Sound Progress

Research and insights from Puget Sound Sage.

A Green and Brown City: Why we need Equitable Growth and Climate Justice

On Monday, I made the case that climate change is one of the biggest threats to social, economic and racial equity. But, how, specifically could climate change impact Seattle? And what does this mean for low-income people and people of color?

As a coastal city, Seattle will be directly affected by climate change. We can expect more extreme heat in the summer, more rain in the winter and the possibility of severe storms. But even more startling, by 2100, just 85 years from now, scientists predict sea levels will rise in Elliott Bay by 6 to 50 inches. If nothing is done to mitigate climate change, land area with substantial value will be lost. This includes parts of downtown Seattle, parts of West Seattle, South Park, Georgetown and the Port of Seattle. Georgetown and South Park are two neighborhoods where the population is disproportionately people of color and lower-income families.  In addition, local, good-paying maritime jobs and our food sources are at risk as port facilities, seafood beds and fishing fleets are threatened.

Despite these impacts, scientists say our region will fare much better than many other regions across the country. In fact, climatologists predict that our region will be one of the ideal places to move to avoid the extreme weather and unbearable heat we can expect across the country. Clifford Mass predicts that the Pacific Northwest will become a “potential climate refuge”. If this is true, our region must not only prepare for the impacts of climate change, but also for population growth over the next 80 to 100 years.

But even before we see an influx of new residents as a result of climate change – Seattle is already grappling with a dramatic growth of higher-income earning households moving to the city, resulting in a shortage of apartments and skyrocketing rents. On the supply side, developers are largely building new housing for the upper end of the rental market, leaving a massive gap at the middle and bottom. As a result, Seattle is already seeing displacement of communities of color – especially immigrant and African American communities – to the suburbs.

This displacement is occurring just as Seattle has emerged as one of the nation’s most sustainable cities. Seattle is a leader on curbing carbon emissions and preparing for the worst of climate change affects. We’ve launched large-scale energy efficiency building retrofits, implemented sustainable building practices, invested in light rail and streetcars, expanded bikeways, planned for transit oriented development, piloted urban farming and food forests and crafted an ambitious Climate Action Plan.

Which leads us to wonder, are we investing public resources into a climate-resilient city just in time for communities of color to be forced out? This future is possible, but not inevitable. If policy makers, environmentalists and equity advocates plan together to adapt our city for both growth and climate change, we can build a green and brown city, where all families can live and prosper.

What is a Linkage Fee and Why Do We Need it Now?

Last week, Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced a proposal to strengthen Seattle’s incentive zoning (IZ) program: a “linkage fee” rather than recommend tweaks to the existing IZ policy.  If Seattle is serious about not becoming a city only for the elite and serious about carbon reduction, the linkage fee proposal is a no-brainer.

We have been long critical of the City’s IZ program.  Under the current IZ policy, developers built affordable units or paid a reasonable fee to the City in exchange for permission to build to a greater density.  Because developers volunteer to participate, the affordable housing requirements only kick in for a portion of a new building and applies to only a few neighborhoods that have undergone upzoning, Seattle’s program is considerably weaker than those in other cities.  To date, the IZ program has only produced an estimated 714 units since 2001.

Unlike IZ, a linkage fee policy requires all new residential office or commercial development above a certain size to contribute to an affordable housing fund.   The policy, as adopted in several major cities in the U.S., is premised on a link between new development and a subsequent increase in demand for low-income housing.

AN AFFORDABLE HOUSING DEVELOPMENT IN WEST SEATTLE. Photo: Kaizer Rangwala (Courtesy of Marty Kooistra's Op-Ed in Crosscut, September 16th, 2014)

AN AFFORDABLE HOUSING DEVELOPMENT IN WEST SEATTLE. Photo: Kaizer Rangwala (Courtesy of Marty Kooistra’s Op-Ed in Crosscut, September 16th, 2014)

Why is a linkage fee vastly superior to any revision of the City’s IZ policy?  Below are some top reasons:

  1. More Affordable Housing: a linkage fee allows the City to ensure production of far more units on a faster timeline than IZ.
  2. Fair to Developers: linkage fee is fair to developers because it distributes the responsibility of contributing towards affordable housing evenly and removes uncertainty about costs of projects.
  3. Fair to Individual Taxpayers: linkage fee is fair to taxpayers who already generously tax themselves for the housing levy and are investing billions in new infrastructure that benefits developers. Seattle taxpayers have paid their fair share since 1981. Through the Housing Levy, they have paid for 58% of all affordable housing stock to date. Private developers, through the incentive zoning program, have contributed 11%. Also, renters will not absorb the cost of these new fees because Econ 101 dictates that developers would charge more now if they could.
  4. Encourages Urban Sustainability: linkage fee increases overall urban sustainability by making the most of public transit investment and is not contingent on density.


So, why do we need to pass this fee now?  There are many reasons developers should pay their fair share of affordable housing, the most important of which is absolute necessity.  Growth is happening now.  People are being displaced now, and 40% of Seattle will not be able to live here if we do not create and preserve affordability now.  We need more money to build and preserve more housing now, and into the future.

We have written about the housing crisis in Seattle. Affordable housing is not available for low income people and families.  It is well-documented that low-income people and families mainly consist of communities of color, immigrants, refugees and single mothers.  Demographic changes in Seattle and South King County indicate that people of color have been displaced from Seattle as rents have risen over the past ten years.  Rents have increased even more dramatically in the past year, and Seattle is currently the fastest growing city in the country.  In order for Seattle to walk a path of justice, we need more affordable housing now.

A linkage fee is necessary to prevent displacement, is good for the environment, and good for Seattle. It is only fair that developers, who profit from our infrastructure investments, pay their share for affordable housing.  Stand with Puget Sound Sage and the Growing Together Coalition and urge City Council to pass a linkage fee in October! Click here to take action now.

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Four Ways to Incorporate Justice into the Environmental Movement

By Nicole Vallestero Keenan, Puget Sound Sage and Ellicott Dandy, One America

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to social, economic and racial equity. Our jobs, our health, and the communities where we live are threatened by climate change, and we can expect more severe heat waves, flooding, extreme weather events, food scarcity, and the increased spread of disease to have the most direct impact on low-income communities and people of color.  Although it is often overlooked, addressing environmental inequality is an essential component to moving strong policies that make our environment healthier for everyone. Why? In part it’s about doing what’s right, but it’s also necessary.

Research, by environmental justice organization Green for All, shows that people of color are more likely to care deeply about the environment. As in the rest of the nation, the number of people of color living in Washington State is growing. Census data shows that population growth rates among black, Latino, and API communities outpaces the growth of white communities, and the trend is predicted to continue. As the environmental movement considers strong policies for healthier people and a healthier planet, it must craft policies that serve the interests of the people most impacted, and the people whose voting base is growing.

Even though there is a growing population of people of color in Washington, who are likely to support environmental sustainability, a recent report from Green 2.0, finds that organizations at the forefront of the environmental movement are ill-equipped to engage and empower people of color in their movement. Green 2.0 finds environmental government agencies, foundations, and NGOs are often guilty of unconscious bias, apathy in addressing diversity, and of inadvertently maintaining a “green ceiling” such that the percentage of people of color employees has not grown in decades.

In this context, many of Washington’s environmental organizations are searching for ways reverse the trend found by Green 2.0 and better engage with communities of color. One key element to better engage with communities of color is to incorporate social justice into their work.

Here are four ways mainstream environmental organizations can better incorporate justice into the environmental movement:

  1. Re-think communications: As long-time environmental activist Gail Swanson says: “You can’t enlist all humanity if you only speak to half of the population.” Communications experts in environmental organizations know they have to change the way they talk about the environment to be more relevant to people’s every-day lives, and many have taken important steps to talk about health, safety and jobs. However, communications is just one step to increasing engagement with communities of color, and will often come naturally if an organization applies a social justice lens to their work.
  1. Train staff to apply a critical racial lens: Trainings that teach staff to understand and address racial inequities are important, but it’s even more crucial for staff to learn how to and practice applying this awareness to their work. How does this policy affect communities of color or low income communities? What barriers inhibit communities of color from fully engaging in this program? Has my organization sought out and included people of color in crafting this program or policy? The process of asking and seeking answers to these questions can open pathways to deep collaborations with people of color and community based organizations.
  1. Actively seek out the expertise of community-based organizations: No need to reinvent the wheel! Fortunately for environmental organizations, there are people who have been doing incredible environmental justice work in communities of color for years. The mainstream environmental community can and should seek them out and work to support their programs and policy agendas. They should incorporate their input in policy design with the understanding that the policy’s success depends on local expertise of the problem and its possible solutions. Many environmental groups have already begun doing this work, and we encourage strong and socially just partnerships.
  1. Promote and hire people of color into management positions: The Green 2.0 report finds that the few people of color employed by the environmental organizations and agencies studied tend not to hold leadership positions, with the exception of the “diversity manager” role. Even genuine attempts to include people of color in the environmental movement, may be misguided nonetheless. Ensuring people of color have institutional power in environmental organizations is critical for diversifying the environmental movement. This means recruiting people of color to the board and to management-level positions, which means they must expand beyond established networks. When people in charge of hiring are from the communities their organization hopes to engage, more people from these communities are more likely to join the team.