This story originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.
Six years ago I bought a house in Rainier Beach.
As a single person living on a non-profit salary, homeownership in Seattle seemed an impossible dream. With rents steadily rising, I went through the motions of finding a realtor and getting prequalified for a home loan anyway, just in case I got lucky and could lock in a place to live at a fixed rate.
What followed was a six-month tour of the South End’s scruffiest houses. There was the house that had gutters on the inside (a DIY addition gone wrong) and the place with the hideous Pepto-Bismol carpet that smelled like a herd of llamas had died in the walls.
One house we saw was totally haunted (I mean if you don’t believe in the paranormal, I dare you to spend the night there). I was there for ten minutes six years ago and remembering the feeling there still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was discouraging to think this is what homes in my price range were like, neglected, run down, and in some cases toxic.
When we arrived at what would become my home it felt like a miracle. It wasn’t on our listing, but after seeing so much crap, I begged my realtor to show it to me.
“It’s probably out of your price range,” she warned.
I didn’t care. I just wanted to see something beautiful to remember what it felt like. I mean once upon a time weren’t houses affordable? If you had a decent job, even if you weren’t a Microsoft millionaire, but perhaps a teacher, a mechanic, a bus driver, was there ever a time you could just save up and buy a house without having to mortgage your soul? Is this what they mean when they talk about the dying middle class? You’re either rich or in my case, you’re not.
The house was empty and move-in ready. The fireplace, the big kitchen, and back porch, even the roses that bless my front yard were nothing short of what I’d placed on my vision board the year before. It was everything I’d been looking for. I put in an offer the next day.
Fast forward a couple of years. My property value had already increased by $80,000 and was steadily rising. I don’t remember exactly when the solicitation letters started. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I’m sure I just mistook it for junk mail and recycled it. But like the first ant at a picnic, there wasn’t just one. It was a harbinger of a coming onslaught. Now I get at least a couple letters a month.
They always begin with Dear Homeowner... Mostly they come from predatory realtors and developers who claim to just want to chat with me to make sure I understand the value of my property. Oh, and that they are willing to pay cash.
Occasionally I get handwritten notes like the one from a couple in Bellevue who “just happened to be driving around my neighborhood” and fell in love with my house.
After that one, I went outside and looked around my yard to see if someone had accidentally put a for- sale sign up. Nope. That letter bothered me the most. Rainier Beach isn’t exactly on the way to anywhere. If you’re in the neighborhood it’s on purpose. Just like that emotionally manipulative, “We’re just a nice couple” routine also felt very intentional. It pissed me off.
It’s not like I’m unfamiliar with gentrification. I’ve got a lot of friends who used to live in the Central District and some who once lived on Capitol Hill. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it must feel like to be pushed out, but I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like to be the one left behind in a neighborhood that has completely changed.
About a year and a half ago my neighbors across the street disappeared and a pile of mattresses bloomed on the corner. The house lay vacant for quite some time. I noticed a white woman trying to get in and I approached her. She informed me that she was a realtor and that the house had been foreclosed on. While we weren’t super close, I had shared a couple of meals and even celebrated a birthday with those neighbors. We always spoke when we saw each other. Still, there were no goodbyes.
I watched as the house that had been painted yellow and orange with turquoise trim was gutted and repainted gray with black and white accents. The East African family on the corner disappeared too. I don’t know if they got foreclosed on or not. They were replaced by a Mexican family who lasted less than six months. Now a white family lives there. A white family bought the house across the street too. I’m sure they are lovely people. They put a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard. We wave to each other if our paths cross in the morning, but I can’t bring myself to welcome them properly. Every time I see that sign I think if my life really mattered you would understand that in this white ass city, living in a POC neighborhood has been one small refuge.
When I started my house search I drew a map from Beacon Hill south through Mount Baker, Columbia City, Hillman City, Brighton Beach and Rainier Beach. I chose to move south after living in the North End for years because I wanted to put down roots in a community of color. I moved to a street predominantly inhabited by immigrants. My neighbors were Mexican, Filipino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, East African, and African American. My neighbors are landscapers, cab drivers, grocery store clerks, and teachers. Some worked at Boeing for years and are retired now.
On the rare weekends when I’m not working I like to curl up in a blanket with a cup of tea and peer out the window. In the summer especially it seems like there is always a birthday party filled with children or a barbecue bumping 80s music. This is the community I chose to invest in.
According to the Seattle Times, housing prices have doubled over the last five years. My salary certainly hasn’t. And if I were to be on the housing market again, I’d be competing with Brad and Becky who work for Amazon. I find myself facing the same questions many of us face. If I have to move where will I go when I could barely afford this place? Skyway? Renton? Burien?
Now as I walk through my neighborhood I see a lot of for-sale signs. I watch for the telltale mattresses in bloom on street corners and wonder how long before that nice couple from Bellevue moves in next door. Then I check my mail and wonder how long before someone makes me an offer I can’t refuse.