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‘Community preference’ — A new anti-displacement policy could have big impacts for the Central District and Capitol Hill

The Liberty Bank Building in the Central District

Antonesha Jackson still remembers riding bikes near the three-bedroom Central District apartment she shared with her sisters and mother growing up. From there, it was just a brief trip to her grandparents’ house and an even shorter walk to Garfield High School.

But when she tried to return to the neighborhood after 12 years studying and working in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, finding a place to rent in her now-gentrified neighborhood proved nearly impossible. She looked for an affordable apartment for months.

Until acquaintances told her about a then-new affordable housing development right here in her neighborhood: Liberty Bank Building, an equitable development project led by Capitol Hill Housing and Africatown. She moved in this March, finally returning to the area she’d grown up in and now operated a fashion boutique out of.

“A lot of the people that live in my building, I have seen around growing up. [They] are from this community,” Jackson said. “It’s beautiful to me.” 

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Thanks to a new policy called “community preference,” approved by the City Council last month, others could follow a similar trajectory.

The policy, which follows in the footsteps of comparable programs in San Francisco, Portland and New York, encourages nonprofit developers receiving city money to offer a portion of their affordable units to communities with ties to the neighborhood, particularly those with a high risk of displacement. The goal is for lower-income residents to return or stay in their neighborhood.

For gentrified neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and the Central District, the policy could be particularly impactful.

“It’s an anti-displacement tool,” explained Emily Alvarado, Manager of Policy and Equitable Development at the City’s Office of Housing. The office of housing is exploring whether the policy could also extend to  residents who work or attend school in a neighborhood or access services such as childcare in the building, Alvarado said.

With the opt-in policy, the City bolsters its “affirmative marketing” policies meant to ensure that everyone who would be eligible but perhaps less or unlikely to apply for affordable housing can do so — especially those from historically marginalized groups with less access to housing options.

Affirmative marketing has proven successful in affordable development projects such as the Liberty Bank Building. Though community preference was not in place as a City policy yet at the time, it was the intended purpose of their affirmative marketing plan, said Capitol Hill Housing CEO Chris Persons. The nonprofit developer also said their efforts on affirmative marketing and community preference have been “central to the development of City policy.”

Other affordable housing developers had been implementing and advocating for a form of community preference policy as well. But now that it is officially in place, the City’s Office of Housing can help shape and oversee the process, which would include setting aside a percentage of affordable units for community preference.

The City is currently working on the policy’s guidelines, but is already talking to some developers about implementing it in affordable housing projects. That could happen as early as the beginning of next year, Alvarado said.

Mental health agency Community House, which is building 128 units of low-income and affordable housing in the Central Area, and others have expressed interest, according to Alvarado.

Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute, is working with local churches and nonprofit organizations to build potentially up to a 1000 units of affordable housing in the Central Area. She said that some of the units could be marketed to residents who are at risk of displacement or used to live in the neighborhood.

Capitol Hill Housing (CHH) will likely apply community preference in future projects such as the Africatown Plaza affordable housing and commercial retail development on 23rd and Union, which CHH is working on with the Africatown Community Land Trust. The building will have 138 affordable units, specifically for “those displaced due to rising rents.”

Early rendering for Capitol Hill Housing’s Eldridge project

Another project primed for community preference is CHH’s LGBTQ+-focused affordable senior housing project coming to Broadway. The project hopes to be an anchor for a community at risk of displacement and focus on health and social services to residents.

“The city’s lower-income residents are being displaced. This displacement has disproportionately impacted communities of color and members of the LGBTQ community,” Persons, of Capitol Hill Housing, said. “Community Preference and Affirmative Marketing are two tools that can stem this racist and exclusionary trend.”

Affirmative marketing is not new, but Seattle has been working to expand and deepen the federally (and city-) mandated policy on a city level. The City now requires affirmative marketing practices, which emphasizes outreach through community-based organizations, for multi-family tax-exemption and incentive zoning programs as well as the Mandatory Housing Affordability Program. Last month, the City expanded its list of Affirmative Marketing requirements.

Affirmative marketing is necessary, said Kathleen Hosfeld of the Homestead Community Land Trust, in part because “the methods used in traditional marketing (…) aren’t always culturally appropriate or effective in reaching those ‘least likely to apply.’”

“It’s about relationships,” Hosfeld said.

Homestead and Edge Developers are planning to build 10 affordable housing townhomes for ownership in the Central District, and will be working with Africatown as lead outreach partner.

“Africatown has done a great job of building relationships with and an outreach system to those with historic ties to [the central] area,” said Hosfeld.

Wyking Garrett from the Africatown Community Land Trust echoed the sentiment. He said Liberty Bank’s affirmative marketing outreach was so successful thanks to “being actually connected with the community.”

Africatown worked with partners Byrd Barr Place and Black Community Impact Alliance to get the word out and handed out flyers at youth football practices, churches and community meetings. Africatown and CHH also dedicated a standalone website to the project, a first for the nonprofit developer.

Thanks to these efforts, 86% of the Liberty Bank residents— who applied on a first-come, first-served basis — are African-American.

Though community preference is explicitly meant to combat segregation and housing discrimination, it’s a tricky legal balance to keep. Nonprofits and the City are walking a tightrope between opening up chances for disadvantaged communities and breaching federal, state and local Fair Housing laws meant to counteract discrimination based on race, disability, and sexual orientation, among others.

“We’re reviewing [projects] on a case by case basis,” with the Office for Civil Rights and City’s Attorney’s office, Alvarado said, “to ensure their consistency with fair housing law.”

But, Alvarado stressed, these policies are meant to undo past explicitly discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining, and address Seattle’s history of racial and other discrimination.

Like Affirmative Action, the concept might be hard to grasp for people who are not of those communities, said Laura Loe, founder of housing advocacy organization Share The Cities.

“The community preference is another way to say: Our government system is set up to basically fail certain groups of people,” Loe said, referring to intergenerational wealth gaps, health outcome and pay equity disparities, “and come up with policies reversing those failures.”


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33 thoughts on “‘Community preference’ — A new anti-displacement policy could have big impacts for the Central District and Capitol Hill

  1. What about people like my partner and I? We bought our tiny, itty-bitty house in the CD 1997 for $149,000. We scraped everything we had together and it was within our means. Now, with gentrification, the county says our house is worth four times as much. Our property taxes are through the roof and our mortgage payment has almost doubled over the years. I am sure this is even worse for our elderly neighbor who bought her house 50 years ago. It isn’t just the renters that get pushed out with gentrification.

    • you bought your house for 150K. I think you’ll be fine so stop whining while the rest of us can’t even get into Renton for even 250K….and not sure how/why your mortgage payment went up unless you took a ARM out which would again be your own bad choice….

      • And when many of us bought houses in this area in the 90’s no one was getting out of college and starting out making $80,000 working as a programmer…. oh and this was not the best of neighborhoods (all of those nice amenities like a grocery store, Chucks, a pot shop, a bike shop, lots of restaurants etc – non existent… we had drug dealers and prostitutes though), so the lower prices were to be expected.

        BTW – you actually can find quite a few homes in the $200,000 – $300,000 range still, even in the heart of Seattle, they’ll likely be condos though.

      • No ARM. We have a fixed rate mortgage, but it has steady risen as property taxes rise (if you dont have a mortgage, you may not know, but you just pay one bill and the bank distributes money to the county for taxes and to the insurance company). Between the levies and the value of our house rising, we went from paying about $1000 per year in taxes to over $8000. That is a lot. Just because you own your house doesn’t mean that gentrification is all good.

      • Uhh, mortgage payments go up as a result of the escrow requirement going up. Escrow being the portion of your payment that is reserved to pay property taxes. If you’re not sure how this works, perhaps you ought to just not comment?

    • There are programs to freeze your tax rate and then pay the difference at a much later date when you sell your home. That way you can gain equity without dealing with the increased taxes until you free up that increased equity.

      • You can defer some of your property taxes, which puts a lien on that property, but you have to be elderly, disabled to take advantage of most of those programs. If you have a limited income you can defer your taxes, but only 50%, you have to submit a new form each year *and* the money you owe is subject to interest….

        Plus these programs don’t help with displacement. Sure the house may be worth more when the person dies, but the heir (usually the children) has to pay up and that usually means having to sell. So instead of now having a stable residence that the family owns and isn’t paying a mortgage on, in the neighborhood they grew up in, they have to sell and move away.

        Not only that, many less wealthy people may have little in the way of assets to pass on to the next generation other than their house. Not giving them actual tax relief, rather than just a deferment disrupts the ability of poor families to give any advantages to the next generation and helps keep being poor in the family…

    • As for $200-$300K houses/condos, technically you are correct: there are currently 5 homes or condos in that range in all of Seattle, according to Zillow. They are all out the furthest edges of Seattle, mind you (north and south), but technically in Seattle.

      • Perhaps you just need to brush up on your search skills to find a place to purchase – because when I do even just a cursory search I come up with 55 results from just one website, after filtering out foreclosures and vacant lots…. many of them are even in the closer in areas – 3 even right here on Capitol Hill… a bunch downtown, on Lower Queen Anne, Ravenna, the U District etc.

  2. This is arguably unconstitutional housing discrimination, and the idea that they “affirmatively market” exclusively to black people yet accept applications on a “first come, first served” serves only to provide plausible deniability that this is fair.

    As a country, and as a community, if we truly value equality, we ought to do away with projects like this. These are well-meaning, yet ultimately counterproductive policies that stoke racial animus and division.

    Fighting discrimination with more discrimination doesn’t level the playing field. It leaves everyone worse off in the long run.

    • Don’t worry, there are still plenty of landlords right here in Seattle who wouldn’t rent to an African American if they were the last tenant left in the market. Despite modest laudable efforts like this one your white privilege is safe for the foreseeable future — especially with a president working tirelessly to preserve it.

      • No doubt there are landlords practicing what you describe, but at least it is acknowledged as an illegal practice disapproved of by the community. And we make efforts to discourage and penalize the activity.
        This program is problematic because it engages in similar activity as that which we prohibit by law. And it receives public funds while doing so. I am uncomfortable with it for those reasons.

      • If you have evidence that the organizations backing this project are breaking the law, you should report it to the proper authorities instead of griping about it in a comment secion. As far as I am aware, the local ordinance that requires landlords to accept the first qualified tenant is being followed. The difference is in the marketing, which is perfectly legal. Corporate advertisers target different demographic groups all the time.

      • Marcia,

        I am not griping, I am offering a comment dilineating my concerns about this housing program. The fact that my comment does not align with yours makes it no less valid commentary.
        And I did not say these organizations are breaking the law, I said they are engaging in a practice similar to those we prohibit by law, which I find problematic. I would prefer my tax dollars not be used in furtherance of the program, but I understand you might feel differently. Reasonable people can disagree.

    • Shut dafuk up dude.

      African Americans own less than 1% of property due to racial covenants all over the country. It’s about taking back what was always theirs (ours).

      • So in other words all white people now should pay for the sins of those white people in the past usually before they were even born. That seems judy bad as many of the things that were so wrong in the past. And as they say two wrongs do not make a right.

      • That’s an awfully extreme reaction to a very, very modest effort toward racial equity.

        None of us is accountable for anyone’s sins but our own. But there is a system of racial privilege in this country that light-skinned people benefit from regardless of merit and thus have a responsibility to help dismantle, or at least help ameliorate its most injurious effects.

      • Chris,

        What about Michael’s comment? Was that an extreme reaction? Maybe you might call that out since it was the comment that provoked seaguy’s comment.

      • I will do no such thing. Although I would have worded it differently, Michael’s comment is (a) factual and (b) appears to come from a place of genuine pain, not offended privilege. It thus deserves to be judged by a different standard.

  3. It may not be racism if it was actually being directed towards an underserved community. but considering he’s bragging that almost 90% of the units go to a demographic to makes up 10% of that neighborhood and 6% of that City then of course it’s a blatant racism and blatantly unfair to everybody else. Why is it that the Japanese who were so persecuted in the neighborhood are getting zilch?

    • There are similar efforts in the International District and elsewhere aimed at addressing Asian-American housing inequity. (Check out the work of InterimCDA, for example.) This particular project happens to be aimed at African Americans. I don’t see why that’s a problem.

  4. He mentions that 86% of applicants are black. But not what % are from that neighborhood are risking displacement. So if, 95% were not from the neighborhood how has this project made a dent in “displacement”? It makes no sense. On one hand they claim they are trying to stop “displacement”. On the other hand they are measuring success by the number of black people they get in the units.

    • That just illustrates the inherent limitations of policies like community preference. More aggressive measures would go farther toward doing what you suggest, but they are currently illegal. Yes, laws should be changed. (Voting to preserve affirmative action in the November election will be a start.) But in the meantime, should we not at least try to improve housing equity with the tools we currently have available, just because they’re not perfect? I don’t understand that argument.

  5. I love that the article purports to describe efforts to help prevent “displacement” but starts with a description of a resident who left town for 12 years.

    • She grew up in the CD and left to go to college. We should be thankful that she decided to come back to her hometown and bring us the benefits of her education and life experience rather than stay in a place with far more culture and community for people of color. I’m very glad there’s something we can offer to help her out, thanks to these civic-minded groups.

  6. The Liberty Bank Building sounds like a success – it’s interesting to hear how the mechanism of “Affirmative Marketing” is helping to connect community members with affordable housing in our neighborhood.

    Game plan: 1) Raise money for low income housing from developers who want to build more housing units in Seattle, 2) Partner with community groups to build low income housing (eg. Liberty Bank), and 3) Invite community members to live in these new developments.

    Just to be clear- when City Councilmembers blocked redevelopment of the Showbox, that’s potentially forfeiting millions of dollars that could directly fund projects in Seattle like the Liberty Bank Building.

  7. Until you whining white people start capitalism over at 0 and we all have equal money going forward… this kind of program needs to exist or African Americans will just stay oppressed forever.

  8. +1

    “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.”
    — Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun

    • That’s been going on for half a century and all it has done is create a pathological sense of entitlement that some people should get for free what others have to work for. It’s been exploited for far too long from organizations and “community leaders” who expect preferences to go on indefinitely until they decide everything is “fair”- which will be never.

      • No, it’s white people who’ve been trying to get something for free — namely, expecting racial harmony to stem directly from formal equality while opposing any and all reparative measures that might actually cost them something, no matter how little. Formal (legal) equality was free; economic and educational equity, sad to say, is not. I wish it were.

        Let me draw you a picture: Suppose I kidnapped you and your wife, imprisoned your wife and forced you to build me a house. I then sell the house for a million dollars, pay you none of it, but set both of you free. Are we even? Hey, you’re free! What are you complaining about? We’re all equal now!

        Outrageous, no? Well, that is essentially the deal that African Americans received in the 1960s and the gist of the predominant white attitude since then (especially recently).

        When the per-capita net worth of African American families reaches, oh, let’s say, 85 or 90 percent of white families’ from its current level of 5-10 percent, then perhaps we can have a serious national conversation about whether things are now “fair.” Until then it’s absurd to complain about modest “preferences” like targeted marketing. Be glad that’s all we’re talking about here. If it were up to me, no white people would be allowed in that building at all.

  9. Geeeee White people upset about black people getting a teeny teeny teeny teeny teeny tiny bit of privlidge to have a teeny apartment in a place we black folk were kicked out of?? LOL!

    We will rise up and take back the CD!