Last time, before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted work on this series, I explored an outside-the-box approach to winning abundant housing called “hyperlocalism.” This time, I back up to review the displacement dimension of housing and housing politics.
In 1970, the year I turned six, my family moved to a drafty, old house on the mostly white perimeter of Seattle’s Central District, then the heart of Cascadia’s African-American community. The Central District was 73 percent Black, and I was among the handful of white kids in my class who walked to school. Most of my white classmates rode buses from the city’s north end as part of Seattle’s successful but too-soon-abandoned school integration program.
Today, no one in my family could imagine still affording that home, an Art Deco behemoth with peekaboo views of Lake Washington. My parents lucked into it during the Boeing Bust, snapping it up for $38,500 and housing in its seven bedrooms three kids, two pets, plus sometimes a campaign office. They sold it a few years later when they moved us East. By the time we returned to Seattle, prices in the neighborhood had escalated out of our reach. Microsoft was happening. Later, Amazon happened. Seattle home prices multiplied and multiplied again. As of this writing, Zillow estimates my childhood home’s value at $3.3 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s 13 times its value 50 years ago.
I’m not complaining! My family has lived on the privileged side of North America’s racial divide. We have done well. We bought homes in other parts of the metro area, and they too appreciated, though not as much. Most of my African-American classmates—indeed, most of the Black population of the Central District—were not so fortunate. Rising prices pushed them away, mostly to the south, to be replaced by whites with bigger paychecks. Today, the Central District is only 13 percent African-American, and it drops another percentage point each year. Black home ownership in the city, never very common, has fallen by half, to just one-fifth of Black households. Already in 2016, Seattle Times reporter Tyrone Beason would write, “When I asked African Americans young and old about Seattle’s ‘black community,’ almost to a person the response was, ‘There is no ‘black community’ in Seattle—not anymore.’”
Abundant housing and community stability: making common cause?
The rising tide of real-estate values has swept over the Central District, pushing out African-Americans and carrying in whites, who now make up 60 percent of the neighborhood’s residents. Other tides of displacement—varied in their details but alike in their inexorability—have rolled over the city’s Chinatown/International District and other once-minority zones. They have done the same to the old majority-Black sections of Portland and other Cascadian cities. Beyond Cascadia, the displacement trend has been, if anything, even more pronounced.
In the Central District and other places once consigned to people of color by racist laws and general bigotry, this trend—integration by gentrification, if you will—is galling. People oppressed by a Jim Crow housing regime, and their descendants deprived of the intergenerational wealth that accrued to people like me, deserve better than to have their hard-built communities replaced by well-heeled newcomers with advanced degrees and six-figure salaries. Such neighborhoods deserve help to stabilize their residents and to have a say in how their futures unfold. Moreover, many of their residents are owed damages—reparations for the centuries of exclusion that have stunted their life chances, impoverished them, and left them disproportionately vulnerable to everything from pandemic diseases to a racist system of policing and criminal justice, no less in the progressive-minded Northwest than elsewhere. Operationalizing the moral imperative that Black lives matter in the domain of housing policy is complicated by tangled layers of historic patterns, legal precedents, and economic forces. But complexity is no excuse for inaction. In the end, all that’s needed is political will and money—a lot of both.
How might housing abundance help repair the generations of racial injustices that this spring fueled an international uprising of protest sparked by the death of George Floyd?
This article is part of a series about the politics of abundant housing. How might we gather the power to turn low-slung places like Seattle and Portland into walkable, low-carbon wonderlands like Paris and Vienna? How might housing abundance help repair the generations of racial injustices that this spring fueled an international uprising of protest sparked by the death of George Floyd? Proponents of abundant housing in low-carbon neighborhoods, including Sightline, need proposals that aim not only to solve housing shortages and make low-carbon living possible but also to right historical wrongs that continue to poison North America.
More practically, to build affordable, low-carbon, high-opportunity cities, abundant-housing advocates need allies, just as anti-displacement movements need partners. Heretofore, both camps have mostly been losing. Indeed, one reason for these losses has been the tendency of the two groups to fight each other. An example is the work of California anti-displacement advocates, some of them representing communities of color, to help block the United States’ most celebrated housing-abundance campaign: the effort to upzone near public transit lines across the Golden State. The same conflict was at work in 2017, when many abundant-housing advocates joined the opposition to anti-displacement advocates’ campaign for Proposition 10, which would have ended California’s statewide limits on local rent control laws.
For my purposes, therefore, the question is neither which movement gets the solutions right nor which is morally righteous. The question is: what anti-displacement strategies can abundant-housing proponents get behind? Is there an intersection in the Venn diagram of the two agendas? I think there is.
One place to start may be the parts of most cities where US authorities canonized race-based ghettos with redlining maps drawn during the New Deal of the 1930s. These areas are surprisingly small in the Northwest, so restorative programs within them may well be achievable. Policies for community stabilization against racial displacement can be natural complements to policies that welcome an abundance of housing in walkable neighborhoods. One key is to take market pressure off neighborhoods of color by allowing rapid housing growth in other parts of town. Another is to award extra allowances for home construction to affordable-housing builders rooted in the community. Below, I will lay out these and other joint priorities, but first, I review the case for preventing displacement.
A century of segregation and its slow decay
The arrival of richer whites in poorer, central city neighborhoods of color is a rare and troubling case of a much larger and otherwise benign trend: desegregation of housing in North America. In most places, trickles of people of color have been moving into previously all-white areas—a fulfillment, if overly slow, delayed, and uneven, of one of the civil rights movement’s signature goals. In 1980, more than one-third of white Americans lived in census tracts that were at least 97 percent white. They lived, that is, in segregated white bubbles, most of which were suburban. By 2017, that figure had fallen to just 5 percent. The remaining white bubbles, what’s more, were almost all rural. The United States is a long way from being thoroughly integrated by race and ethnicity, but the trend is a slow, meandering walk in that direction.
The demographically smaller story—indeed a story that is statistically rare, though it is vastly more consequential for housing politics—is exemplified by what happened to the CD in Seattle: white people moving into some neighborhoods of color. A New York Times analysis found that just 1.5 percent of Americans live in formerly minority neighborhoods into which whites have been moving since 2000. Unlike the people of color moving into white neighborhoods, who match the incomes of the neighborhoods they move to, though, the whites moving into minority neighborhoods typically have much higher incomes and more education.
In city after city, a map of racial change shows predominantly minority neighborhoods near downtown growing whiter, while suburban neighborhoods that were once largely white are experiencing an increased share of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American residents.
Indeed, in impressive online mapping projects by the New York Times (for 2000 to 2017) and the Washington Post (for 1990 to 2016), you can zoom in on any US location and see unfolding the consistent pattern of slow but unmistakable racial and ethnic diversification.
Cascadia is no exception. University of Washington (UW) historian James Gregory and UW students have assembled a detailed and comprehensive suite of maps that starkly portray the confinement to defined quarters that Seattle imposed on people of African, Chinese, Hispanic, Japanese, Filipino, Native American, and Jewish descent in the early and mid-20th century. The maps are case studies of how racism and other forms of exclusion have shaped cities. After all, the history of North American cities is pockmarked with unjust laws and practices: redlining, block busting, restrictive zoning and covenants, government-funded relocation of poor people called “urban renewal,” racist rental and sales practices such as steering, the disproportionate funneling of new construction into neighborhoods of color, and predatory subprime lending and foreclosure practices.
Explicitly race-based exclusionary laws are consigned to the past, but their legacy endures. The pattern drawn on maps last century by redlining—a system of directing mortgage funds away from neighborhoods of color that was banned half a century ago—is still readily apparent in property values today. Later maps in Professor Gregory’s set show the displacement and ultimate diffusion of people of color in Seattle, especially southward: the old Central District and Chinatown neighborhoods turn whiter, and the rest of the metro area diversifies. (I recommend clicking through them!)
Since 2010, Gene Balk, data journalist at the Seattle Times, has also detailed and mapped the growing racial and ethnic diversity of almost all of the Seattle area. Seattle’s suburbs are dramatically more diverse than they used to be. Indeed, they now far surpass the city in measures of diversity. Bellevue and Redmond, once overwhelmingly white, no longer have a majority racial group; nor do Federal Way, Renton, or Kent. Once-white redoubts such as Auburn and Everett are more diverse than Seattle, though Seattle has grown slowly more diverse as well, even in its whitest districts. The few remaining areas of almost-pure white population near Seattle are rural zones mostly home to the oldest cohorts. As Cascadia ages, the diversity of its young people almost guarantees that the integration trend will continue. Sociologist Timothy Thomas of the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, portrays the contours of this process in the animated map above, which shows the share of residents in different census tracts who were people of color from 1980 to 2010. The southward displacement of Seattle’s people of color—first out of the Central District and subsequently out of the Rainier Valley and the rest of South Seattle—has continued since 2010. The Seattle Times’ Balk has documented that South Seattle’s largest racial category is now white, outnumbering Asian-Americans. Many Asian- and African-American residents have moved to Renton or points farther south.
The story in Portland, as in Cascadia’s other cities, has been similar, although the populations of all races have been smaller. African-Americans, Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, indigenous peoples, and other residents of color endured decades of discrimination and exclusion—notwithstanding the modern reputations of Northwest cities as liberal—yet forged strong communities of their own.
And then, white people with more money began outbidding them for real estate in the same areas. Erin Goodling, Jamaal Green, and Nathan McClintock of Portland State University (PSU) show in the animated map below the resulting displacement of African-Americans from Albina and the surrounding North Portland area into which they were shunted in the middle years of the last century. Displacement has continued apace since 2010, pushing African-Americans out of Albina and neighboring areas toward the periphery of the city and, especially, into East Portland, according to the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project. PSU Professor Lisa Bates, perhaps Cascadia’s leading scholar of race and housing, says that more than a third of Portland’s roughly 38,000 African-Americans have relocated to the city’s periphery in recent years. As everywhere, Black areas have grown whiter, and vice versa.
The gnawing injustice of racial displacement from areas into which white society pushed people of color over the past century is perhaps best understood as a category contest. Urban land is two irreconcilable things at once. It is money, and it is meaning.
A Cartesian grid of money
Considered as a legal entity, land is a patchwork of parcels, each surveyed, mapped, platted, appraised for tax purposes, and—though subject to a web of laws and ordinances—salable at will for whatever price the current owner agrees to accept. Because urban land is scarce and without substitutes, it ends up holding a surprisingly large share of any nation’s wealth. That is, people bid up the price of urban sites to an astonishing degree; the more people there are, and the more money they have, the higher go the prices.
At the center of large, prosperous cities, therefore, land values are exorbitant. In 2019, the King County Assessor assigned to every square foot of the block under Cascadia’s tallest skyscraper, the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle, a value of $1,300. A square foot isn’t much space. It’s not even enough for one place setting on your dinner table. So the values of whole building lots add up. The land holding the Columbia Center is appraised at $77 million, and “land,” in this context, means nothing more than a rectangle of space on which to erect something. Indeed, at present, there is no land at all at the Columbia Center, just bedrock and subsoil at the bottom of a massive excavated cavity, holding a subterranean parking garage topped with 76 floors of concrete and steel.
You can imagine each of those $1,300 square feet like the cells on graph paper, and the graph paper recedes in all directions toward the horizons. The farther you go from downtown, the more the price drops, although the gradient isn’t uninterrupted or perfectly regular. The Assessor’s Office reports that the combined value of all taxable land in King County, the whole grid, is $261 billion—dwarfing even the combined net worth of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, the richest and second-richest human beings (and both, as it happens, residents of King County).
On conservative assumptions, Cascadia’s urban and suburban land is worth well over $1 trillion. It’s an unfathomably large sum, and what it means is that in the Cartesian grid of money, land almost inevitably goes to those with more money.
Social space, social meaning
In human terms, though, urban land is entirely different. It is home. It is where we have our existence as three-dimensional, incarnate, social beings. We imbue land with memories and meaning, the senses of belonging and of group identity. It is where we develop our gifts and passions, struggle for happiness and health, build communities and come to know ourselves, fall in love, praise the divine, raise our children, and bury our dead. Places—and the accumulations of shared stories about these places—are inseparable from our collective life. Space isn’t just money, it’s meaning.
Consequently, the loss of places on and in and around and through which we’ve experienced and shared meanings is profoundly disorienting. Communities of color grieve the loss of spaces they have made their own, not always through legal ownership but through years of use and the struggle to create social safety apart from the dominant population. University of Washington Emeritus Professor Quintard Taylor, who has written a history of Seattle’s Central District, told Seattle Magazine in 2014, “Black people took that ghetto, which other people said, ‘this is the place you are forced to live, you’re confined …’ and within the confines of that, they created a rich and dynamic culture.” The losses of that culture’s everyday institutions, such as African-American barber shops, churches, dance clubs, restaurants, and funeral homes, have now eroded most of what they built.
The grid of money and places of meaning inhabit the exact same space, and they fight for control. As Manuel Pastor, sociologist at the University of Southern California and a leading thinker on urbanism, race, and ethnicity, writes, “One thing is clear: gentrification is fundamentally about power.” It’s not a fair fight. In markets, people with less money almost always lose to those with more, and most of the time, those with less have to leave. That’s the implacable force of displacement. But the realm of meaning is not entirely defenseless. Through politics, meaning can sometimes trump money.
Housing segregation: a major way racism ossified into and amplified class division
The grid of money, the real-estate market, is a grand exercise in aggregating preferences, multiplied by the purchasing power of those holding the preferences and spitting out prices for every parcel. Prices, as they rise and fall, increase or decrease the wealth of the families and individuals whose names are on the deeds for those parcels. People’s wealth, in turn, is one of the most important determinants of how well their children fare in life, including their future education, income, and health, as New York University sociologist Dalton Conley demonstrates in his classic study of Black and white wealth. It even drives things like involvement in the criminal justice system. Wealth, more than income, is the fundamental determinant of economic well-being.
Because home ownership, together with appreciation of home values, has long been the main way to accumulate a modicum of wealth in North America, housing discrimination has been a key mechanism for extending racial subjugation into class structure.
Because home ownership, together with appreciation of home values, has long been the main way to accumulate a modicum of wealth in North America, housing discrimination has been a key mechanism for extending racial subjugation into class structure, as Conley also shows. Held out of the rising tide of home values that has lifted many white families into the middle class, people of color have ended up poorer in assets through no fault of their own. They are far less secure economically. African-American families in the United States have one-tenth as much wealth, on average, as white families, and low-income African-Americans hold dramatically fewer assets than low-income whites, even at the same level of income. For these reasons, housing is not a separate issue from racial inequality; it was and remains one of the main ways racism and classism have combined to harden the racial wealth gap.
What won’t work
Any theory of justice worth its salt would call for public action to make amends for these historical wrongs. Righting the wealth inequalities that racial subjugation and segregation produced would itself dramatically slow displacement by bolstering the bidding power of people of color. Yet redress through the redistribution of wealth is a massive and politically challenging goal, and stemming displacement in ways other than through national programs that close the racial wealth gap is exceptionally difficult. The grid of money tends to block, subvert, or twist many other strategies in counterproductive directions.
What can abundant-housing advocates do—consistent with our own achingly urgent objectives of making housing affordable and low-carbon cities a reality—to help right the wrongs of past segregation and minimize displacement?
The answer to that question needs to live in political context. As I have argued, pro-housing voices are commonly up against intense resistance from the dominant force in housing politics: the obstructionism of many homeowners. In the cities where I have been fighting for abundant housing for the last quarter century, the best hope to overcome such obstructionism is to build broad coalitions—coalitions that include most interests other than those of housing obstructionists. For reasons of justice, but also of political expediency, these coalitions must include anti-displacement leaders from communities of color.
Neither anti-displacement nor abundant-housing advocates are unitary in their policy positions. Views and emphases vary. Still, definitionally, anti-displacement activists prioritize community stabilization, while abundant-housing activists prioritize ending shortages of homes. In broad-brush terms, for those of us coming from the abundant-housing movement, how can we engage anti-displacement leaders in coalitions? What won’t work, in my experience, is to lecture anti-displacement actors about the benefits of rapid private homebuilding in neighborhoods with many people of color. That’s exactly the kind of change that many anti-displacement advocates associate with the gentrification and dispossession they struggle against.
Intellectually, we pro-housing advocates may be right when we argue that upzoning and private housing construction actually slow displacement on net. But politically, we are spitting into the wind. We are unlikely to convince many anti-displacement activists to share our analysis. Almost whatever we say, we are responding to intensely felt real-life experiences—watching your neighborhood change from working class and mostly Black to higher income and mostly white—with statistics and wonkery. It cannot help but come across as apologist or condescending. Instead, I hope here to point fellow abundant-housing campaigners to certain anti-displacement strategies that may better align abundance with community stabilization.
What also won’t work
Symmetrical to the abundant-housing movement’s ill-fated case to neighborhoods of color that dramatic upzones will slow displacement is the unpersuasive case that some in the anti-displacement movement make to shut down displacement through tight regulation. It is unlikely to convince many abundant-housing proponents, who have been following the flowering of research about the horrendous consequences of housing shortages. To those of us who see home shortages as the root of cities’ housing problems, downzoning, development moratoriums, onerous versions of rent control, and affordability mandates and fees that suppress homebuilding seem antithetical to our agenda. No amount of argumentation from anti-displacement activists seems likely to convince a meaningful number of us to support such policies.
Cities can, it’s true, slow the physical change of neighborhoods of color by retaining or imposing tight zoning constraints or slapping affordable housing fees and mandates on new buildings. Old buildings may remain standing longer as a result. But slowing construction will not slow—indeed, will speed—displacement. Slowing construction incentivizes renovations and drives up rents, and high rents drive out people with less money and power, prominently including people of color. The tighter the shortage, the hotter the bidding war. Seattle’s Central District, where this article began, mostly emptied of its Black population in the years between 1970 and 2010, before a wave of construction peppered its map with new apartment buildings. There is little that a city can do with its zoning codes to deliver relief for the accumulated injustices of housing market discrimination and exclusion that have spanned generations. Zoning is the wrong tool for that job.
Abundant-housing advocates are unlikely to win anti-displacement advocates’ support for upzoning, and anti-displacement advocates are unlikely to win abundant-housing advocates’ support for downzoning or other tight regulation. What’s left? What’s the intersection of the two sets? What anti-displacement strategies can abundant housing proponents get behind?
I see five: invest in anchors against displacement, build elsewhere, build more if it’s affordable, upzone for reparations, and protect tenants. Combined, they promise much more housing and much less displacement.
1. Invest in anchors against displacement
The most intuitive strategy is emerging at 23rd Avenue and Union Street in Seattle, about a mile from where I grew up and at one of the nodes of the old African-American Central District. It’s called Africatown, and it’s a housing project with an explicit anti-displacement mission. It takes the legal form of a community land trust (CLT), in which residents own their apartments while the land trust owns the land beneath them. Africatown’s building will hold 80 units, which the organization intends to sell at subsidized prices to low- and moderate-income current and former residents of the neighborhood. Those new owners will then have a secure foothold in the area, and their equity will grow, although not as quickly as if they also owned the land. Led by community members and supported by local governments and philanthropists, the project is a bottom-up model of stabilizing a community.
The intention to prioritize local residents distinguishes Africatown from other subsidized housing programs. (Most subsidized housing prioritizes those in greatest need or operates on a lottery or first-come, first-served model.) Another distinguishing marker is its larger ambition: the organization aims to establish a modicum of local control over the neighborhood’s development. Project leader Wyking Garrett said, “When [African-Americans] migrated from other parts of the country to make a better life here, they were forced to live in this area. As a result, it became the cultural and economic hub of people of African descent in the Pacific Northwest.” Africatown, if it can expand beyond its first building to a district of shops, businesses, civic institutions, and housing like the city’s Chinatown/International District, could be a cultural home for people from the African diaspora in the metro area.
Similar historic centers—perhaps half a dozen per metropolitan area—could anchor community life for cultural, racial, and ethnic neighborhoods. Supported with public and private funds but not segregated by law, districts like Africatown—stretched to several square blocks each—could diminish the loss of meaning entailed by displacement. They would not erase the grid of money, nor end displacement on their own, but they would provide an archipelago of gaps in its inexorable control—gaps where meaning would weigh as heavily as money. Advocates of this approach call it the “decommodification” of land and housing. Because land is so expensive, such districts are unlikely to ever cover more than a fraction of the once-redlined neighborhoods of major cities. As a point of comparison, it’s worth noting that the geographic scale of redlining in the middle of the last century was substantial but not enormous in Cascadia: 12 percent of Portland, 16 percent of Tacoma, and 22 percent of Spokane and Seattle (which then incorporated a smaller area). As a share of our vastly larger metropolitan areas today, these footprints shrink to low single-digit percentages.
To buy an appreciable fraction of these lands out of the grid of money and devote them to community stabilization, on the land-trust model, will require a massive increase in public and philanthropic investment. Private land values are staggering, and public and philanthropic funds are comparatively minuscule. That’s why CLTs currently provide just 3 of every 10,000 dwellings in Cascadia overall. Still, targeted investments in anchor locations such as 23rd and Union are a catalytic place to start. Expanding such targeted zones will require sweeping, new national laws. US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minneapolis), for example, includes in her Homes for All Act a $200 billion community control and anti-displacement fund. That’s enough money to buy about 1 percent of all developed land in the United States out of the market—to “decommodify” it—and turn it to community purposes such as land trusts. As a first approximation, that’s probably enough money to anchor most historically redlined US neighborhoods with Africatown-like projects. In mid-July, Seattle committed $18 million a year for this type of “community preference” housing—an impressive start.
2. Build elsewhere
A second anti-displacement strategy is to erect abundant new housing in what have historically been better-off, white neighborhoods. Upzoning cities’ other districts takes pressure off historic communities of color. By welcoming homes where they are most desired—where land values are highest—we will channel much of a city’s growth into its most opportunity-rich quarters.
The opposite is the normal pattern. In 2019, the City of Portland’s own planning department published a history of its past actions, documenting how community-based planning processes—however virtuous their intentions—have allowed richer, whiter neighborhoods to wall themselves off from new housing, shunting the full force of the bidding war for new housing onto the less-powerful parts of town. The 1993 Albina Community Plan, which covered the city’s historic Black quarter, upzoned key sections of the neighborhood. The 1996 Outer Southeast Community Plan did the same for the then-white, working-class east end of town.
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But when the planning process reached the city’s richer, white Southwest and Inner Southeast quarters, change came screeching to a halt. People in these areas had the political skills, connections, and resources to stonewall. The city scrapped its own upzoning proposals and essentially let Southwest neighborhoods write their own plans. In Inner Southeast, the city didn’t even try to upzone; it just fiddled with inconsequential adjustments around the edges of the neighborhood. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to Portland’s city council, has been vocal in her support of reversing this shameful history by bringing future homebuilding to parts of the city that excluded it in the past. Unfortunately, a project that might have been a vehicle for that rebalancing of the scales is currently in unfunded limbo while the city’s planners focus on other things, like the city’s tree code.
3. Build more, if it’s affordable
A more intuitive strategy than building more market-rate housing in neighborhoods of color is to build more subsidized affordable housing. Research shows that subsidized housing is even better for slowing displacement than market-rate housing; in fact, it’s twice as good, concludes this UC Berkeley Anti-Displacement Project analysis. But of course, market-rate housing pays for itself, so its growth is unlimited: investors will keep building as long as prices and rents pay them a return. Subsidized homebuilding, in contrast, is tightly limited by the scarcity of public and philanthropic funds. The best answer is both/and, not either/or.
One way to do both/and—a third anti-displacement strategy—is to grant extra building opportunities to community land trusts (CLTs) and other long-term affordable housing providers. Thanks to a coalition of anti-displacement and abundant housing forces, Portland is weeks away from adopting a proposal along these lines in its Residential Infill Project. This project would allow market-rate fourplexes on most lots citywide and permit boosting the allowed count to sixplexes, with a size bonus sufficient to allow family-size units, if at least half the homes in a given building meet the city’s standard affordability guidelines. (For purchased homes, the guideline is to be affordable to households making 80 percent of the area’s median income [AMI]; for rented homes, 60 percent.) Any builder can take advantage of the provision, but real-estate economics right now are prohibitive for for-profit developers. Nonprofits and CLTs that can raise public or private charitable funds will find the provision a cost-effective way to add affordable housing.
This package boosts market-rate housing dramatically and then boosts it some more as an added anti-displacement measure. Austin, Texas, adopted a similar reform in 2019: if you’re building rental or ownership housing in Austin that’s affordable for households at 80 percent of AMI, you can build six-plexes in single-detached zones. If you make half the homes affordable at 60 percent of AMI, you can build eightplexes.
The promises of this strategy are that it does not cost a city any money—it’s a zoning change, not a budget line—and that it has united a large enough political coalition to win passage. Because the policy involves no complicated math and is optional for the builder, unlike Seattle’s morass-like Mandatory Housing Affordability program, it does not involve the normal risks of “inclusionary zoning.” Furthermore, at least in Portland, sixplexes are inexpensive enough to build that CLTs and other nonprofits could probably erect large numbers of them. They could partner with for-profit developers to erect many small apartment homes for sale to longtime neighborhood residents. In short, this model might help propagate a distributed version of what Africatown is doing at 23rd and Union: building many modest homes in historic neighborhoods of color, offering them for sale at reduced prices, and giving priority to longtime neighborhood residents.
4. Upzone for reparations
The solutions described above provide community anchors, reduce the background displacement pressure of rising rents and home prices, and expand housing choices for people of moderate means in neighborhoods of color. But they cannot undo historical wrongs or make up for the intergenerational wealth accumulation denied to people of color. Solutions that are commensurate with the scale of those injustices are rarely possible using only local resources and policies. They require the kinds of resources and policies that only national governments possess. They require large-scale investments in economic opportunities for the victims of past wrongs and their descendants. They require a greater focus on the people and families pushed out and left behind than on the particular neighborhoods where these people live, or often, once lived.
Universalist approaches include a universal basic income, guaranteed jobs, baby bonds, expanded educational opportunities and other social services, and housing assistance vouchers as an entitlement.
These might include reparations for descendants of those who suffered from redlining, other forms of forced segregation, and, for that matter, slavery. Such approaches, although indisputably just, will probably require many more years of political agitation before they can come to pass. It might be easier to implement and win political support for economic benefits that apply to all, regardless of race or ancestry, but that would disproportionately assist victims of past discrimination. Such universalist approaches include a universal basic income, guaranteed jobs, baby bonds, expanded educational opportunities and other social services, and housing assistance vouchers as an entitlement. These ideas seem more likely to win adoption in North America now than ever before but are still probably a long way off.
Yet one model emerging in Vancouver, BC, is worth close consideration. It offers a surprisingly powerful marriage of housing abundance and reparations. The Squamish First Nation, after decades of legal struggle to reclaim its traditional village lands on what is now the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver’s fashionable, low-rise Kitsilano neighborhood, now has authority over 12 acres of neglected railroad property. Because courts restored these lands to the Squamish as reserve land, the City of Vancouver does not have jurisdiction over them: the Squamish do not need city approval to build. Vancouver’s notoriously oppressive thicket of zoning rules and permitting procedures does not apply. So the Squamish plan to build radically more homes than Vancouver would have allowed, had it jurisdiction. Specifically, the Sen̓áḵw project will have 6,000 homes in 11 apartment towers of up to 50 stories, helping to reduce the acute housing shortage that Vancouver has legislated itself into. Along the way, it will generate perhaps $10 billion for the Squamish people over the century ahead.
Freed from public process, the development project, announced in December 2019, is scheduled to break ground in 2021, a dizzying timeline by Cascadian standards. It will provide affordable dwellings for Squamish members and will manifest the indigenous nation’s deep commitment to sustainability and community, incorporating green-building techniques and an abundance of park space, reflecting Squamish aesthetics in its design and incorporating just one-tenth as many parking spaces as the city would have required. Squamish council member Khelsilem told The Guardian, “We want to bring our people back home to that part of our territory . . . People who support new housing are often marginalized out of decision-making, and this is a marginalized community saying, ‘This is how we’re creating value for our nation, and the public at large.’” Other indigenous-controlled lands in greater Vancouver may follow in the same path. The Squamish themselves control more than 300 acres on the north side of the Lion’s Gate Bridge.
The Squamish project in Kitsilano is not easily replicable: flukes of legal history made it possible. But it’s instructive nonetheless. It’s a rare realization of an argument that land-use scholar Lisa Schweitzer has made regarding Black and white neighborhoods in southern California. There, she argued that the fair things to do, from the perspective of historical justice, would be for cities to reduce white neighborhoods’ control of local zoning and upzone them, while allowing Black neighborhoods to control their own land-use rules, at least until average Black wealth has caught up with white wealth.
The Squamish project follows a similar logic: dispossessed and discriminated against for generations, the Squamish are now helping the dominant society to solve a wicked problem while also beginning to cure the wealth deprivation that the dominant society has imposed upon them. Might other cities not only donate public land to affordable housing providers (as some of them have done) but also cede authority to upzone and permit to communities of color?
Might Seattle give Africatown zoning authority over whatever blocks it can raise the funds to purchase in the Central District, in the way that the city of Roxbury, Massachusetts, gave powers usually reserved for local government, such as eminent domain, to the community land trust created by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which is reviving a once-declining neighborhood of color?
Similarly, if Oregon and Portland embrace the Black-led Albina Vision Plan to build caps over Interstate 5 and create new communities in the place of those the freeway destroyed, could they permanently hand the new land’s zoning authority to organizations of Black Oregonians who could control its destiny?
5. Protect tenants
In most landlord-tenant relationships, landlords have the upper hand: greater financial resources, more knowledge of building issues and local laws, and less at stake in each rental negotiation. A robust suite of legal protections for tenants is therefore a fifth tool for preventing displacement. Tenant protections bolster tenants’ ability to negotiate on an equal footing with landlords, turning a power struggle into a marketplace governed by rules of fair play. Important provisions include a tenants’ bill of rights, repair and maintenance guarantees, transparency and advanced notice of rent changes and special charges, ample lead times for eviction, anti-discrimination rules for leasing and eviction, relocation assistance in cases of demolition, opportunities for tenants to purchase their homes before condo conversion or sale, registration of rental properties, and building-code inspections keyed to health and safety compliance. They can also include right-of-return rules that give preferential access to subsidized housing to long-time or former neighborhood residents. And they can (finally) enforce the US Fair Housing Act’s provisions against discrimination vigorously, through techniques such as paired “secret shopper” tests, where people of different races, for example, pose as apartment seekers with the same employment and rental history, and then record their treatment by property managers.
More controversially, tenant protections may also regulate rent increases. In the short term, rent control is a powerful brake on displacement. It’s one of the few policies that operates both quickly and on the scale of the problem itself. Unfortunately, over the long term, it is usually counterproductive. Rent regulation can halt the rent increases that are the main driver of displacement, but at the same time it can decimate the supply of rentals, boost average rents, and increase gentrification. San Francisco first imposed rent control as a temporary measure in 1979, and partly as a result, San Francisco housing—unless you win the lottery by getting a rent-controlled apartment—is now a cautionary tale of outrageous rents and prices.
But all rent control is not equal. Germany and Austria effectively control rents through national laws on leases—then make rent regulation largely irrelevant by encouraging the construction of so much housing that rents are moderate anyway. Oregon last year passed a state-wide version of rent control, called an “anti-gouging” law, that caps rent increases at 7 percent plus inflation. That’s a cap that does not bind most landlords, most of the time. For vulnerable tenants, meanwhile, it could be a safety line against displacement. In the horse trading of politics, anti-gouging rules are policies that abundant-housing proponents can support in exchange for anti-displacement advocates’ support for upzones.
That said, the best kind of rent control is a high vacancy rate. A renter’s market, evidenced by a vacancy rate above 5 percent, keeps rents from rising and brings none of the syndrome associated with rent control—the collapse of rental homebuilding, neglected maintenance of existing buildings, condo conversions, “demovictions,” and a hundred flavors of unscrupulous property management intended to skirt the law, save money, or dislodge long-time tenants.
The same is true of other tenant protections: they all work better in a renter’s market. When tenants have lots of options and landlords have to compete for tenants, rents do not rise much, and landlords have stronger incentives to be responsive to their tenants. As my Sightline colleague Michael Andersen has written, “Abundance makes every other problem . . . easier to solve.”
Reconciling more homes and less displacement
In the 1970s, when I was walking through the Central District to school and Seattle was starting its long growth boom, zoning in the city was about as restrictive as it ever would be. New construction was rare, and housing costs began the half-century surge that gradually pushed out 80 percent of the Central District’s African-American residents.
In 1990, when the Central District was still more than half African-American, a three-year-old refugee from Ethiopia named Girmay Zahilay arrived with his family. He grew up there and farther south in public housing, which was nothing like the drafty old wood-framed monster where I played hide and seek in the unfinished attic.
Today, Zahilay is 32 and represents Seattle’s Central District and other historic neighborhoods of color on the King County Council. The county’s African-American population, outbid for housing by higher-income people, has moved south, into Skyway, Renton, and beyond.
“We failed the Central District,” Zahilay recently wrote. The same pattern, he argued, need not repeat elsewhere. Communities can build abundant housing, invest in affordability, and avoid displacement. “Growth is inevitable, but exile is not.”