It's hard for Heidi Dang to believe the day will ever come when the street in front of her Sunlite Hair Salon is no longer a morass of orange barriers, construction debris and plywood sheets covering holes.
But with three years left on her lease — about the time when the Sound Transit light rail line, now under construction outside her shop door, is scheduled to start operating — she plans to stick it out.
Now, city officials and Rainier Valley residents want to head off another threat from the transit project: the potential displacement of ethnic businesses and longtime residents by rising rents tied to a light rail development boom.
"I have worried about that, but I hope my landlord doesn't do that because we've been struggling so much around here," said Dang, whose business dropped 70 percent after Sound Transit began construction on Martin Luther King Way Jr. Way South two years ago.
Community leaders concerned about gentrification hopeto launch a broad conversation about ensuring that wealthy newcomers aren't the only ones to benefit from the profound changes under way in Rainier Valley. Toward that end, the city is considering creating a community renewal agency with the power to assemble or condemn land, in order to ensure development projects will include low-income housing, entrepreneurial businesses or other provisions to aid the neighborhood.
"It's very clear to me that we have a window of opportunity that's fairly short to get ahead of these issues," said Glenn Harris, the city's neighborhood coordinator for Rainier Valley, which has long lured immigrants and young families with its affordable housing.
"I look at the valley and Delridge as sort of the last couple of places where if we don't get a handle on this, the city of Seattle itself is going to look drastically different in five to 10 years," he said.
City officials are exploring several other ideas to stimulate development around light rail stations while minimizing displacement of residents and businesses:
• Change zoning to allow more density but require developers to provide affordable housing or other community benefits.
• Buy apartment buildings whose landlords seem likely to drastically raise rents or convert to condos.
• Work with a community land trust to develop an inventory of homes that remain permanently affordable.
Historically, no developer would touch economically distressed Rainier Valley: The last privately financed apartment building was built in 1974, according to the city.
With light rail and a beautified street on the horizon, that's likely to change, once the pioneers building complicated housing and retail projects demonstrate some success.
In the past few years, the valley's revitalized Columbia City district has lured wealthier home buyers with nice new restaurants, a farmers market, an art gallery, theater, yoga studio and the ultimate sign of affluence: an upscale pet boutique. And single-family homes in redeveloped, mixed-income public housing projects such as New Holly are commanding close to a half-million dollars.
Because gentrification often results from hundreds of individual decisions, it's nearly impossible to stop it completely. But cities nationwide have successfully experimented with different strategies to combat displacement of lower-income residents as communities are revitalized, said Dwayne Marsh of PolicyLink, a California non-profit that promotes equitable development policies.
"The common theme is really political will," Marsh said. "In most communities, there's room for newcomers without anyone having to leave, but it takes being intentional, it takes more time and it takes a city that's willing to do the extra work so everyone benefits."
When a group of Rainier Valley residents first started talking honestly about gentrification, the conversation got complicated in a hurry, said Leslie Miller, president of the Southeast District Council.
For starters, not everyone agrees whether a new coffee shop in the neighborhood, or six-story buildings around a light rail station would be a good thing or a bad one.
An African American woman said no one who looks like her would be able to live in the valley soon, while a White resident complained that just hearing the word gentrification made him feel as if someone had put a loaded gun to his head.
"It's not useful for someone to feel like 'I'm being pushed out and there's nothing I can do about it,' and it's not useful for someone to feel guilty," said Miller, a freelance editor whose family moved from Green Lake to the Brighton neighborhood six years ago.
The community group is looking for ways "to give people a hand in at least discussing what the options are and might be," she said.
Earlier this year, Irvine, Calif., created a citywide land trust, with a goal of making 10 percent of the city's housing stock permanently affordable within the next two decades.
Some cities have instituted "anti-flipping" policies, such as taxing people who buy property and sell it within a few months after jacking up the price.
One common strategy, PolicyLink's Marsh said, is to attach conditions to projects benefiting from loans, tax breaks or zoning changes. Those can be commitments by developers to include low-income housing, hire local residents, offer jobs with benefits or give preference to independent retailers such as halal grocers, African braiding shops, Chinese herb stores and Vietnamese delis in Rainier Valley.
Now that Washington state has given cities clearer authority to demand those types of tradeoffs, Seattle is looking at incorporating them into future zoning changes in targeted parts of the city, said Adrienne Quinn, director of the Seattle Office of Housing.
The city is also expanding its relationship with the Homestead Community Land Trust, which offers homes well below market prices by owning the land underneath and limiting how much profit homeowners make upon resale.
So far, the trust has created 10 permanently affordable homes in Seattle. With a new city grant and land donation, it hopes to provide another 19 in the next year.
The most aggressive — and potentially controversial — idea to spark development around future light rail stations involves a community renewal agency.
Rainier Valley meets the state definition of a "blighted" area, with high unemployment, poverty, dilapidated buildings and pockets of criminal activity. That enables the city to create a public agency with the power to condemn property for private economic development projects, normally banned by the state constitution.
City officials say they're not looking simply to seize land through eminent domain, but to work with property owners to assemble large, developable parcels of land around light rail stations, beginning with the ones planned at South Othello Street and South McClellan Street.
The agency would sell the land to developers interested in building pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use buildings — with conditions attached based on what the community wants. If there's widespread support in Rainier Valley for that kind of program, city officials likely would seek the necessary legislation from the City Council this fall.
Steve Johnson, acting director of the city's Office of Economic Development, said many lessons have been learned from the largely disastrous "urban renewal" programs of the 1960s and '70s, when cities bought vast tracts of land in low-income neighborhoods and did nothing with it because there was no plan.
But large questions still loom about how the new agency would work, such as who would govern it and how much power residents would have in making decisions.
"I'm not hopeless that it's going to turn out bad, but it's a scary proposal and it has to be done right," said Michele Thomas, organizer for the Tenants Union of Washington State.
Columbia City provides a ready example of how dramatically private investment and market forces can transform an area.
The neighborhood is enjoying a wildly successful renaissance, but not everyone has benefited equally, said James Ackley, owner of Bob's Quality Meats on Rainier Avenue South. The business has been in his family for more than two decades.
Loyal customers priced out of the neighborhood now drive from Renton or Skyway to get their oxtails or T-bone steaks. As office supply shops gave way to art galleries, and churches to delectable breakfast spots, his rent quadrupled until he was able to buy his building last year.
Ackley thinks it would be a profound injustice if all the immigrant-owned businesses on Martin Luther King Jr. Way go under once the street is gussied up.
"All it takes is for money to start coming into a neighborhood," he said, "and it's almost like an infection, the way it spreads."
— The Associated Press