Coronavirus recovery can’t lead to a more gentrified Seattle

Disasters deepen inequality, but we can stop further displacement in the south end before it’s too late.

Steam roller on map of South Seattle

(Vlad Verano)

On a typical Tuesday, the bench at Paul’s Customs Cuts in Skyway is jammed with aspiring “Ebony Men of the Year.”

But in these atypical times it sits empty, as its proprietor sits at home.

“Every day is something new. You don’t know what to expect,” says Paul Hinton, who temporarily closed his South King County barbershop after Gov. Jay Inslee, in an attempt to contain the coronavirus outbreak, issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

Pausing from working on a puzzle with his wife and children, Hinton relays recent conversations with and shared anxieties of fellow barbers.

“It’s all about how we’re going to make it. Some people are doing house calls with regulars, but I’m really trying to follow the governor’s order,” says Hinton, who grew up in South Seattle near Franklin High School. Though his business started in his old community, he reopened in Skyway four years ago after Seattle rents grew exorbitant. His clients told him daily variations of that story. Many had migrated further south, as he had, in search of affordability.

He views the federal government’s recent stimulus package as nothing more than a tourniquet. And the state’s expanded unemployment benefits still won’t quite cover the $1,500 to $2,000 a week he pulled down.

Thankfully, he has stashed away some modest savings, and his shop’s landlord has been understanding, at least for now. “He still has to pay his rent, too, though,” Hinton says.

Hinton is more worried, however, about those who were in survival mode before the crisis. “What are people going to do with [the] $1,200 [stimulus check]? It’s a direct deposit to bill collectors. I’m all for the [proposed] rent freezes, but also freezes on utilities and increases on food to stop people from trying to price gouge,” Hinton says.

Many in Skyway’s business core are worried the government relief won’t be enough. The mile-and-a-half stretch that runs up Renton Avenue consists of five barbershops and hair salons, discount grocer Grocery Outlet, two casinos (one attached to the area’s venerable bowling alley), a bar, a consignment shop and six churches packed into a three block radius.

Other than the grocer and a handful of convenience stores and restaurants offering takeout, most everything else is shut down.

Part of unincorporated King County, the area has long been neglected by infrastructure and economic and public health investments. Tucked between Seattle and Renton, Skyway boasts nirvanic views of Lake Washington, a racially diverse population of 18,000, average real estate prices cheaper than Seattle’s and median incomes of $49,104.

Skyway’s new King County Council representative, Girmay Zahilay, took to The Seattle Times in February to argue that the community should become “a model for investing in the area without displacing the people who call it home.”

“People were struggling before this crisis, and if we don’t do something, they’ll be struggling after. We know the consequences of inaction,” says Zahilay. He sounds exhausted. The council member has been working sunup to sundown, he says, responding to constituents in need.

The coronavirus crisis has magnified stubbornly unbalanced accounts between those with plenty and those barely holding on. The eviction moratoriums, federal cash assistance — sound good for now, but what about later, when this crisis has abated? With a potential recession looming, a record number of unemployment insurance claims and the Federal Reserve estimating that 47 million more Americans could lose their jobs, how much further will the already struggling and marginalized plunge?

Far, if history is a guide.

Major catastrophes may not discriminate, but the suffering they cause lands disproportionately on communities of color. Racial and social inequities are inflamed, and those considered least during the good times remain neglected in bad ones. So what hope does Skyway and other communities around South Seattle have in avoiding what scholars call “disaster gentrification,” the crisis after the crisis that has caused displacement in New Orleans, New York, Miami and countless other places?

“It’s a good question,” says Ardent Victa, a bartender and lifelong Seattleite, whose work has been threatened by the statewide closures of restaurants and bars. “But the longer the shutdown lasts the more I might start looking elsewhere.”

And so might others, accelerating the expulsion of the working class from the urban core, which includes large swaths of communities of color, during a time when economic survival hinges either on receiving a guaranteed salary or extraordinary government action. 

Disaster recovery and the status quo

Metal mauled rock as the bulldozer’s blade scooped and piled rubble onto a new foundation overrunning old grounds on 17th Avenue and Lander Street, near the Beacon Hill light rail station. The construction will eventually become two- and three-bedroom townhomes priced between $679,000 and $885,000.

The rock-gutting resounded for blocks, an alarm of transformation many longtime residents know woefully well. Now hushed with the rest of the city, the neighborhood’s transformation will restart as soon as the world does.

It is one of several neighborhoods represented by Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales that may see residents displaced after the worst of the economic downturn is over. And it’s a reason she says that responses from policymakers must also consider justice. Otherwise, they risk dislodging vulnerable communities from their native cities at a breakneck pace.

“No one’s thinking yet of what recovery looks like, but now is the time,” says Morales.

Morales made fighting displacement a central plank of her campaign for city council last year. She fears many of her constituents will suffer the fate of accelerated gentrification and wealth destruction produced in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and the Great Recession.

It’s why she recently spearheaded a resolution calling on the governor and President Donald Trump to use executive powers to declare a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. Last week, she and fellow Councilmember Kshama Sawant also introduced emergency legislation that would levy a tax on the city’s 800 largest businesses. The tax would give 100,000 low-income households $500 per month for four months.

“We have landlords who have tenants who can’t make rent, and mortgages that those same landlords still must pay, as tens of thousands of Seattleites are entering a recession — possibly worse,” Morales says.

Her constituents' fears are grounded in experience and research. Columbia University’s Lance Freeman, a leading researcher on gentrification and displacement, produced an oft-cited model in 2005 determining areas susceptible to both: locations near an urban core; a median household income less than the 40th percentile for the metropolitan area; and housing stock older than the surrounding region.

Morales’ district includes neighborhoods checking many of those boxes, like New Holly, which has a median household income of $20,395, four times smaller than the city’s average.

A natural disaster is not a recession nor a pandemic, but all have one thing in common: Their recoveries are bound to leave already vulnerable communities further devastated.

“Crisis doesn’t just reveal inequality,” says Junia Howell, an urban sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “It makes it worse.”

Howell knows the impacts of disaster gentrification well. She modeled the effects earthquakes, wildfires and windstorms had on King County’s wealth disparities between 2000 and 2015. What she discovered is not surprising: The wealth gap between whites and Blacks/Latinx communities and between homeowners and renters grew following these events.

The model is instructive regardless of whether a community suffers from a hurricane or a virus. The emergency in question is answered by the same approach.

“Our default [in crisis] is we can’t worry about inequality right now,” says Howell. “That is ridiculous. We keep saying we’re helping everyone, and it’s really that we’re helping everyone we think matters.”

Occupying that category? Affluent white people, says Howell.

The reason is that typical municipal recovery frameworks, patterned on federal guidelines, prize the return of the status quo. Welcome news, if you were already prospering. Not so inviting if lower housing values, poorer schools and lower wages were your everyday.

“Most policies are trying to return us to the norm, particularly a white middle-class norm, that doesn’t ask who might be left out of these policies,” explains Howell.

And though Seattle hasn’t been battered by a major hurricane or storm, it can absorb lessons from economic reconfigurations after the Great Recession. That period saw the wealth gap between whites and Blacks in America widen by a multiplier of 13 (leaving Black households $98,000 poorer) and higher foreclosure rates in Black and Latinx communities. Seattle was no exception. Homes in those respective communities were foreclosed upon 1.3 and 1.8 times as much as those in white ones.

If the past is any indication, without any imminent fundamental change, many members of those communities not already displaced likely will be. 

In other words, we can’t afford to go back to normal, according to Margaret Babayan, a policy adviser at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

“People get comfortable accepting things as they are. Now that there’s a crisis, with this stress on our systems, we see we’ve failed that stress test,” says Babayan, who also has a background in public health.

After coronavirus: A light in the dark?

Because of Washington’s regressive tax system, grocery store clerks, Amazon fulfillment center workers, teachers and other working class professionals have paid a larger share of their wages into the tax base used to address the crisis than have billionaires. And the former group — many of whom have been deemed essential in our present emergency — stands to be worse off after it subsides.

Many of these workers fall disproportionately among the 40% of Americans who can’t afford a $400 emergency. They also constitute the whole of the state’s poorest residents unable to telecommute. Many have to jeopardize their health and that of their families by resuming movement during the stay-at-home order. By contrast, the richest among us, who effectively had a week’s head start on social distancing, have halted their movement and limited their exposure. The New York Times revealed this movement disparity in a recent analysis of smartphone data.

For Babayan, who along with her colleagues has called on Washington state to enact a fairer tax code, the data is unsurprising and distressing. Not only does it highlight that the working class is at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, but so too are many in communities of color. She cites an Economic Policy Institute study showing that fewer than one in five Black workers, and one in six Latinx workers, can work from home. And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to release the demographics of coronavirus patients, data from Illinois, North Carolina and Milwaukee County show the virus is battering Black communities the hardest.

A 2019 Washington State Budget & Policy Center report showed how our state’s history mirrors patterns found across the country, in which discriminatory housing policies such as redlining, hiring discrimination and racially exclusionary New Deal legislation helped establish the white middle class, while prohibiting wealth accumulation in many communities of color.

“Had we made investments in the social safety net, balanced our tax system with policies like the Working Families Tax Credit, and expanded our rainy day fund by raising progressive revenue, people would be better off,” Babayan says.

But Babayan believes there is reason for hope. Washington’s recent expansion of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits is a promising step. She also largely supports the recent $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress, which vastly expanded unemployment insurance to cover most who lost jobs, including gig workers and the self-employed. But, she said, it addressed an immediate need, not the system that has proved repeatedly fragile in times of crisis.

“We made our economic bed. Now we’re lying in it,” says Babayan.

Absent significant federal investment in the most vulnerable communities, we have little hope of unmaking it, especially as local coffers dry up because of decreased business revenues.

King County Councilmember Zahilay says what’s needed now is a social safety net robust enough to help people get back on their feet. He lists policies that to him and other progressives have received a resounding endorsement from our new reality: Medicare for all, universal basic income, universal child care, stable housing.

“There should be no scenario where there are housing-unstable people. No matter how we respond to this pandemic, society will fundamentally change for better or worse,” says Zahilay.

Barbershop owner Paul Hinton hopes it's for the better.

“As much as I love America, [the] truth about what we haven't been doing for people comes out when you’re in desperate need,” says Hinton.

He’s heard secondhand stories of people considering selling drugs to feed their families if shutdowns are prolonged. “If this goes on long enough, people will do whatever they need to survive. You have to give people hope,” he says.

His own hope is for those standing on the other side of advantage to see the thread of their fate as inextricably woven within the tapestry of pain endured by wider society.

Craving optimism myself, I took Hinton’s desires to a member of Seattle’s tech sector. For two decades, its cup had overflowed while others had run dry.  

Kris Kendall lives about two miles north of Skyway near Hinton’s original shop in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood. As a Microsoft employee, he knows he’s in a privileged spot. He knows if he gets laid off he can find contractor work in the tech sector. And he also knows things must change.

“Going back to the status quo would be a hard sell for a large part of this country. Why spend money recovering a system that’s inherently broken and favors one class over another?” says Kendall.

With a cacophony of ideas floating around, he sees now as an ideal time for discussions about reparations for America’s historically disadvantaged communities that go beyond simply parceling out ruminative checks.

“If you’re underwater with your bills, you’re at the same starting point again,” Kendall says. “[It’s true that] this event really brings out the best in people. But you can’t rely on that prayer-chain style of recovery.”

Those who suffer worse in a crisis are the same as those who always suffer, because of systemic indifference. The axiom was etched into Kendall’s psyche after the Hanukkah Eve storm of 2006.

Pummeling most of Western Washington, it knocked out power to more than a million homes. But five days after the storm, with power restored to much of Seattle, Kendall found himself driving south from Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters to his wife’s orchestra practice in Renton.

He noticed an odd thing as he neared Columbia City. Incredulously, the power was still out in South Seattle.

He kept driving for miles, deeper and deeper into the dark. It took him a long time to find anywhere with the lights on.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green, the founder of the South Seattle Emerald, is a contributing columnist.