Ideas: A Seattle Experiment in Equitable Development

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Photo by Benjamin Massello on Unsplash

In most U.S. cities, planning for growth often looks like luxury apartments and corporate incentives, with minimal consideration for how those developments will affect the people already living and working in the city. As a result, rising prices and loss of opportunities can push people out of their homes and, sometimes, out of the city all together.

When Seattle leaders were updating the city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan—the plan that envisions and directs Seattle’s growth—in 2015, they decided to do something unique. The city’s required environmental impact statement was accompanied by a racial equity analysis—which leaders say is the first one performed by any major U.S. city. The analysis looked at population estimates, projected job growth, housing growth, and other factors, and mapped how the expected and proposed changes would affect existing Seattle neighborhoods.

“That data and those maps showed that no matter which broad strategy the city was going to go with, there were going to be communities impacted by displacement and access to opportunity,” says Ubax Gardheere, the Equity Strategies Manager for Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development.

The communities that would suffer the greatest displacement and loss of access? Communities of color, especially those in south Seattle, where neighborhoods already have undergone significant gentrification.

Leaders from several of the neighborhoods most affected by the potential growth came together and encouraged the city to develop solutions that could mitigate the displacement identified in the racial equity analysis. As a result of those community conversations, Seattle launched its Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) in 2016.

The EDI, spearheaded by Gardheere, aims to address displacement and unequal distribution of opportunities by providing communities with the funding and technical support to purchase real estate and develop on-site projects that will bolster community investments. The initiative was seeded with $16 million from the sale of a long-vacant city-owned lot and operates on an annual $5 million budget. The EDI also received a one-time $15 million investment—also funded through the sale of city-owned property—that serves as a loan fund for projects that require immediate funding to secure real estate in Seattle’s competitive market. The loan can be paid back once a given project is operational. While housed under Seattle’s Office of Planning & Community Development, the EDI is explicitly community-driven, using a community advisory board to lean into the lived experience of communities and ask residents what they need.

When it comes to paying for brick-and-mortar projects, a $5 million budget can be limiting, so the EDI has clear parameters for projects that will receive funding. The EDI team looks for an array of projects that address different elements of displacement—developing affordable housing is important, but strong and equitable communities also need access to child care, health care, job opportunities, and resources to battle food insecurity. Crucially, the initiative also identifies six equity drivers: advance economic mobility and opportunity; prevent residential, commercial, and cultural displacement; build on local cultural assets; promote transportation mobility and connectivity; develop healthy and safe neighborhoods; and enable suitable access to all neighborhoods. All of the projects must address at least three of the six equity drivers.

Take, for example, Rainier Beach Action Coalition’s plan for a food innovation district. Rainier Beach is one of the four neighborhoods highlighted by the racial equity analysis as high-risk for displacement. More than 80% of the neighborhood residents are categorized as people of color, in comparison to 35.5% of Seattle’s overall population. The coalition became an EDI grantee in 2017 after proposing a land zoning change around the Rainier Beach light rail station, requiring the space to be used for community development—specifically a community center in conjunction with the light rail station. The new community center will house job centers, early childhood development spaces, a shared work area, commercial kitchen, and community gathering spots, while also having apartments or offices on the floors above. A nearby horticultural center will also be repurposed into an urban farm.

Coalition organizers say the food innovation district will develop healthy and safe neighborhoods by providing more access to community resources, will prevent residential, commercial, and cultural displacement by providing space for either housing or offices, and will promote transportation mobility and connectivity because of its location around the light rail. In receiving an EDI grant, Rainier Beach Action Coalition received money for capacity-building—the vision and planning process for the project.

Each project can receive $75,000 per year for capacity-building for up to two years, and $1 million for buying real estate, as well as receive a loan from the EDI’s $15 million site acquisitions fund. While the money gives small organizations like the coalition a chance to realize their projects, it’s not enough to fully fund any of them, which means the grantees will have to rely on capital campaigns to make ends meet. But, with 25 ongoing EDI projects, there are only so many investors to go around.

“The challenge in this EDI platform is that there are other like-organizations in other neighborhoods trying to do the same thing,” says Gregory Davis, managing strategist for the Rainier Beach Action Coalition. “So as much as we all want to develop our capital campaigns and have everybody in our neighborhood as a contributor and select investors, we all also need to be thinking about how we are going to do this together.”

The EDI team has tried to address this scarcity of funds by holding investor meetings where local investors can meet all of the EDI grantees and discuss their goals and how to most effectively support their collective efforts. The most recent group of project leaders and local funders met virtually in June 2020, but, Davis says, the pandemic has added communication challenges.

“We’re in an environment that’s pushing us to zero in on our own stuff and less lift our head up and look at others,” Davis says about working remotely during the pandemic. Davis and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition are hoping to return to “earnest conversations about responsibility and capacity” with fellow project leaders in 2021.

Another solution, Gardheere says, is prioritizing interdepartmental funding. Over the past three years, the EDI has granted $35 million in project funds, but the city collectively has invested $105 million into the EDI projects across departments. Funds have come from the city’s Office of Housing, Office of Economic Development, and Department of Education and Early Learning, in addition to others, Gardheere says.

Tara Lawal of Rainier Valley Midwives is hoping to leverage interdepartmental and intergovernmental funding to close the gap on breaking ground on a new birth center for the South Seattle community.

Lawal’s midwifery practice, which aims to provide a safe space for both BIPOC midwives and families, has already been displaced three times, and can only afford its current location for one more year.

“Everyone is being gentrified further and further south,” Lawal says. “If we don’t preserve the Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach area, then we will be shoved down to Federal Way.”

As an EDI recipient, Lawal and her team have spent the past year designing a birthing center and finding property in south Seattle. The midwives have their eye on a defunct mortuary that sits in the 98118 ZIP code, which Lawal says has some of the worst environmental conditions and birthing outcomes in the area. At the moment, there are no walk-in urgent care or ultrasound services available to pregnant people in the community. Additionally, the closest obstetrician is in central Seattle, which Lawal says contributes to the 5.3% of pregnant people in Rainier Valley who receive only third-trimester or no prenatal care, compared to 3.4% of pregnant people throughout Seattle who only receive care later in their pregnancy.

The Rainier Valley Midwives birthing center is designed to offer birthing suites, a walk-in clinic, garden space for clients, and a surgery suite that will be staffed through a collaboration with local doctors. The midwives plan to support 400 births per year.

“The impact that we are going to have on community health is so profound,” Lawal says.

Lawal hopes that her organization will be able to purchase the old mortuary and make it a functional clinic before the end of 2021 to avoid being priced out of Seattle completely.

While projects like the food district and birthing center are still in the planning stages, they have already been successful by the EDI’s measure. Gardheere explains that while investment projects typically measure success by the physical manifestation of the investment, such as a building being built, or a monetary return on investment in the form of profits flowing back to the investor, investing in community requires a different metric for success.

“One of our key goals is asking: how do we heal and repair historical harms and inequities?” Gardheere says. “Saying that our success is having that building in place, that does not repair harms or inequities. Success is this community coming together and visioning and looking at how well-connected this community is.”

That investment in relationships and vision for the future is what will truly start to undo the harm and disparities placed on communities of color in Seattle, says Lawal.

“If you’re saying you’re really going to undo racism, this is where you start doing that,” Lawal says. “You create places where people can gather again and practice cultural practices.”

This story previously appeared in Yes! Magazine

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