How Seattle is exporting its poor people

A look at new Census data shows the effects of gentrification and new urbanist planning for the region, with families and poor people fleeing to the south of Seattle.

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The University of Washington branch campus in Tacoma. (UW)

A look at new Census data shows the effects of gentrification and new urbanist planning for the region, with families and poor people fleeing to the south of Seattle.

It’s time for a current portrait of the social and economic condition of greater Seattle, thanks to the Census Bureau, which recently released data from the American Community Survey (ACS) for 2009. The figures confirm a remarkable series of trends that are pushing poor people and families out of Seattle.

First, some methodological notes. Since the census no longer has the long form for much of the information that people, business, and government want and need, we have to rely on the smaller ACS sample. And since the one year data are reliable only for larger units, I report here on the region’s 27 PUMAs , or Public Use MicroAreas, which average about 120,000 people each, and which pretty nicely correspond to recognizable parts of the metropolis.

It’s also a little irksome to work with these data so I report on only six characteristics, the percent of minorities, of families with children, of poor persons, of workers unemployed, of the foreign born, and of single family homes (including duplexes).

Minority populations. The pattern is classic in the sense of an “inner” concentration of minorities, with the share falling to low levels in exurban and rural areas. But it is very different from 40 or even 20 years ago in that the highest minority shares are no longer in the city of Seattle, but in south King county, in Burien-Sea-Tac, Renton, and Kent, and moderately high in Tacoma, Federal Way, and Bellevue.  This is one manifestation of Seattle’s gentrification.

Families with children. The traditional nuclear family survives in far suburban, exurban, and rural areas of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties, and even in Kent (high share of immigrant families), but is remarkably low, by historic and US standards, in Seattle, Tacoma, and inner suburban areas. Conversely these core urban areas are high in non-family households, in singles and unmarried partners, both opposite and same sex. This is a second manifestation of gentrification and the shift of families to the suburbs, as well as a distinctive marker of Seattle. But note that there has been a small increase in young children in Seattle in the last few years, among more affluent households, although the share is still very low, under 10 percent.

Persons in poverty.  The distribution of poor persons is not mainly a classic one of an urban core of poverty, surrounded by richer suburbs. Rather there is a more complex pattern of class segregation, with the highest poverty in south King County, especially in Burien-SeaTac and the city of Tacoma, and with relatively high shares now in southwest and northern Snohomish county. The fairly high shares in northeastern Seattle is an artifact of the large student population, temporarily poor.

As expected, lower levels of poverty occur in the eastern suburbs of Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, and Issaquah. Yet again the figures reveal major displacement over the last two decades of the poor out of Seattle, not only to south King County and to more affordable  Pierce County, but northward into Snohomish County (the SR 99 corridor).

Unemployment. The pattern of high levels of unemployment is yet a little different, surprisingly low in Seattle, considering the year (2009) and concentrated in much of south King County and especially in Pierce County, reflecting weaker economic sectors of construction, trade, transportation, and manufacturing. Unemployment is lowest in north Seattle and high tech Kirkland and Redmond. Anyone want to venture how such areas voted this year?

The foreign born.  Shares are low in far suburban to rural areas, especially in Kitsap and  Pierce counties, but are very high in a large contiguous region of south Seattle, south King and inner suburban East King County, reaching quite high levels in Bellevue (highest at 31 percent)  and southeast Seattle (24 percent). The entire region is fairly high, and immigration has accounted for a substantial share of growth.

Single family homes. The share of housing units that are single family remains high only in far suburban to rural regions of all four counties, but especially in east King, which also has the highest shares of families with children. Shares are below national levels in many suburban areas and in Tacoma, and are quite low in much of the older urban core, including north Seattle, Bellevue-Kirkland-Redmond, and Burien-SeaTac, and really low in the urban core (downtown, Queen Anne). This is an expected pattern, from 20 years of new urbanist planning under Growth Management, and yet another manifestation of gentrification and core densification.

The main story here is obviously the gentrification of Seattle and the expulsion of the poor and of minorities to south King County and even to Pierce and Snohomish counties. The city of Seattle is one of very few cities that has higher socio-economic status than many of its suburbs.  One is reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from way back in the 1960s, of a conversation between two city leaders. One says, what can we do about these poor people? The other says, Just zone them out!


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Morrill

Dick Morrill is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert in urban demography.