Opinion Columns & Blogs

Gentrification isn’t a four-letter word in Olympia

Max Brown is a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors
Max Brown is a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors

Do you remember growing up and hearing your first four-letter word? You didn’t know what it meant, but it grabbed attention so you would use it now and again.

Olympia’s newest new-four letter word is gentrification. It is being used to describe unwanted changes to our city, but are we really applying the term properly?

To start, let’s define this word that we have become so accustomed to using. Gentrification is largely defined in two ways:

  • Renovating or improving an area to conform to more middle-class taste.
  • Renovating an area which causes displacement of the people who live there.

The problem with our definition of gentrification is that it is defined as only a negative thing. Based on the definition of gentrification, it is really only a problem when people are displaced.

The conversation about gentrification in Olympia is almost singularly focused on downtown. So, is it really occurring there? Let’s look at our two definitions and see how they apply.

First, is downtown being renovated in a way as to conform to a more middle-class taste? With an influx of new market-rate apartments, yes, our downtown is certainly shifting in the direction of a more “middle-class taste.”

Second, are these renovations causing displacement for those living in downtown? No. Of all of the new housing that has been constructed, all of it has been on vacant lots or by converting unused buildings.

While the new developments completed in downtown are changing its landscape, this is the kind of gentrification that we shouldn’t be afraid of. In 2015 the city surveyed the types of housing units in downtown Olympia and discovered that only 12 percent were market rate. If the city is to see its downtown become a vibrant place for small businesses and community members, the number of market-rate homes has to increase.

So, if downtown isn’t the poster child for the negative effects of gentrification in Olympia, is there a part of the city that is?

Southeast Olympia is an area where housing is, on average, more expensive and predominantly single-family with fewer apartments than other pockets of the city. It also has some of the least diverse schools, both ethnically and socio-economically, in the county. In other words, Southeast Olympia was gentrified years ago, so it tends to fly under the radar in our current discussions.

Often when we think of displacement caused by gentrification, we think of people who must leave to make way for a new development. But there is another side of the coin. For those with less means in our community, displacement shows up in other ways, like not being able to afford a home in certain parts of the city. For those on fixed incomes, displacement may mean having to leave your current home or neighborhood because you can no longer afford the property tax increases. Sadly, it seems some want to keep it that way.

The city is working to address this type of gentrification through the proposed Missing Middle housing policies. The bulk of the effort revolves around increasing the types of housing in existing residential neighborhoods.

One opponent of the Missing Middle described it as “a reverse re-gentrification of a neighborhood.” I don’t know about you, but creating more inclusive neighborhoods sounds like a pretty good thing, if you ask me.

To our detriment, we have narrowed our current definition of gentrification to only include new multi-story apartment complexes, missing the uglier sides of gentrification. When we use preservation as a means to keep others out, we wind up with the negative impacts of gentrification, which are far worse than revitalizing a vacant building or parking lot in a downtown that needs more people living in it.

Words matter, and though we were naïve about our language choices when we were young, it is time for us to grow up. If we are going to have an informed conversation about gentrification, we need to begin with a proper understanding of the word. Then, we need to challenge our thinking and make the difficult decisions necessary to create the inclusive community we all desire.

Max Brown is a former Olympia Planning Commission Chair, Lean Fellow at Results Washington, and a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors. He can be reached at brownmh74@gmail.com.