In Seattle's Central District, or "CD," gentrification and rapid development are displacing the largest African-American community in the state, reducing opportunities for wealth creation and accumulation among thousands of lower- and middle-class people and threatening the black community's political representation in city government, as well as its social, cultural, and economic capital.
In just a single generation, the African-American share of the neighborhood's population has fallen from 70 percent to under 20 percent, creating a cultural "diaspora" from what had been a diverse, welcoming neighborhood for more than a hundred and thirty years. Shaped early on by racist housing policies that pushed families of color into the neighborhood and limited their access to economic opportunity, African-American members of the community responded by building powerful neighborhood businesses and institutions. Now, those businesses and institutions are being forced out by surging rents and taxes, eroding the sense of community in the district.
Nationally, African Americans have a homeownership rate of 42 percent, a rate virtually unchanged since 1968 and a third less than the 70 percent enjoyed by whites. In Seattle, the home ownership rate for African Americans is just 24 percent. Low rates of home ownership, in both Seattle and nationally, increase African Americans' vulnerability to gentrification, which inevitably leads to rent increases, reduces the stock of affordable housing, and decreases economic opportunity for long-time members of the community.
As the growing un-affordability of housing — coupled with historically low incomes in black communities — continues to drive displacement, Seattle's African American Financial Capability Initiative (AAFCI), a coalition of African-American organizations motivated to find long-term, community-based solutions to racial economic inequality, has recognized the need for a more synergistic approach to the problem. Seattle's AAFCI had its genesis in Creating an Equitable Future in Washington State: Black Well-Being & Beyond (42 pages, PDF), a 2015 report from the African American Leadership Forum–Seattle, Byrd Barr Place, and the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs. The report was generated as part of a three-year, $4.35 million investment by the Northwest Area Foundation in an AAFCI initiative aimed at establishing African-American communities of practice focused on racial economic inequality in six cities within its footprint, with technical assistance provided by the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at Prosperity Now. In Seattle, the CoP comprises Byrd Barr Place, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, and the Africatown Community Land Trust (CLT).
CLTs, legal structures of communally owned property that are formed with the intent to preserve long-term control of land — often for the purposes of preserving a cultural and/or economic mission such as affordability for businesses and housing — have proven effective in slowing the negative impacts of gentrification and provide a mechanism for more equitable land development and ownership. While there are hundreds of CLTs in the United States, relatively few exist in urban areas, and even fewer work to address the racial disparity of gentrifying cities. Those that do, however — including Dudley Street in Roxbury, Massachusetts — are proving to be successful.
In Seattle, Africatown CLT is actively involved in two commercial development projects — the Liberty Bank Building and Midtown Plaza — which will provide more than two hundred and fifty affordable housing units in the heart of the city. And it is working on three additional projects, with the goal of ensuring that African-American families in Seattle most threatened by displacement can live and thrive in the city.
Drawing on the strength of the culturally-anchored land trust model, AAFCI's SeattleCoP is developing a twenty-first-century African-American Community Land Trust blueprint. Building on the success of the Africatown CLT, the CoP is finalizing a replication model, Rooted Communities, to help communities of color across the nation who are grappling with the negative effects of gentrification. The goal of the model is to enable local communities in mid-tier metropolitan areas where land is still readily available to understand, form, and run CLTs.
The Seattle CoP also plans to include a culturally responsive financial education program focused on short-term personal finances as well as long-term wealth-building at the individual and family levels, and it is exploring how to augment existing programs and community development networks to more consistently deliver content and technical assistance in ways that are motivating and actionable.
Next steps for the pilot phase project include working with other similarly situated communities across the state and nationally to implement land trust models with a similar mission. AAFCI hopes to officially launch the blueprint before the end of the year, and communities interested in participating are encouraged to check out www.ourrootedcommunities.org after December 10 for more information.
As Seattle moves to identify and build upon what works for African-American communities, we are hopeful that the community engagement and CLT model we develop here can serve as an example for communities of color nationally that are dealing with issues of gentrification and displacement. It is our belief that we are stronger together, especially when that work builds on a rich history and powerful traditions.
Andrea Caupain Sanderson is CEO of Byrd Barr Place, formerly Centerstone, a nonprofit that works for a more equitable Seattle by providing lifeline services to the poor.