This article originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald and has been republished with permission.
Rainier Beach is the new gentrification ground zero. I have a front row seat. I recently celebrated my seventh anniversary of being a homeowner. I have watched my neighbors get foreclosed on and pushed out. I have watched the house flipping teams come through and trim up the yards, slap up new fences and paint over bright color with the neutral blues and grays white people seem to prefer. When I walk through my neighborhood now, it’s a lot less like the vibrant, diverse place I chose to live in and a lot more like Pleasantville.
My house doesn’t stand out much, but my lawn signs are like a loud middle finger: “Redlining sent us south” or “Don’t displace the South End.” When I first put them up, I noticed people slowing down their cars to read them. One lady rolled down her car window to explain herself. It seemed like she was hoping to engage in a longer conversation, but I let the signs speak for themselves. Now I’m ready to say what’s on my mind.
Every day I pass White people walking their dogs down the street to the bakery. I pass their newly fenced yards, see the beginnings of mother-in-law cottages getting built, and I feel envious of what two-income families, tech industry money and generational wealth can afford.
My home has doubled in value, which would be good if I wanted to sell it, but since my plan was always to live in it, the increase in value is a problem. During the first five years I lived here, my property taxes varied, but only enough to cause a $20-$40 difference in my monthly payments. In the past two years, my monthly payments have gone up by $284.
It happened because of my new neighbors.
They aren’t bad people. They are that specific brand of Seattle liberal. If you could sum them up in a lawn sign, it would be the one that says: “In this house, We believe Health Care is a Human Right, Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love.”
Their beliefs aren’t driving my property taxes up, but their presence is.
So much about money and land is a mystery to me. My parents owned a home when I was born, but they sold it when they divorced, something my dad still laments. So I grew up living in apartments. Neither parent was able to buy another house until I was 17. By that time I was getting ready to leave Wisconsin for college and my new life in Seattle, so I wasn’t really involved.
Buying my house was terrifying. I had a great realtor, a White woman who knew bankers and attorneys, and leveraged her connections to make my dream a reality. She sat patiently with me, explaining how the process worked. Still, the day before I signed the papers, I sat on the floor in the empty house in the room that would become my bedroom and had a panic attack. I sobbed on the phone with my mom.
What if I can’t do it?
I’d never missed or even been late with rent before, yet somehow a mortgage, even a fixed-rate mortgage, felt different. What if something major went wrong? How would I afford to fix it? This was more debt than I could wrap my mind around.
My parents, for the first time, actually weren’t that comforting. Either you can afford this on your own or you can’t, they told me, respectively. There was no safety net. I had saved up for my down payment and, based on my salary, I knew I could make the payments. It was everything I didn’t know that scared me the most. I didn’t ask them to co-sign the loan and they didn’t offer. This was me adulting.
Finding equity in home equity
Fast forward to two years ago. I was invited to facilitate a conversation on the film series “Race: The Power of an Illusion” for the Delridge Neighborhood and Development Association. I met up with my co-facilitators to pre-screen the series. Since gentrification was very much on my mind, I agreed to lead the portion about structural racism and the Federal Housing Administration.
The film was illuminating. Like “13th,” “Healing Justice,” and other films that talk about the impacts of racial oppression, it didn’t provide new information, but there is something jarring and powerful about seeing it all together.
I understood how redlining worked; how banks refused to loan money to people of color for the purpose of buying houses in certain neighborhoods.
But what I didn’t know about was home equity. There is a clip in the movie where they talk about how White families have been leveraging the equity in their homes to make repairs, pay off student loans and create generational wealth. The next morning I called my bank. Did I have equity?
Yes, they said.
For an institution that is committed to sending me junk mail, here was a key piece of information no one had ever mentioned to me. But why would they? My financial dependence is much more lucrative than my financial freedom. Besides, what should I expect from an institution that has historically gone out of its way to prevent people of color from creating generational wealth?
My financial dependence is much more lucrative than my financial freedom.
I went online to try to understand what this invisible resource was and what I could do with it. When I called my bank back, it was like talking to a genie I didn’t know existed. In the next couple months, I refinanced my house, knocking five years off my mortgage and paying off my student loans.
I guess I could have dreamed bigger, maybe remodeled my bathroom or painted my house turquoise like I’ve been wanting to, but my biggest dream has always been not to owe anyone anything. I have come to accept that, barring divine intervention or winning the Powerball, I will be paying off this house for the next couple decades. But if I could zero out all my other debt, that would be miracle enough.
Reading the signs
I look around my home and I love it. I replaced the beige paint with bright colors, furnished the rooms with comfortable places to sit and read, fun lamps and shelves to hold my ever-expanding book collection. From the outside, my house is plain. I try to keep my yard under control. This summer, a gift from my dad allowed me to dig out all the invasive blackberry bushes that were threatening to devour my backyard.
But my house has not changed in seven years, other than some interior paint, basic maintenance and the occasional repair. I haven’t added a room or built a fence or gotten new plumbing or a new roof. So how is my home suddenly so much more valuable?
You know the answer.
The only difference between my house now and my house seven years ago is that now I have White neighbors.
So, yes, I threw a temper tantrum with lawn signs. I got out my art kit and repurposed my Nikkita Oliver sign to read “Gentrification Ground 0,” because that is where I live. One sign didn’t seem sufficient. So I made another then another, culminating in a sequence that ends with “This House is Not for Sale.”
I knew these signs wouldn’t change anything, in the same way that having a Black Lives Matter sign doesn’t change the fact that we are still being shot in the streets. But in the way that art has always grounded me, it made me feel better to express outloud the silent conversation I’d been having with my neighborhood.
Lots of people have opinions.
“Hammer, you’re like that crazy White Republican lady shaking her fist at the new Black neighbors,” my Dad said when he saw them. Afraid of unwanted attention, he made me get a security camera installed on my porch.
An older Black gentleman who lives a block away walked over with his dog to tell me how much he loves my signs. He lived in the Central District for years because it was the only place Blacks could own property. He owned two houses there, but ended up getting pushed south.
History repeats itself
“Many African Americans who had paid off or paid down their mortgages after twenty or thirty years in their homes saw spectacular increases in the value of their properties particularly in the 1990s and the first years of the 21st Century,” writes Henry McGee in an article outlining the impact of gentrification on the Central District. (“One three-bedroom, one-bath, 1,200-square-foot Central District home assessed by King County as valued at $1,280 in 1938 was worth $5,000 in 1960, $190,000 in 2001, and $355,000 in 2005.”)
And here we are, living history as it repeats itself in the Rainier Valley. As White people move in, property values increase and, by extension, my taxes increase. The city of Seattle was clearly complicit in allowing property taxes to become a tool of racial oppression. So now what?
And here we are, living history as it repeats itself in the Rainier Valley. As White people move in, property values increase and, by extension, my taxes increase
When we talk about the affordable housing crisis, those living with homelessness or housing insecurity should be prioritized. But what steps is Mayor Jenny Durkan doing to address the issue of gentrification? This is an opportunity to re-evaluate how “fair” market prices are assessed.
With the help of my realtor, I am appealing my taxes (also something I didn’t know you could do). But whether or not the appeal is successful, the problem remains. If the fair market value of my house is still contingent upon a homeowner’s perceived access to generational wealth and by default, the color of my skin, there is no winning.
The husband of the White couple who moved in across the street made a point to introduce himself to me.
“I want you to know that I agree with you people,” he told me, and pointed at my lawn. I felt myself bristle at being called “you people,” but I could see his hands shaking and I realized that this was an act of bravery for him. My signs had made him nervous to talk to me. I think my White neighbors think I hate them or that I am some militant angry Black woman. I don’t hate them, but I am angry.
I hate injustice. I hate that it’s 2018 and we seem to be moving backward, that everything the civil rights movement set out to accomplish seems to be getting reversed. I hate that I don’t know if I will be able to absorb the next round of taxes and that I might have to sell my home. I hate not knowing where I will be able to afford to live.
My neighbors are not some super villains ruining my life. They are just ordinary people who, like me, wanted to buy a house and live in it.
I don’t necesarilly hold my neighbors responsible for the structures that marginalize me. But if they truly believe everything their lawn sign says, I need their help to hold our city accountable for creating a more equitable process.
If you are looking for something to do with your unearned privilege call Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Call the King County Assessor’s office and ask them to make a dispensation for people who have been disadvantaged by structural racism in the same way they make dispensations for senior citizens. Tell every elected official who will listen (and even the ones who don’t want to) that this is a problem. Take your beliefs and your caring hearts to the voting booth, but don’t stop there. Take action.
It’s not enough to only care about people of color when we are living in desperate conditions.
It’s not enough to only care about people of color when we are living in desperate conditions. If our lives truly matter, help us deconstruct these systems that keep me, and many others, living with the fear that in the next few years we will lose our homes, our legacies and the tiny bit of wealth for which we’ve worked so hard.
Read the full Dec. 5 - Dec. 11 issue.
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