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Light rail brings hope and worry to a neighborhood on the brink

Will James
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards speaks at a groundbreaking event for a new light rail line at People's Park on Nov. 19, 2018.

City Council members, a congressman — even a U.S. senator — gathered Monday to celebrate the start of a new light rail project that will one day speed people through Tacoma's busiest corridors. 

But local leaders also sought to assuage fears that the project will accelerate gentrification in the Hilltop, a historically African-American neighborhood that has already undergone drastic changes as Tacoma's housing costs soar.

"I know that there are some folks who are feeling some type of anxiety about what's going to happen to folks who are currently living here," Brendan Nelson, president of the nonprofit Hilltop Action Coalition, told a crowd gathered for the groundbreaking at Tacoma's People's Park. 

"There's a lot of work being done to ensure that folks who are in this community get to stay in this community," added Nelson, whose organization advocates for the interests of Hilltop residents.

Sound Transit leaders project the 2.4-mile light rail extension, which will link the Hilltop to Tacoma's downtown and create six new train stations, will begin moving riders in 2022.

By 2030, the line will be part of a chain of light rail connecting Tacoma to downtown Seattle.

The fear is that improved transit and access will make the Hilltop even more attractive to residents with higher incomes, who have already been flocking to the neighborhood from Seattle and elsewhere. The trend has caused rents and home prices to rise sharply, forcing longtime residents to move. 

Rising costs contributed to the Hilltop losing a third of its African-American population between 2010 and 2015, according to William Towey, a program manager for the Tacoma Urban League who wrote a master’s thesis on gentrification in the Hilltop. 

"The Hilltop is on a trajectory that in five to 10 years, you can see that it's going to look like Ballard in Seattle," said Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority. 

"It'll be higher density, and that's good," Mirra added. "It needs higher densities. But, unless we can deflect the arc of this development, it'll be mainly higher-income residents and it will have trouble remembering its own history." 

The Tacoma Housing Authority, a public agency that administers housing programs, is buying up land along the light rail line to build affordable housing, Mirra said.

The agency is also negotiating long-term contracts with nearby landlords designed to keep apartments affordable.  The agency would pay subsidies to the landlords, and the landlords would rent their properties to lower-income tenants. Such contracts can last as long as 15 years, Mirra said.

The goal, he said, was "to take as much of the rental stock out of the speculative market as possible."

But officials gathered for the light rail groundbreaking, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Derek Kilmer, also highlighted jobs and other opportunities they said were on the way. 

"The Hilltop, for a long time, has been seen as a community that's been neglected," said Keith Blocker, who represents the neighborhood on the Tacoma City Council. "This is proof that we will no longer neglect this community. This is proof, right here today, that we're going to invest in the Hilltop." 

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who sits on Sound Transit's board of directors, said getting around the city was a struggle when she was growing up.

"I never got to go downtown as a little girl from Tacoma," she said. "But how cool that kids and families can not only get to work, but can get to our museums, and they can get to our theaters, and they can enjoy all that Tacoma has to offer." 

Woodards and former mayor Marilyn Strickland repeatedly raised concerns over the years about the project's implications for the Hilltop, said Sound Transit chief executive Peter Rogoff.

"Their vision is a future of jobs, a future of development, and a future of opportunity not for new incoming residents but for the current residents of the Hilltop community," Rogoff said. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.