Edition 1

Tacoma brings in new prosperity with the Light Rail system that connects Tacoma to Seattle, but will it sweep away long-time Tacoma residents?

The historically Black neighborhood of Hilltop is gentrifying — and it doesn’t seem to be stopping.

The Hilltop neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington, is one of the most impacted by gentrification in the country, according to a study that compared census data from 2000 and the 2016 American Community Survey. Hilltop was ranked #20 in the entire country — this was in comparison to rapidly grow neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York City, and Houston.

Hilltop was once a thriving part of midtown life in Tacoma’s early history, but the migration of major businesses away from Tacoma — as well as the development of the Tacoma Mall — contributed to its economic downturn. Various gang activity, drugs, and a rash of other criminal activities during the 1980s through the late 1990s gave the community a negative reputation.

In the early 1900’s in Tacoma, the federal government contracted with local real estate appraisers, mortgage lenders and developers. According to one local researcher, there were maps created that divided neighborhoods into grades based on desirability- many “hazardous” neighborhoods were less desirable and sold to families of color. Up until the 1980’s, some properties contained covenants that were racially restrictive, despite the fact that a 1948 ruling had ruled these covenants Unconstitutional.

U.S. Census data show people living in formerly redlined neighborhoods earn far less, are less likely to have college degrees and are far less likely to own homes, whose value is in large part due a family’s financial worth. Two Census tracts in Tacoma illustrate these disparities:  the North End, which was rated as a high desirability neighborhood, and a “hazardous” neighborhood, Hilltop, due to the presence of environmental hazards.. While Hilltop’s median family income as of the 2010 census is 17,000, the North End’s is $81,000. 

 However, Hilltop recovered from its dilapidation in the 21st century, through persistently successful local businesses and a community that cared about the wellbeing of its neighbors.

 While the Tacoma Light Rail is supposed to provide affordability for low-income populations, housing costs are rising significantly there, forcing residents to leave.

William Towey, a researcher at the University of Washington Tacoma campus, has researched geographic mobility in Tacoma. Between 2010 and 2015, 35% of African American residents moved out of the neighborhood of Hilltop, he reported.

Many long-time residents have moved out of Hilltop in recent years, opting for modern, affordable apartment complexes near the Tacoma Mall and its transit center.

Tacoma mayor Victoria Woodard’s mother, Sharise Woodards, left her apartment in Hilltop in 2018, after her rent was increased. It went from $800 a month, to nearly $1200.

Hilltop’s demographics currently include 40% people of color, 25% low-income, and 30% people who have no vehicle. The population of Tacoma’s is about 65% White, and the other 35% identify as people of color, as recorded in the Census. However, contrary to county-wide and regional trends, Hilltop has a growing white population.

In Tacoma, condominium construction, mixed-use developments and market-rate apartments are cropping up along the proposed Tacoma Link Light Rail expansion route. Constructing “multi-use” buildings that create affordable housing makes sense for developers and property owners from an economic standpoint.

Robertson Building Company, one of the city’s largest developers, has purchased four other buildings with plans to buy more. Robertson CEO Matt Shaw predicts that Hilltop will be the next up-and-coming neighborhood that will attract Seattle enterprise because the corridor there sits near the planned Light Rail station, next to a handful of planned mixed-use developments, and is a five-minute drive from Interstate 5.

So what does this mean for the current Hilltop residents?

Tacoma has an eight-year multi-family property-tax break, which is available to developers who build strictly market-rate housing. Some argue that this may be increasing rates of gentrification in the city. Tacoma city council members are working on a bill to amend this tax break, but it could be multiple years in the making.

Developing companies like Robertson benefit from the city’s tax break.This incentive exempts property taxes for eight to 12 years on the assessed improvements that create four or more additional housing units. To qualify for this break, at least 20% of the newly created units must be affordable to renters with household incomes no greater than 80% of the area’s median income.

But there is no restriction on price for the other 80% of newly created units, and it seems to be creating a large opportunity for developers in the area.

“The market just snuck up on us, and now housing prices are higher than we ever thought they’d be, and it’s like we’ve lost control,” Walker Lee, a council member, said.

This does not bode well for the long-time Hilltop residents. Although many live on a fixed income, if property prices were to increase, many people of a low socioeconomic status may be forced out.