In the summer of 2009, as a staffer to Mayor Greg Nickels, I joined a preview ride on the brand-new Sound Transit light-rail line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila.
There was a palpable energy among the elected officials and advisers that afternoon. After so many decades, this was finally it. The rails laid across the region would provide transit as well as prosperity to underserved parts of the city — empty lots turned to new housing, neglected buildings reborn as restaurants or small manufacturing. A few months earlier, as communications director for a successful ballot measure to expand Sound Transit, I talked a lot about the “transformative power” of light rail.
Many of those expectations came true. But over the years one neighborhood was seemingly left behind: Rainier Beach, site of the city’s most southern light-rail station.
The opening of the U District, Roosevelt and Northgate stations on Oct. 2 underscored the divergent paths. In the last five years, more than 1,626 units of housing were built around Roosevelt. In Rainier Beach, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, that number is only 313.
The Rainier Beach neighborhood historically attracted many Black families because redlining and racial covenants restricted other Seattle neighborhoods. Over the decades, systemic racism continued to play a role, leaving housing development dependent on public funding as private money sought higher returns in other parts of the city. Those public dollars are part of an inadequate, regressive tax system that disproportionately disadvantages poor communities, making the path to equitable development even steeper.
All that could be about to change. The city’s Office of Housing directed $56.7 million to Rainier Beach projects since 2018. Some housing developments are already leasing units, most are somewhere along the planning phases.
Today, the community is either on the precipice of a new era of inclusive growth, or more of the same — unmet needs and unrealized potential that reinforce an ugly narrative.
Located between Interstate 5 and Lake Washington, Rainier Beach is diverse; about 30% of residents are Black, 33% are Asian. About 27% of families earn $26,500 annually or less, compared to 14% citywide.
The neighborhood is bisected by Seattle City Light transmission towers from above and a petroleum pipeline underground. Among all Seattle communities, it offers something special — walkable access from a light-rail station to a public beach, park and boat ramp along Lake Washington.
Light rail in Rainier Valley was controversial from its inception. In the late 1990s, as a Times reporter, I covered community activists who said Sound Transit’s decision to build the line at street level instead of underground disregarded residents’ safety and underestimated traffic and construction disruptions.
But when light rail became operational in 2009, it was hard not to be optimistic.
“The first time I took the train, I thought it (Rainier Beach) would look very different in four to five years,” said Michael Seiwerath, executive director of SouthEast Effective Development, a developer of affordable housing in the South End. “In that sense, I was naive.”
“Institutional racism is very real,” he added. “Why is development up there (in Roosevelt)? This station has been open for a decade. Roosevelt has been open for a week.”
Despite the green yard signs around town that read “Don’t Displace the South End,” the neighborhood is not against growth, said Gregory Davis, managing strategist of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition.
“We’re welcoming. We are not anti-development as long as it’s built according to the needs of the community,” he said.
Building such housing that meets the community’s needs is a high priority for the city Office of Housing. The agency dispensed $115 million last year to create more than 1,300 affordable rental and for-sale homes in neighborhoods across Seattle.
“We need to get it right and do it fast,” said Emily Alvarado, the Office of Housing director. “But in some cases getting it right in a way that ensures the community really benefits means doing it in an intentional and sometimes slower way to provide access to capital to overcome history and institutional racism.”
At Roosevelt, the community rallied behind denser, affordable housing, and there was less concern about displacement, said Alvarado. Also, Roosevelt was the first project that took advantage of a 2015 state law that allowed Sound Transit to transfer its surplus land for affordable housing at a discount.
Before they can break ground, affordable-housing developers must line up financing that will enable construction without relying on rents to pay back debt. That often means public money of some kind.
To secure subsidies, affordable-housing developers partner with various funders as well as community groups to incorporate their ideas and demonstrate that local needs are being met. It can be a complex, slow process.
For residential real estate broker Jonathan Nicoli, the prerequisite of community buy-in is not a huge hurdle. Market realities make private development in Rainier Beach pretty well impossible at the moment, he said, and subsidized affordable housing was his best option.
“Getting community feedback is a little bit more politically sensitive in Rainier with the gentrification issue, but most developers are able to collaborate there,” said Nicoli. “There are a lot of developers who are not familiar with all the red tape with affordable housing, and how to navigate it efficiently. That’s been holding things up.”
Nicoli recently negotiated with a nonprofit to sell a property along South Henderson Street for about $1.25 million. About 400 feet from the Rainier Beach light-rail station, the land is currently a single family home, a rental property. He has permits to build a 30-unit apartment with ground floor commercial space.
The cost of construction is the same in Rainier Beach or, say, trendier Capitol Hill. But on Capitol Hill, property owners can charge a lot for rent. In Rainier Beach, they can’t. While Nicoli’s deal with the non-profit penciled out, the group would still need to raise about $6 million to break ground and build the units. There is no timeline for that.
To Davis, the Rainier Beach advocate, the housing situation is rife with historical inequity. Key parcels of land near the Rainier Beach station are boarded up and underused. Absentee property owners are waiting until neighborhood demographics change, incomes rise and rents increase. In other words, he surmised, developers are waiting for the area to become more white.
Meantime, economic development continues. Davis is moving forward with a Food Innovation Center to host commissary kitchens, commercial freezers and classrooms. Complementing the fresh produce grown on the nearby 10 acre Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, the center would take advantage of light rail to bring in workers and distribute ethnic and other foods.
Last year, the city of Seattle provided $2.1 million to buy property just across the light-rail station for the center, which is envisioned in the 2016 Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan.
In the next few years, starting in early 2022, the Office of Housing expects more than 1,300 affordable housing units to open or begin construction in Rainier Beach.
A development boom would serve as a demonstration of the intentionality and patience needed to overcome the history of systemic racism in Seattle housing.
But it’s been more than a decade since light rail came in. If these projects experience further delay or other problems, it will represent another missed opportunity to prove wrong those who see institutional racism as an insurmountable barrier to fair housing and economic development.