the Rainier Valley, but it serves as a useful orientation because it is particularly tangible, recent, and significant.
Puget Sound Sage finds that like most large infrastructure investments, light rail has increased property values and raised rents. Now whether that’s a problem for you or not depends in large measure on what your own economic situation is like. For the 44 percent of the neighborhood’s residents who rent, it’s potentially a threat.
On the other hand, large-scale transit investments like light rail also bring with them a number of positive developments, such as increased private sector investment, renewed public sector interest, and economic activity. And all of that provides some opportunity to make the outcomes of transit oriented development more equitable, but only with proper policy guidance.
The central public policy question—and one that Puget Sound Sage frames up admirably—is whether the benefits of light rail and transit oriented development actually accrue to the specific people who live in the neighborhood. No doubt for many locals, gentrification may prove to be a very good thing. But for others, there’s strong evidence that higher housing costs lead to financial distress and displacement which, as the report shows, may undermine the benefits for the transit investment in the first place.
It’s not a simple problem and, as such, it’s not a simple thing to fix. The report outlines a number of principals and specific solutions—including applying a racial justice framework to transit oriented development planning—but I won’t spoil those for readers now. You should go read the full report. It’s worth it.
I actually find the story that graph implies as misleading because it’s lumps all non-Caucasians together. If you look at PSRC Oppunity mapping, what you see are non-Caucasian non-Asians located in low opportunity areas, while you see Asians actually out performing Caucasians when it comes to access to opportunity.
Why this isn’t jive with the graph is that the large increase in Non-Caucasian population is mostly because of an increase Asian/Indian population on the Eastside.
So yes non-Caucasians population growth in the Valley is lower than on a City or County level, but that is because non-caucaisina population growth is actually in areas with *better* opportunity than Rainier valley, not worse. This graph really should have pulled more subgroups.
Stimulating piece! But maybe the gentrification in the Rainier Valley will turn out to be as minor as the ridership?
Background: Only about a year old, a HUD-funded project at PSRC deals with affordable housing near light rail stations. The project is called “Growing Transit Communities” and it’s documented at http://psrc.org/growth/growing-transit-communities . The Federal funding for PSRC’s project comes out of an Obama Administration initiative on Livabilty and Smart Growth that former HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims helped to get going. So far it’s cranking out a lot of interesting maps, and I’m in favor of its educational aspect.
Ron Sims’ interest in the issue is underlined in his foreword to the new report described above. Gentrification is an important thing to worry about when you are in favor, like Sightline, of more people able to live in (quoting Mr. Sims) “central, dense neighborhoods” in contrast to “suburban sprawl and auto-centric living.”
While I agree that gentrification, quoting Eric, is “not a simple problem and, as such, it’s not a simple thing to fix,” I hasten to point out that we have in the new report, apparently, an illustration of massive government investment in “smart growth” that’s hurting poor people, even though nobody wants that to happen.
As such, what’s reported to be occurring in the Rainier Valley is a twist on the message of Wendell Cox’s local presentation on May 3 http://t.co/PXG8RGez in which he described cruel economic effects and inequity of government policies that try to get people to lead auto-free lives in dense urban centers.
Cox described a “War on the Suburbs” waged by governments trying to put bounds on suburban growth and encourage people to stay put in central cities or even move there. Cox claims sprawl control policy tends to distort housing prices upward in regions where it’s a dominant policy, the West Coast of USA and Canada being his prime examples.
Ironically, KING 5’s coverage of the Puget Sound Sage study http://t.co/0sJkP3mF provides a single data point example of light rail smart growth forcing one family to move to the suburb of Burien! I haven’t read the Puget Sound Sage study, but presumably it has more evidence on this phenomenon of forcing people out and away? War on the Rainier Valley?
But the cruel irony is that the Link Light Rail gentrification-causing train is a ridership failure, carrying about half the people it was forecast just before opening to carry on week days: http://ow.ly/55EHt
Sound Transit is by any measure a massive government investment in change, but it is emerging as a policy disaster on multiple levels … economics, equity, and environment, the three E’s of sustainability. The new report you describe seems to add to the evidence on the second E.
Here’s how Curitiba improved public transit AND social justice simultaneously.
“Curitiba acquired land near some of the planned structural (transit) corridors before developing them. As the transportation routes were put into place, the city subsidized low income housing close to these transportation routes and close to the Curitiba Industrial City. It also located other small scale, low income, housing developments throughout the city. These are near the transportation corridors and thus are ‘near’ in time and cost to employment and other activities. These small scale developments blend into the surrounding residential areas.
They integrate rather than isolate low income households into the economy and culture of the larger city. As a result of this strategy, the city has built housing for 17,000 families.”
The Sage study finds that land values have increased dramatically since LRT construction in Rainier Valley. This is no surprise; a multitude of empirical studies around the globe have clearly demonstrated the value creation effects of rail station location. Rail transit stimulates development. Gentrification is often a consequence of the amenity of light rail access, but it need not necessarily result in displacement.
The solution seems obvious: capture the surplus land value that is directly attributable to the transit improvements, and use the revenue to fund TOD public infrastructure (creating construction jobs), to subsidize new affordable housing, and retain indigenous businesses. This is known as “value capture” – a betterment levy on properties within a TOD special assessment district or “transit benefit district”.
It is true that existing TOD tools are inadequate. The tool kit ought to include value capture, not only to produce public revenues to reinvest in station communities, but to avert windfall gains and impede land speculation that drives up land values so rapidly in some locations.
The Sage report recommends a tax increment tool to generate financing for low income housing. OK, but don’t use a property tax – revenue diverting mechanism like TIF. It deprives school districts of needed revenues, and taxes building assessments. Taxing improvement values only dampens the incentive to invest in desired new TOD construction. Value capture in various forms has been implemented in Asia, Europe, and Latin America; why not here too?
Where do you get the idea that “The central public policy question—and one that Puget Sound Sage frames up admirably—is whether the benefits of light rail and transit oriented development actually accrue to the specific people who live in the neighborhood.”
I thought that the idea was to build a region-wide transportation system. Had the central public policy question been to encourage economic growth for existing residents surely it would have been targeted to poor people.
Eric de Place
I meant “the central public policy question” to refer to the intersection of light rail and racial justice, not to transportation planning generally.