Enforcing current city codes would eliminate South End blight without enacting the troubled Community Renewal Law

In the spring of 2005, the mayor's office released a 23-page "action agenda" containing several dozen recommendations for revitalization of Southeast Seattle. Developed with the help of the Rainier Valley Chamber, Southeast Effective Development (SEED), Homesite, and prominent area banking institutions, the agenda included a seemingly innocuous recommendation for a "community renewal plan" for Southeast Seattle. 

Leaping ahead to the fall of 2006, a firestorm in Southeast Seattle has been ignited over the mayor's attempt to implement that plan. It calls for the city council to designate a special "community renewal area" or CRA with boundaries stretching from I-90 to the south city line and encompassing nearly every block between Martin Luther King Way and Rainier Avenue.

Despite some of our city's most rapidly rising land values located within these boundaries, the mayor's staff has made selective use of census and crime data to justify a definition of "blight" for the area - a description required for creation of the CRA under the state's "community renewal" law.

Once the city designates a CRA, a five-member board would be appointed with enormously broad power to buy, assemble, develop, and sell any property within the CRA's boundaries. The board's formal powers would include the right to enter and inspect any property within the CRA without owner permission and a right to condemn that property if needed to meet renewal plan goals.

Board members would be nominated by the mayor and approved by the city council. In reality this means that only big shots from the banking and development sectors and the chamber, with close ties to the mayor, are likely to be selected-with perhaps a token private citizen from the community.

Normally, municipalities in Washington must prove to a judge they are condemning property for strictly defined "public uses," such as a street right of way, utility substation, sewer plant or reservoir. But under the state's community renewal law, once a CRA is designated, a simple decision by the five-member board to acquire property for any purpose even vaguely related to the board's "renewal" plans is, by definition, a "public use."

In practice this would mean whole blocks targeted for assembly by the CRA board, acquired through condemnation or the threat of it, and then put out to bid to large private developers. The winning bidder - likely a pal of the mayor, city council or CRA boardmember - would develop those sites to higher densities for commercial and residential use - at a price beyond the reach of many current small business owners and renters. 

Much of this activity would be aimed at securing and developing properties near the Sound Transit corridor. But no area between MLK Way and Rainier would be exempt from possible redevelopment, including single family homeowner areas within CRA boundaries. Despite lip service to preventing gentrification, the net result would be hundreds of existing lower-density lower-priced rental housing and older homeowner units removed to make way for the mayor's pro-density agenda.

Little wonder there is a growing outcry from Southeast Seattle residents - at least those who've gotten wind of the plan. But there is another less visible reason to fear what the city has up its sleeve. Under state law the five member board also would be given broad authority to divert increases in property and sales taxes generated within the renewal area to pay for their redevelopment schemes.  It's called "tax increment financing" but in reality it's a raid on the city, county, and perhaps even the school district's budget. 

Without interference, rising land values generate more property tax revenues for state, county and city coffers to pay for schools, sidewalks, bridges and other basic infrastructure. However, once the CRA is created, the CRA board is allowed, under the state law, to skim off all future increases in these taxes above what is now being collected within the area of the CRA. Instead of going back to the city's general fund to pay for the basics, these new tax revenues can be used to help finance pet renewal projects implemented by the CRA board.

Some denizens of Rainier Valley may look at the Community Renewal Agency concept as an opportunity to improve the neighborhood. A well-intentioned CRA board would clean up unsightly properties, kick some slumlords into shape, and promote infill development on vacant land sprinkled around Southeast Seattle. But where is the basis for believing our mayor and city council will do anything other than hand-pick the board to promote its larger redevelopment and pro-density agenda in Southeast Seattle? This is a policy of gentrification in effect, if not in name.

Instead of city government acting to carry out the neighborhood plans designed to preserve affordability and diversity - plans developed by hundreds of citizens over the course of several years - we get a government that picks and chooses which plan elements to follow and which to ignore. Low-income people, working people, people of color, senior citizens are leaving this city in droves not because of blight but because they have been forced out by runaway growth and skyrocketing prices actively promoted by city leaders.

The city signs memorandums of agreement with developers such as the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), and then makes no move to enforce them. A property owner at a recent hearing on the CRA said that if the city was so concerned about blight, officials should simply start enforcing existing codes.

Somehow there never seems to be enough funding for that. Complaints about abandoned vehicles, dumping and rat infestations of abandoned property go unattended. The city and school district and Seattle Housing Authority pass the buck back and forth to each other about who should pick up the trash dumped along the chain link fences around the Rainier Vista redevelopment site. 

Meanwhile, the garbage blows down the street. And for these problems left untended by the city, though they violate the city's own codes, Rainier Valley is dubbed "blighted," a designation the city will use simply to replace the old and affordable with the new and expensive.

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may be reached through editor@sdistrictjournal.com or by calling 461-1311.

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