Development woes — Is gentrification imminent for the Rainier Valley?

By Samantha Test
Northwest Asian Weekly

Light rail passing through Othello Station (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

Not long after the construction of the light rail began, Nararisaya “Al” Les, the owner of Halal Asian restaurant Olympic Express, experienced a 20 percent drop in customers to his restaurant, making it difficult to cover costs, such as rent, food costs, labor, and other business expenses.

Around this time, chatter among local businesses began, with many fearing that their small family-owned businesses would not survive the construction, or the changes that would take place in the community after the fact.

On May 14, Puget Sound Sage, a labor and environmental advocacy and research organization, released a report asserting that ongoing development around the light rail transit system in Rainier Valley has led to gentrification and displacement of low-income and ethnic residents.

While there are positive outcomes of the light rail, which include the creation of more livable and walkable communities near public transit centers, as well as the promotion of healthier communities and decreased dependence on cars, Ron Sims, former deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, writes in the report’s foreword that transit-oriented development has produced unintended consequences.

Gentrification: a real threat or an empty fear?

The report from Puget Sound Sage calls for policy actions that protect the poor and the promotion of stable, mixed-income communities with access to good jobs. However, not everyone agrees with the relevancy of Puget Sound Sage’s concerns, or with the implications of the organization’s report.

“The alarm and the fear — oh, these poor businesses and people are being pushed out — is absolutely not true,” said Wayne Lau, executive director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund.

Lau does not see gentrification as a threat. Furthermore, his organization has helped many local businesses survive during the construction of the light rail.

According to the report by Puget Sound Sage, existing conditions for gentrification is reflected in demographic data from Seattle over the past 10 years. The data show that in King County, the white population shrank by 2 percent. However, in Rainier Valley specifically, the white population increased by 17 percent. Meanwhile, the population of people of color grew 47 percent in King County, but only 5 percent in Rainier Valley.

The data come from the same 10 years when the bulk of light rail planning, construction, and development had taken place.

It is not known if the movements of the population are due entirely to the light rail or to displacement.

Rising land values: a pro or con?

Statistics in the report also show that land values around the light rail stations have increased dramatically, posing a threat to low-income residents who may not be able to afford the rising prices. Add in the additional factors that make Rainier Valley households more susceptible to displacement, including concentrated poverty, high numbers of renters, high rates of foreclosures, high unemployment, and over-representation in low wage jobs.

“The fact that Rainier Valley has been under-invested for the past 30 years and now invests, and now people are interested in us, that’s great, and it’s great for our communities, but only if the communities that are here can ride that wave and not be crushed out by it,” said Rebecca Saldaña, program director of Puget Sound Sage.

Howard Greenwich, research and policy director of Puget Sound Sage, thinks it is imperative for communities to get out in front of rising property values, so existing residents can stay and their communities can remain stable. The report recommends that community planners ensure affordable childcare, more family-sized units in housing developments near transit stations, higher wages for service-sector jobs at regional job centers along the light rail corridor, and better transit connections for low-income workers to reach their jobs.

Olympic Express now sits within walking distance of the now completed Othello Station. Les, who lives in the area, doesn’t perceive the rising land value as a threat.

“The value of the business or the value of the houses around the neighborhood, if it raises the value, that’s good,” said Les.

Rising land values can help homeowners, but as the report points out, most low-wage earners susceptible to displacement are renters. Often, their wages do not keep up with rising rents, and many are left without many choices of where they can live.

“You know, we hear griping all the time from folks on Capitol Hill about, ‘Oh there goes the neighborhood,’ all this density, right?” said Greenwich.

“And people out in Ballard, the people who have been in Ballard for years lament the loss of their little fishing village, right? But at the same time, these are people with choices. They don’t face institutional barriers. So for communities like Rainier Valley that are facing historic discrimination, marginalization in the work force, discrimination in finding housing, in those cases, the community really needs to be in the driver’s seat. It’s about racial justice.”

But Lau thinks that Rainier Valley residents have plenty of options to stay in the area.

“There is ample supply of affordable housing,” answers Lau. “Whether it’s part of a subsidized program or rent levels — which have not gone up — or it’s based on the housing market, prices have not gone up. Houses are available, as are apartments.”

“We work with affordable housing developers, and their challenge right now is finding tenants,” said Lau. He also notes that many of these affordable housing units are only at 60 to 70 percent capacity.

Do businesses benefit?

The debate continues over how businesses in the area are going to be affected. Though Lau’s views may differ from the contents of Puget Sound Sage’s report, both the report and Lau uphold the belief that local businesses have an important role in stabilizing communities and resisting gentrification.

“Helping local institutions and businesses resist displacement pressures is as critical to maintaining existing communities of color in place as keeping the residents they serve. Affordable commercial space should be prioritized in TOD and surrounding areas for community centers, cultural centers, service providers, and culturally relevant businesses,” notes Puget Sound Sage’s report.

Lau’s organization, the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, is doing just that. During the approximate five-year construction of the light rail, access to businesses was severely limited. This put a stress on business owners as sales and foot traffic dropped.

“Some had to relocate, and we helped a lot of them with the relocations,” said Lau. “Other ones, we helped with business interruptions. If sales dropped, we would help them cover the gap. We put out about 15 million in grants from 2003 to about 2008.”

Les’ Olympic Express was one such business that received help during the construction of the light rail.

“I knew that once they finished everything, the people would walk through the neighborhood. A lot of foot traffic would go where we are,” he said.

“A lot of people who have never been to the area, you know, that come by and see all these things happening, they want to walk, to see; they want to come out.”

Not all businesses survived the drop in sales during the construction of the light rail, though. However, Les does not see this as purely the fault of the new transit system. Les’ restaurant has been in business since his parents opened it in 1988.

Whether it’s the rising rent or transit changes, he believes it’s part of the price of doing business.

Othello Light Rail Station (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

The future of Rainier Valley

So far, businesses seem to be surviving, and even thriving with the increased development around the light rail. So the fate of low-income and ethnic residents will receive the most scrutiny. Greenwich points out that racial equity, quality jobs, and providing enough low-income housing will keep gentrification at bay.

Lau thinks it is already at bay.

“I get that they’re trying to promote more services for low-income folks,” he said. “I don’t know how they can mandate that or have a policy towards more jobs. This is still a neighborhood. You’re not going to have employers here. Rainier Valley is still a residential neighborhood.”

“It’s great to push for certain things. We as an economic development entity have a good idea of what it takes to maintain the character of the area, and that’s one of our goals.”

Either way, Saldaña hopes the report will mobilize community planners and developers to implement plans and services in consideration of these issues.

“The ideal situation is that people feel how important it is to take much more conservative action now and not wait until we have another report that actually says displacement happened,” said Saldaña.

“And I think on our community side,” she continued, “what we’re hoping is this will help create a framework, because there has been stuff — people know it, they feel it — but they haven’t necessarily had any data that’s confirming the feelings they’re having when they’re serving their clients at these different centers, or [when] membership at their church is now coming from a further distance. So we’re hoping that this will be a framework that helps build an alliance in the south end for us to [turn the] community’s interests and concerns into political action.” (end)

Samantha Test can be reached at

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