For more than a decade, the Aguilars have worked the grill in their store steps from the Rainier Beach light-rail station, earning loyal customers one torta at a time.

But they can’t count on renewing their lease this summer, considering their landlord may want to demolish their hole in the wall and replace it with a much larger structure. In that case, “We’ll have to leave,” said Jovanny Aguilar, who runs Tienda Mi Pueblito with his parents.

There are signs that development is on its way to the southernmost stop in Seattle on the light-rail line, rumbling toward one of the last neighborhoods in the city where people with lower incomes can afford to live. Closer to downtown, Columbia City has grown expensive. Othello has sprouted new apartments.

Rainier Beach could be next. By voting as expected Monday to upzone 27 neighborhood hubs, the City Council would allow developers in those areas to build one or several stories taller on many blocks and allow denser housing construction on many others while requiring the developers to help create affordable housing.

The changes, proposed for neighborhoods from Lake City, Roosevelt and Ballard to Queen Anne, West Seattle Junction and Beacon Hill, have stirred debate across the city.

Jenaro Aguilar, right, with his son Jovanny, left, runs the Tienda Mi Pueblito grocery store and Mexican eatery near the Rainier Beach light-rail station, where upzones could spur redevelopment. They sought a multi-year lease renewal recently but had to make do with six months. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Jenaro Aguilar, right, with his son Jovanny, left, runs the Tienda Mi Pueblito grocery store and Mexican eatery near the Rainier Beach light-rail station, where upzones could spur redevelopment. They sought a multi-year lease renewal recently but had to make do with six months. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Rainier Beach is a special case, however. Located a long way from downtown Seattle, the neighborhood has witnessed very little construction in recent years, unlike the rest of the region.

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The upzones would trigger changes long awaited by property owners who have been holding onto valuable sites, allowing buildings to climb to 125 feet near the light-rail station and authorizing denser housing on some blocks now lined with single-family houses.

Eyeing the plan, residents who once questioned whether the area would ever boom are now wondering how quickly development may come, who stands to gain and who stands to lose.

“That’s always a mix,” said Gregory Davis, managing strategist for the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC), which advocates for a neighborhood that’s home to many immigrants and people of color. “It’s complex, and a lot of people don’t invest the time to understand.”

Gregory Davis, managing strategist of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, left, with team members David Sauvion, center, and Guyanthony Parramore, have worked to promote responsible development in the Seattle neighborhood. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Gregory Davis, managing strategist of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, left, with team members David Sauvion, center, and Guyanthony Parramore, have worked to promote responsible development in the Seattle neighborhood. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Nonprofits have laid the groundwork for hundreds of low-income apartments and for community-oriented projects, with RBAC planting seeds in the zoning changes for jobs related to the food industry.

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“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Sunny Tumber, a real-estate broker and builder who grew up in the South End. “Exciting things are happening and this could bring more attention to the neighborhood.”

Yet some community members worry Seattle’s plan could contribute to displacement in Rainier Beach by elevating property values while encouraging developers to replace and surround cheaper homes and apartments with more costly dwellings and more affluent residents.

Speculation based on the upzones has created headaches for nonprofits, driving prices for some properties out of reach, and advocates contend the affordable-housing requirements in the plan won’t yield enough low-income units to curb displacement.

New townhouses near the light-rail station already are selling for $550,000 and renting for $2,800 per month, demonstrating that development can arrive even without zoning changes. But in Rainier Beach, the upzones could mark a tipping point.

“People are going to get pushed out when they tear down and rebuild,” said Sean Goode, who runs a youth-mentoring program, mentioning the young adults he works with. “That’s what happened in Columbia City.”

The Greenbelt Station Townhomes were recently built close to Rainier Beach’s light-rail station. They are advertised for sale “starting in the high $500,000s.” (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
The Greenbelt Station Townhomes were recently built close to Rainier Beach’s light-rail station. They are advertised for sale “starting in the high $500,000s.” (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Hopes for food district

Rainier Beach was supposed to undergo zoning changes long ago to allow more development around the light-rail station that opened in 2009, and RBAC in 2012 helped complete a report meant to guide that growth.

But the report was shelved at City Hall as Seattle swapped mayors, embarked on the upzone plan and dealt with a legal challenge brought by some neighborhood associations.

From 2012 through 2018, as other parts of the region witnessed explosive growth, only 59 new housing units were built in Rainier Beach. “Development hasn’t been happening at the pace we planned for,” Davis said.

The median house costs $515,000 and the typical apartment rents for $1,670, 15 percent and 32 percent below Seattle averages, respectively.

Only now is Seattle at last taking action, incorporating RBAC’s vision for a “food innovation district” near the train station into the upzone plan. Rather than cookie-cutter boxes with luxury apartments above and chain stores below, Rainier Beach needs jobs, education and child care, Davis said.

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Because the neighborhood already is home to an urban farm and diverse restaurants, Rainier Beach could attract food-related research, production and distribution operations, RBAC has said.

Murals commissioned by the Rainier Beach Action Coalition brighten up the area around Rainier Beach’s light-rail station.
The murals painted by artist Henry Luke depict “freedom fighters and overcomers.” (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Murals commissioned by the Rainier Beach Action Coalition brighten up the area around Rainier Beach’s light-rail station. The murals painted by artist Henry Luke depict “freedom fighters and overcomers.” (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Under the proposed upzones, developers who design space in their structures for preferred uses, such as light manufacturing or job training, could build up to 125 feet on some sites and up to 85 feet on others.

They otherwise would be allowed to build up to only 55 feet on those sites, which are capped at 40 feet today and which are currently either abandoned or occupied by low-slung structures.

Impediments to development near the light-rail station remain, with properties split among various owners and hemmed in by ridges. Seattle officials are dubious about the food-district incentives appealing to for-profit developers.

But the Tienda Mi Pueblito property sold for $2 million in 2017 to a real-estate investment company, and an adjacent site sold last year for $3.85 million, signaling development may be on the way.

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RBAC hopes to jump-start the innovation district by partnering on a project with the land-conservation organization Forterra, which bought a property next to the station for $2.3 million last year. Forterra is committed to the concept, with details not yet decided, executive director Michelle Connor said.

What could rise sooner is a project on the other side of the neighborhood, near Rainier Beach High School and Rainier Beach Community Center. Mount Baker Housing intends to build more than 150 low-income apartments there as soon as next year, above a new space for the Rainier Valley Food Bank, real-estate director Conor Hansen said.

The idea is to anchor people and services in the area before market-rate development prices them out. “We’re trying to set that foundation,” said Hansen, whose site would score an extra story under the city’s upzones plan.

The upzone plan would boost height limits along Rainier Avenue South from four to five floors, and multiple cottages would be allowed on some residential streets currently occupied by single-family houses.

Two additional low-income projects are in the works: one to the north and one closer to the neighborhood’s historic business strip. They could together house nearly 500 families.

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Such buildings are desperately needed in Rainier Beach, said Liya Rubio, who works at the neighborhood’s Ethiopian community center. Many young adults today share decrepit older apartments “that aren’t really livable,” she said.

Even market-rate construction could benefit Rainier Beach by swelling the neighborhood’s housing supply and adding residents with money to spend at local shops, said Anthony Maschmedt, a developer with experience in South Seattle.

“People who own land are going to make a lot of money,” Maschmedt predicted. “What happened in Columbia City is going to happen in Rainier Beach.”

Fears of displacement

Some longtime Rainier Beach homeowners are interested in redeveloping their properties, Davis said. For many community members, however, the Columbia City comparison is downright scary.

“I grew up there, and people think it looks great,” said Natasha Moore, who works with Goode at the Choose 180 youth-mentoring program. “But it’s not affordable anymore. That’s why I live in Des Moines.”

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The neighborhood upzone plan would generate about 3,000 low-income apartments across Seattle over 10 years, according to the city, requiring developers to reserve 5 to 11 percent of the space in their buildings for such units or make payments to an affordable-housing fund.

The plan makes sense on paper, harnessing market-rate construction to produce low-rent units. Wealthier people already have begun buying houses in Rainier Beach and are bound to continue, whether or not the upzones are approved.

But the affordable-housing requirements are modest, with developers in Rainier Beach expected to contribute only 25 affordable units over 10 years. Some of those could be built in other Seattle neighborhoods. Having seen market pressures tear apart other communities, Rainier Beach residents have cause to fear development, said Goode.

The median Rainier Beach household makes $49,000 per year and about 80 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are people of color, according to Census estimates, compared to $80,000 and 35 percent citywide.

“When you build new homes, new people will move in. Not the people who live here now,” he said, suggesting that remodels of the high school and Rainier Avenue South have been scheduled over the next several years, “just in time” to accommodate outsiders.

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The detached houses near the Rainier Beach station lack the density an urban planner would recommend. But development there would result in displacement for Carlos Gonzalez, 16, whose family rents on 44th Avenue South. “We might end up paying more” somewhere else, he said, interpreting for his Spanish-speaking father. “My dad is looking for another job.”

These blocks of houses in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, along 44th Avenue South between South Henderson and South Thistle streets, would be upzoned under a plan set for approval by the City Council. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
These blocks of houses in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, along 44th Avenue South between South Henderson and South Thistle streets, would be upzoned under a plan set for approval by the City Council. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

To address the concern, RBAC and other members of the group South Communities Organizing for Racial and Regional Equity are supporting legislation proposed by Councilmember Lisa Herbold. It would require developers who raze relatively inexpensive rentals to include an equal number of new, low-income units or make extra payments to the city’s affordable-housing fund.

The upzone plan “does little to address displacement,” the coalition wrote last month, also calling on the council to increase the plan’s affordable-housing requirements in at-risk areas, direct developer payments in areas like Rainier Beach back to community-led projects and pursue other strategies.

For example, the city should provide vouchers to people whose housing costs jump more than 10 percent in a year, the coalition has said. Critics of the upzones have warned the changes could lead to higher property taxes.

Seattle could have avoided some heartburn by spreading development wider, said Tumber, the Rainier Beach builder. Only 6 percent of lots across the city now zoned for single-family houses would see changes, with most of the upzones concentrated in the densest parts of the 27 neighborhoods.

When the plan is mapped, inequities leap out. Because the upzones are proposed for areas designated as “urban villages” decades ago, every house in working-class South Park and many in Rainier Beach would see changes, for example, while almost none in upscale Magnolia and Laurelhurst would. “More land should be considered. We need more options,” Tumber said.

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The council voted 8-0 in committee to advance the upzones, which have been discussed at City Hall since 2015, so sweeping adjustments are at this point unlikely.

But council members shouldn’t assume everyone in Rainier Beach knows about the next step. Though the upzones could carry implications for the Oromo Cultural Center, which owns property near the light-rail station, a leader there expressed surprise about the plan recently.

Standing outside after Friday prayers at the center’s mosque, Jamal Mohamed raised his eyebrows when shown a map of the upzones. “The community has to think about that,” he said.

Seattle Times’ Gene Balk contributed to this report.