3 ways homeowners of color can put their fist up against gentrification

Another house recently flipped in the Central District after the previous owner went into foreclosure. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Another house recently flipped in the Central District after the previous owner went into foreclosure. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Gentrification is a hot topic in Seattle in 2015. Everyone is talking about it, usually while pointing the finger at someone else. But what is it really — and who is to blame?

According to our own UW African-American history professor Dr. Quintard Taylor, gentrification is the process of wealthier individuals moving into urban villages, raising the value of homes and products and as a result, economically forcing lower income individuals out of that village.

This is not a novel concept. While we are hearing the word much more often lately it does not mean it just started happening. Dr. Taylor says it started in Seattle’s Central District (CD) around 1990.

Translating these conversations about gentrification in Seattle into real positive steps requires a combination of taking responsibility for our own actions, and confronting systematic disenfranchisement of economically marginalized people.

Taking Responsibility

The real danger of throwing around the word “gentrification” is that it can be racially divisive.

For people of color, specifically the Black community, the word “gentrification” makes it easy to point the finger and blame White people for moving into our once mostly black neighborhoods.

From attending various community meetings on the topic myself recently, I would venture to say this is an unproductive approach.

As soon as the g-word makes its way into the conversation, (wait for the gasp) it’s usually followed by cultural rhetoric made to empower Black Americans and isolate White Americans. For some reason you can never achieve both: empowering one somehow means disempowering another.

Meeting result: Black people mistrust White people, White people end up feeling guilty and all parties leave the meeting more confused, upset and disgruntled than they started.

Confronting Disenfranchisement

This mistrust between Black and White runs deeper than we think. And let’s not act like there’s no reason for it. The same disdain that gave Nat Turner the inspiration to massacre his slave masters’ family has been simmering on low for hundreds of years.

So what does this have to do with gentrification? Let’s approach this from a logical perspective. The city of Seattle is the third fastest growing city in the nation by population. That growth is driven by the 115,000 new jobs that are expected to be created here by 2035. According to city estimates, there’s capacity for far more new housing units than the 70,000 they calculate would be needed to support that new job growth.

So if there’s plenty of room for the market to generate ample new housing, why are people are getting pushed out of the neighborhoods they’ve had roots in for fifty plus years?

Because here’s what’s really happening: People are moving to Seattle from out of state and out of the country, and local businesses (big and small) would rather hire them than the local black residents.

Along Union St. in the Central District there are currently 5 major multistory development projects are underway. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Along Union St. in the Central District there are currently 5 major multistory development projects underway. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

As the median income in Seattle rose from $40K to over $70K over the last 15 years, the cost of housing has risen as well. But the median income for Black households has actually fallen.

How can you expect them to keep up with the housing market if you don’t allow them to participate in the economic boom?

People of color are getting pushed out because they are not getting hired for these $80k, $90k, $100k a year jobs, or hell, even for the $50k jobs. Employers would rather import talent from elsewhere, and guess who wants to live in these conveniently located neighborhoods like the Central District.

Gentrification is about jobs, but it’s also about real estate — which happens to be my area of expertise.

If you’re a homeowner in one of these hotbeds of gentrification like the Central District, here are three constructive tips to help you keep your home and/or maximize its value:

Know your Zoning:

Sometimes homeowners sell their property without knowing the city zoning ordinance that covers it. Before you sell your home, check the city zoning map to find what the zoning is. For example, if you own a single family home but your zoning is low rise 2 (LR2), then your property has potential to be maximized into multiple units.

Developers approaching home owners with cash offers already see this future potential, which is why they are knocking on your door…

Seek Foreclosure Relief:

Times get tough for all of us. Even during an economic boom, no one is immune to getting laid off or suffering a costly medical emergency and the domino effect it can have economically. If you find yourself battling between making mortgage payments or feeding your family, make sure you explore foreclosure assistance programs like the ones offered by The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. They have an experienced team that handles the negotiations and mediation between homeowners and their lenders, and they have a very high success rate of helping families stay in their homes.

Jared is betting you don't know how your property is zoned, or how to access foreclosure relief programs. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Jared is betting you don’t know how your property is zoned, or how to access foreclosure relief programs. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Use Your Equity:

This term is common in the real estate world, but for everyone else the concept is pretty esoteric. Equity is a big deal for home and property owners because it’s the friendly gap between what you owe on the loan on your home or property and what the fair market value of your home is. For example, if your home value is $500k; and you owe $350K on the mortgage, the equity value is $150k). If you own a house in Seattle, the value has almost certainly gone up in the last few years, so you probably have some equity.

As a homeowner, it’s pretty easy to borrow against this equity. The first step is to get your home appraised by a professional: they’ll tell you how much your home or property is worth (the market value). Based on your mortgage you’ll be able to determine how much equity is in your home.

Having an understanding of your equity will allow you to plan financially to make improvements. A simple strategy that some people employ is to use that equity as a down payment on another property.

When it comes to housing, members of marginalized communities have to take responsibility for their own well being. There’s more to gentrification than the oversimplified accusations we sometimes hear about “pushing people out of their neighborhoods.”

But you also can’t ignore the systemic perpetuation of poverty by business and political leaders.

Gentrification has layers, and so does fighting it. It will take a combination of people putting their soapboxes aside, sharing in the responsibility of how our city got to this point, and taking individual actions to slow or stop it.


  1. I enjoyed reading this article. I have a few observations. First, the assertion that companies would rather hire newcomers than local blacks is unfair.

    “Because here’s what’s really happening: People are moving to Seattle from out of state and out of the country, and the local businesses (big and small) would rather hire them than hire the local blacks.”

    Companies like Amazon and Boeing are going to hire based on skill set. The wider question is what can be done to help local residents obtain the skills companies need. Education is a great equalizer.

    I would also like to see hard data on the number of black families who have left because they were forced out versus those who left for other reasons.

    Another issue I think warrants discussion is the impact city and county property tax policies/increases are having on minority homeowners. I get that cities/counties must generate income to provide services, but I fear you are going to see mainly two groups in the Emerald City: the wealthy and poor people who are fortunate to get into subsidized housing. Middle class families of every race are under tremendous economic pressure in Seattle.

    I wish a funding source existed to track and analyze the real estate wealth of blacks in Western Washington; I suspect it’s not all doom and gloom (contrary to the headlines, there are middle and upper middle class black families in this region who are thriving). Good data on specific barriers that keep black residents from entering the market, not just in Seattle, would be helpful as well.

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