A coalition of developers and nonprofits aims to restore community and add affordable housing in a historic black neighborhood in Seattle.
SEATTLE—Inside Earl’s Cuts and Styles, Earl, dressed in a red Nike sweatsuit, banters with his customers. An autographed basketball hoop and a framed Gary Payton jersey hang on one wall. A group of black men, young and old, hang out waiting for a cut.
Earl, who declined to reveal his last name, opened the barbershop on the corner of East 23rd and Union in Seattle's Central District in 1992. Since then, he’s seen the historic black neighborhood transform. Families lunching on porches vanished. Kids playing baseball in the streets disappeared. Homes changed hands. Local businesses shuttered.
“We’ve seen a lot of change. A lot of businesses come and go,” says Earl. “A lot of businesses go.”
New businesses and apartments are changing the look and feel of Seatte's iconic 23rd and Union intersection
These days, most of the people roaming the neighborhood are wearing hardhats. Many new residents are single “Amazonians” and software engineers employed by other technology companies.
Uncle Ike’s, an upscale cannabis shop, recently moved to the other side of 23rd. The pricey Central Apartments went up across Union.
Once the beating heart of the community, 23rd and Union withered. It shrunk to the size of a room, Earl’s barber shop. “We all come here for different reasons,” Earl says. “For support, haircuts, information.”
“It’s like our baby community center,” says Jack, one of Earl’s barbers, as he trims hair. “We’re confined to this little cubby hole now.”
Pending design approval, Midtown Center will be reborn as an ambitious $160 million mixed use development.
That cubby hole is located inside Midtown Center, an aging shopping center at 23rd and Union that also houses a liquor store and several other small businesses. But if all goes as planned, in late 2019 Earl’s will also move, down the street, and Midtown will transform into an ambitious $160 million mixed-use development aimed at slowing the displacement of African American businesses and residents.
The project, which includes about 250 units of affordable housing, 33,000 square feet of ground floor retail and an open air community plaza, is part of a larger spate of redevelopment that will reshape every corner of the intersection. A New Seasons Market, to be located in one of the other new projects, known as East Union, is slated to open across the street in 2019.
The New Seasons store is one reason why the Midtown block, and the changes taking place in the Central District, invite comparison with Portland. As the Rose City struggles with African American displacement in inner city neighborhoods, the Midtown project showcases a possible path forward — even as it underscores the steep hill both cities must climb in the effort to combat gentrification.
A rendering of the Midtown project (Courtesy Lake Union Partners)
Seattle housing officials and some nonprofits herald Midtown Center and its community ownership structure as a model.
“Our goal is for the beauty the brilliance and the best of the African diaspora to be able to continue to grow,” says Wyking Garrett, founder of Africatown Community Land Trust, a nonprofit focused on equitable development in the Central District, and a partner on the Midtown project. “These are the first projects to embody the value of heritage rich development.”
But others say projects like Midtown are too little, too late.
“They’re so eager to pat themselves on the back and say: 'We’ve got 20% of a building for you,'” says Kameko Thomas, a spokesperson for the Seattle Business Education Hub, next door to Earl’s. “What about the rest of the neighborhood?”
Like many black veterans in the postwar era, Garrett’s father bought his Seattle home on the GI bill. He chose the only neighborhood where redlining didn’t block him from a loan— the Central District. In 1973, as a result of redlining, the area was 73% black.
Garrett grew up there, in the neighborhoods that some referred to as Africatown. He played football in the street. He walked with his father to the post office at 23rd and Union, a pivotal gathering spot for the community and a few blocks from Garfield High School, known for its civil rights legacy and famous musician graduates Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones. If Garrett ever did something he shouldn’t, he says, his mother would find out before he got home.
“It was a village,” he says. “There were strong relationships and a lot of community pride.”
Over the past couple of decades, the Central District has been gentrifying, slowly. Tech giants like Amazon have accelerated the process. Hordes of tech workers sought housing close to their jobs — and the Central District, a few miles from downtown, fit the bill.
Most of the new workers are white: only 5.7% of the black workforce is in the tech industry, compared to 8.5% of the white workforce, according to the State of Black America Report from the National Urban League, released this month. In most tech companies, the disparity is stark. Fewer than 5% percent of workers are black. More than half are white.
Seattle's Central District
As property values and taxes skyrocketed, many black homeowners sold their homes. The Central District’s black population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, plummeted to 19% in 2014. Much of the black community migrated South, to Kent, a two- or three-bus trip from the Central District.
Those that remain still face economic discrimination, says Felix Ngoussou, the founder and director of the Seattle Business Education Hub, a nonprofit that supports minority owned businesses in the Central District.
Black-owned businesses have trouble getting loans and keeping up with rising property taxes. Small local businesses don’t get the large tax incentives offered to national corporations like Amazon, Garrett adds.
“Redlining still exists in many ways,” Garrett says. “Access to capital is probably the biggest thing.”
Seattle is bigger and richer than the Rose City. Rents are more expensive. Seattle’s median rent is $1,024 compared to $876 in Portland.
But Portland’s African American business and home owners face similar challenges. Both cities have been transformed by the influx of new wealth and a mind boggling number of new real estate projects in recent years. Both are home to a similar proportion of black residents (7.2% in Seattle, and 5.9% in Portland), many of whom lived in bustling black neighborhoods only to be displaced by wealthier white residents.
Northeast Portland, Garrett says, “would be the Africatown of Portland.”
Like Seattle’s Central District, North Portland displacement is a decades-old problem. The 1970s mark a pivotal moment, when the Portland Development Commission bulldozed hundreds of homes to build the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Moda Center and I-5.
But the pace of displacement has sped up in the past ten years, as new development on North Williams, Alberta and Mississippi avenues has pushed residents into outer East Portland neighborhoods.
“Our goal is for the beauty the brilliance and the best of the African diaspora to be able to continue to grow,” Garrett says. “These are the first projects to embody the value of heritage rich development.”
Like Seattle, Portland has yet to hit upon a solution.
“Before Portland started experiencing displacement due to gentrification at a rapid rate, I heard about what was going on in Seattle,” says Maxine Fitzpatrick, executive director of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, an affordable housing-focused nonprofit in Northeast Portland. “It’s similar to what’s going on in Portland now.”
A new approach to development
On the 57th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower, housing director Steve Walker’s corner office overlooks a forest of high rises and construction cranes. As the city grows, planners and community leaders are taking aim at displacement. Their weapon of choice is a new type of mixed-use development.
Several years ago, the city overhauled the former Liberty Bank building, located just a few blocks from Midtown. The site offers 115 income-restricted affordable units, plus affordable space for small businesses. Typical one-bedrooms rent for between $504 and $1,008. A memorandum of understanding for the project sets forth principles for prioritizing community members including preferential hiring for minority contractors and paths to home ownership.
Not much later, “that approach walked up the street a little,” says Walker, to the Midtown block at 23rd and Union.
The intersection has a complicated history. For years it was afflicted by high crime and poverty. But it was also a lively civic and business district home to soul food restaurants, live music venues and civil rights activism.
A rendering of the latest Midtown design
A private developer, Lake Union Partners, is financing the new Midtown development, which is slated to begin construction in 2019 pending final city approval. The project is a partnership with Capitol Hill Housing, Forterra, a nonprofit land trust and Africatown.
Drawing inspiration from markets in Africa, the design centers around an open air privately managed public square, with street access on three sides of the block.
But the layout isn't the only innovative component. As they did in the case of Liberty Bank, Garrett says Africatown signed a memorandum of understanding with Lake Union Partners. The agreement ensures the developer will abide by the community’s desire to revitalize 23rd and Union as an African-American business and cultural hub.
To make that happen, Lake Union cut a few deals with local and minority business owners and residents. The developer sold Africatown and Capitol Hill Housing 20% of the block, about $1 million less than the market rate, says Patrick Foley, a principal at Lake Union.
A flythrough video of the proposed development, from Lake Union Partners
On the Lake Union portion, a 14,000 square-foot local drugstore will anchor the development. That store will pay higher rent, lowering the rates for other local retail tenants. African American businesses will get first pick.
“We’re intentionally stretching to people who might not be able to afford it,” Foley says.
Patrick Foley, Lake Union Partners
Most of the existing Midtown shops will vacate the site. "We’re not really interested in having a liquor store,” says Foley. The Post Office already plans to shut down. Earl's will move to Liberty Bank.
Of the 429 apartments, 125 will be affordable to tenants making between $40,000 and $65,000 a year, or 65% to 80% of median income for the area. These units meet the criteria for the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.
Street-level rendering of the MidTown project / Lake Union Partners
Africatown will take the savings from the Lake Union deal to rent 120-135 units to people making as little as $26,880. As per the development agreement, Africatown also gets to make available 5,000 square feet of retail to local, African American-owned businesses. The nonprofit is looking for ways to offer some of the future tenants a path to ownership.
Home ownership is the primary source of wealth for many Central District families, Walker says. “That’s the asset for the family,” he says. “That’s what gets passed down generation by generation.”
Minority contractors, whom Garrett says are underrepresented in Seattle’s construction boom, get priority on the Midtown site. Local firm W.G. Clark will take the lead. “We’ll make every effort,” Foley says, “to hire as many African American contractors as possible.”
African American contractors are underrepresented in Seattle's construction boom.
Despite the development agreements, Ngoussou and Thomas, among others, are skeptical of the Midtown project. The bar for affordability, they say, is still set too high. It’s a good sound bite to say the units will be reserved for African American tenants. But Thomas says it’s more complicated than that.
Gentrification in Seattle, she says, is not just about race, but class. The new apartments could go to black multigenerational families who grew up at this intersection. Or they could go to black single professionals who work in the tech industry.
“Only a certain kind of African American is going to benefit. That’s not the kind of people who get their hair cut over there,” she says, gesturing toward Earl’s next door. “It’s not the people who grew up here, who went to school here. Black people work at Amazon too.”
“Only a certain kind of African American is going to benefit," Thomas says. "That’s not the kind of people who get their hair cut over there."
Across the street from Midtown, the East Union development housing the New Seasons Market is also facing scrutiny. “The concerns have been that they [New Seasons Market] intentionally go into gentrifying communities,” Garrett says. “That can’t be viewed as beneficial by our community that’s being displaced. They’re saying their business model is to take advantage of that circumstance.”
As is the case in Portland, the chain has also been criticized for trying to quash union efforts. But in Seattle these complaints are coming mostly from outside groups. Foley says he has yet to hear a bad word from local residents. He says New Seasons’ benefits and wages are sometimes better than what union stores offer.
The future site of New Seasons
New Seasons Seattle community manager Karinda Harris said the Central District store will create 100 new jobs in the neighborhood. The chain has partnered with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle to help recruit candidates for the Central District and other Seattle District locations. Ten percent of store profits will be donated to local nonprofits.
The Africatown of Portland
If North Portland is our Central District, Midtown Center would be Albina Vision, a project that also aims to restore a once thriving black community. The visionaries behind the 90-acre revitalization project in plan to slap a lid over I-5. They’ll top it with affordable housing, bikeways and a public performance hall that evokes Albina’s once-thriving art scene.
Like the Africatown development, Albina Vision centers around a large, street-accessible community space, with affordable housing and local businesses nearby.
“In terms of concept these two projects are the same,” says Zari Santner, one of the visionaries and a former Portland Parks Bureau director. "But in terms of scale ours is much larger.” Partners on the project include other African American community organizations and leaders, including Rukaiyah Adams, chief investment officer of the Meyer Memorial Trust.
“It’s going to take all hands on deck,” Santner says. “It can’t be done just making a few units affordable here and there.
Large-scale projects have been successful in preserving the character of minority communities. In Seattle, Adams noted in an email, “the International District successfully mobilized an effort to ward off gentrification and displacement.”
Unlike the Midtown Center, which will soon break ground, Albina Vision is still in the early concept stages. Santner is preparing for a 20- to 40-year endeavor that will total at least $2 billion. She’s formed a nonprofit for the project, and she’s seeking donations from local and national foundations.
One proposed rendering of Albina Vision, from Hennebery Eddy Architects
She says more nonprofits and companies need to step in to reverse displacement. They can’t count on developers to create affordable housing. City policies also fall short. Inclusionary zoning, she says, is only a drop in the bucket.
“It’s going to take all hands on deck,” she says. “It can’t be done just making a few units affordable here and there."
Fighting a losing battle
Seattle, Walker says, has taken on displacement with a multipronged community-centered approach. A weatherization program fights rising property taxes by funding repairs for homeowners who can’t afford them. The office sources project ideas from community groups like Africatown. It targets advertising for new affordable developments within the community to retain residents.
“We’re getting a little bit better,” he says. “We are engaging early and often with the community to understand their vision.”
The city has also seen success with its Incentive Zoning for Affordable Housing program. It resembles the Seattle version of Portland’s inclusionary zoning mandate, with a few key differences. The city offers developers carrots, like exceptions to height restrictions, to get them to build affordable units.
Garrett likes what Walker preaches, but he has yet to see any miracles. “The city has been good to put values on paper about equity and social justice goals,” he says. “but there’s a space between those ideals and the day to day reality.”
Many of Ngossou’s clients and friends still can’t afford the new “affordable” units. The city’s minimum wage hike needed to go hand in hand with rent control. “If the landlord knows their salary increased,” he says. “They also increase rent.”
It’s a matter of scale. Developments like Midtown need to be replicated across the city. The city has the resources, Garrett says. It lacks the political will.
Seattle leaders were reluctant to compare the city with Portland but hinted North Portland might have a brighter future than the Central District. Portland has a growing tech scene, but nothing on the scale of Amazon. It’s younger, with more room to experiment. “People still have enough room in Portland to develop a system where poor and rich can live together,” Ngoussou says.
So far, the experiments have flopped. Mayor Ted Wheeler called a housing subsidy program that was supposed to help black residents stay in historic neighborhoods, “an abject failure.” Few residents used the program, which offered $100,000 down payment subsidy and money for home repairs. After the passage of inclusionary zoning, a policy designed to provide more affordable housing, development applications declined precipitously.
If Portland wants to halt that landslide, Lake Union Partners' Foley says, the solution is simple. The city needs to offer extra square footage to offset the additional cost of affordable units. Seattle gives something to developers in return for what it takes away, he says. Portland just takes. (Portland is now considering reviving a lapsed tax break for developers who build affordable housing.)
The city might also get a better return by investing in public-private co-ownership projects like Midtown.
“I think it’s a model for Portland,” Foley says. “It depends on developers and nonprofits willingness to work together. It can't be legislated.”
Problem-solving in both cities will only get harder as growth accelerates. In Seattle, the flow of migrants shows no signs of slowing. By 2019, the Census Bureau projects the Central District’s black population will drop to 14%.
“As it stands right now we’re losing the battle,” Garrett says. “We’re losing population, we’re losing community, we’re losing social support systems.”
“As it stands right now we’re losing the battle,” Garrett says. “We’re losing population, we’re losing community, we’re losing social support systems.”
A similar pattern of decline is underway in many metro areas around the U.S., from Portland to Detroit, Charlotte and Atlanta. Nearly 20% of neighborhoods with lower incomes and home values have experienced gentrification since 2000, compared to 9% during the 1990s, according to an analysis by Governing magazine.
Not everyone is happy with Midtown-style development as a solution. It’s still not affordable enough for many local residents. The project will make a serious dent in displacement only if it is replicated around the Central District.
Yet Midtown is a fresh approach. The partnership leans on creative financial wrangling, community ownership and curated community engagement. In a red hot real estate market, the final product satisfies developers, the city and (many) neighborhood groups. Similar solutions need to unfold on a broader scale, and they need to happen fast.
Around the 23rd and Union intersection, property values continue to inch upward. Developers circle longtime homeowners.
“They’re getting one or two leaflets in the mail saying: ‘We’d like to buy your house,’” Walker says. “Those leaflets are starting to stack up, and they’re getting more and more tempting.”
Jack, the barber, received a text the other day from an unnamed developer. They asked how much he would sell for. Two million, Jack said. The developer didn’t respond.
It’s only a matter of time before they try again.
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