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Bill Virgin: Gentrification might be a problem more people wish they had

Out here in RealityLand, the political, social and cultural goings-on (as well as highway construction projects, but we’ll save that for another day) of Seattle are a frequent source of equal parts bemusement, bewilderment, eye-rolling and satisfaction that the weirdness du jour is at least confined to the city limits.

Such was the case this past week with the news item about a demonstration in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood when protesters blocked a Microsoft Connector bus from moving for about 45 minutes.

The protesters carried a banner reading “Gentrification Stops Here,” reflecting their argument that offering a private bus service to Microsoft employees allows those well-compensated workers to live in Seattle neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, thus driving up apartment rents and home prices, thus forcing out those who don’t earn as much and who can’t afford the cost of housing.

If Tacoma is sometimes accused, not inaccurately, of obsessing over, envying and trying to mimic what goes on in its large urban neighbor to the north, then the same charge may be brought against Seattle in relation to its even bigger urban neighbor down the coast — the San Francisco-Silicon Valley Bay Area. Indeed, this protest was modeled after similar bus blockades in San Francisco, the target there being buses run by Google, the issue there also being tech workers driving gentrification and housing-price increases in an urban area. (There was an additional issue in the San Francisco protest about the use of public bus zones by private carriers.)

Even some of those living in Seattle and/or not thrilled with the cost of Capitol Hill housing felt compelled to note, in the comments section of several stories, a few complicating factors — that Capitol Hill never was one of Seattle’s cheaper neighborhoods to start with, that if protesters want a corporate villain for an influx of tech workers they might instead consider Amazon with its surge of expansion in nearby South Lake Union, and that Microsoft might on balance be doing the area a favor by offering buses in lieu of car commutes.

Beyond those specific points are some broader issues at work. Gentrification is likely to happen in places that people find desirable to live in and that have geographic constraints on room for housing development (as Seattle and the Bay Area do). To date no one has come up with a way to temper housing prices in high-demand areas, and the likelihood of doing so is diminished further the more planners push the notion that sprawl is bad, the suburbs are bad and that people should be packed into existing developed areas.

Meanwhile, those paid to think about such things around here must be looking at what’s going on and thinking, “Hmm, how do we cut ourselves in on a piece of that action?”

No, not of protests and bus blockades — that’s more of a Seattle thing. No, not of the Microsoft Connector, although the notions of tailoring transit to specific employment clusters and encouraging private-sector solutions are ideas that have been played with for years and are likely to get more attention.

Instead what they might like to see a little more of is gentrification, or at least the piece of gentrification that signals that people find a neighborhood a desirable place to live and work in and that developers and businesses want to invest in.

Tacoma has tried to light the fire of gentrification. Downtown is one big gentrification zone, or would be if people and businesses would move in in sufficient numbers to support such a move. Need developable space? We’ve got it! Short commutes? Come on down! Need a touch of gritty urban/industrial realism so it doesn’t quite look like a hipster theme park? Just build your condo or apartment building to provide sweeping views of the Tideflats!

The closing of a grocery store downtown indicates that the gentrification wave has yet to sweep Tacoma. The lack of an established image upon which to build a gentrification movement, as well as a dearth of big employers moving into or near the downtown with employees following, could well keep such a trend muted at best, or non-existent.

And that could be fine with those who would just as soon not see rents, home prices and property taxes hiked beyond their ability to pay. The issue of the effect on housing prices, and how to give those already in a gentrifying area a share in the benefits rather than being chased out, is a thorny one. Gentrification rarely seems to be a halfway phenomenon; once started, its direction seems inevitable.

The Seattle protesters themselves seem short on answers on how to moderate the gentrification they object to. Ban Microsoft employees from living west of Lake Washington?

We could tell Microsoft, Amazon and the others to stop hiring entirely, at least where they are now. That might help a little. We could have Microsoft and Amazon direct expansion elsewhere — Tacoma could surely find a place to put a tech-company office campus.

Or here’s an idea that will definitely work. Tell them to leave the region entirely. Recent experience demonstrates that there’s nothing like throwing your economy into recession, even worse than the one we’re not yet out of, to end development and cut housing prices.

Of course, that still leaves the affordability problem, since without jobs no one will be able to afford any house or apartment, no matter how humble. But hey, you wanted gentrification stopped. Wish granted.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at