At a small park near his church, the Rev. Robert Jeffrey Sr. sees a chance for Seattle to take a step toward righting decades of housing discrimination and gentrification in the historically Black Central District.
Jeffrey’s New Hope Missionary Baptist Church once owned a nearby plot of land in what is now the Spruce Street Mini Park. In 1969, as Seattle planned to create the park, the church sold the land rather than face the possibility of the city seizing it through eminent domain. Then and now, church leaders said they were pressured into the sale.
Today, Jeffrey is pushing the city to return the property or pay its current value toward the church’s housing projects.
“Valuable land was taken from the church and from other citizens on this block and in this community. What we want today is to begin the process of quantifying the damage done,” Jeffrey said during a news conference at the church Wednesday.
The call to return the land follows a year of racial justice protests and renewed calls to address discrimination, racial wealth gaps and reparations.
A pioneering policy in Evanston, Illinois, for instance, will provide housing grants to Black residents whose ancestors were affected by redlining and other practices. In Seattle, the city said last year it would transfer three Central District properties to Black-led organizations, including the old Fire Station 6, where Africatown Community Land Trust plans a center to support Black-owned businesses.
The land New Hope sold is surely worth far more today than the $34,000 the city paid the church in the 1960s.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has not directly addressed whether she would support transferring the land.
Spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said in a statement the city has been “evaluating the previous city ordinances, federal and local restrictions on the property, and funding opportunities in order to work in partnership with New Hope on new affordable housing in the community.”
Restrictions from that time limited future sale and use of the land without state or federal approval, according to the mayor’s office. Seattle law also bars the transfer of park lands unless the city holds a public hearing and finds that the transfer is necessary.
City Councilmember Kshama Sawant took up the church’s call Wednesday, saying she plans to introduce a resolution that would apologize for harm and advocate for more affordable-housing funding for the church.
Boosting affordable-housing funds would be “a continuation of the solutions we need to address the consequences of the racist policies like redlining, urban renewal, Weed and Seed and of course the ongoing rising housing costs faced by renters in our city,” Sawant said. (Federal “Weed and Seed” operations purported to “weed out” people committing crimes while “seeding” neighborhoods with social services and were controversial in Seattle.)
History of displacement
Because of policies that prevented Black families from owning homes elsewhere in the city, Seattle’s Central District was long a hub for the city’s Black community.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Seattle and other cities undertook “urban renewal” projects, promising to revitalize neighborhoods but ultimately displacing residents. Near the church, an urban renewal project in the Yesler-Atlantic neighborhood displaced more than 400 families, the vast majority of them people of color, according to an analysis by researchers at the University of Richmond.
“People called it urban renewal. We called it Black removal,” longtime community activist Eddie Rye Jr. said at the church Wednesday. “It was a very successful project because we’ve been removed.”
In 1969, the city notified the church it wanted to buy the church’s parking lot, drawing objections from the church, according to city records from the time provided by the Seattle Municipal Archives.
The church had acquired the lot in the first place because the city required parking space, then-Rev. C.E. Williams wrote in a June 1969 letter provided by the archives. Selling the property “would deny us adequate parking, and stop education building for our church,” he wrote.
The threat of the city taking the land loomed, though the church and city disputed the details.
“I have four men who will testify that we were told that the city was powerless to condemn other property to acquire it for an exchange, but that ours could be condemned if we refused the offer the city was making,” Williams wrote to the city. “In the interest of progress we accepted the offer.”
A city memo from the time provided by the Seattle Municipal Archives said that “under the laws of eminent domain the city could acquire this property for park purposes, and the church was so informed” but “at no time during any meeting with Reverend Williams was a threat of condemnation made in the sense of ‘or else.’”
Jeffrey says four nearby homeowners were also pressured to sell their properties for the park.
The city paid the church $34,000 for its land.
Today, King County does not list an official assessed value for the park. Jeffrey estimates it could be worth several million dollars, but plans to have the land appraised.
“The New Hope Church has been denied the opportunity to benefit from the increasing land values in one of the fastest growing cities in the nation,” said Aisaya Corbray with the Low Income Housing Institute, which is working with the church to plan a nearby housing development.
Calls for affordable housing
Aside from the park land, the church is hoping for city funds to build an 86-unit affordable housing development on different land nearby. The city will announce its next round of affordable housing funds this fall.
City leaders last month approved legislation allowing larger affordable housing buildings on church-owned lands than would otherwise be allowed by zoning.
In the Central District, the effects of displacement remain. The neighborhood is only about 15% Black, compared to almost 75% in 1970. In Seattle as a whole, the share of Black residents is at its lowest point in 50 years, The Seattle Times reported last year.
Across the Seattle metro area, about two-thirds of white people own homes compared with less than one-third of Black people. Redfin estimates that in the area covering the Central District, Madrona and Leschi, the median home last month sold for $879,000.
Jeffrey calls for an influx of affordable rental housing and chances for ownership.
“What they have done is destabilize a community and take away wealth,” he said. “And when you take away wealth, you don’t replace wealth just by putting people in apartment buildings. You replace wealth by giving people opportunities to own homes again.”