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February 29, 2024

Disrupting inequality in housing

  • Involving diverse voices early in the process was essential in drafting Shoreline’s racial equity report evaluating past and present housing regulations.


    In the late spring months of 2023, planners at Atwell were selected by the city of Shoreline to do something new and innovative for the city: dig into its history, demographics, and socioeconomic data, and use that information to draft its first racial equity analysis.

    Shoreline, in northwest King County, received a missing middle housing grant in late 2022 to conduct the analysis, evaluating past and present regulations and policies that may have caused housing inequity impacts.

    Leading this effort was no small task, requiring meticulous research, communication with local leaders, and education and outreach in the community. However, not only did we get the opportunity to learn more about the unique urban-coastal community, but we also had the chance to contribute to the city’s current and future planning while serving as a voice for local housing accessibility.


    Photo courtesy of Sound Transit [enlarge]
    Atwell found trends connecting upcoming light rail stations to future housing instability. Considerations for rezoning and inclusionary zoning to create and preserve affordable units in the area were explored.

    First enacted in 1990, Washington's Growth Management Act (GMA) requires fast-growing cities and counties to develop comprehensive plans and development regulations for their communities. In 2021, the legislature amended the GMA to require cities to plan for and accommodate housing that is affordable to all income levels, and implores cities to evaluate how historic laws, regulations, and development practices have created housing inequity, displacement, and exclusion of racial groups.

    Not only did the amendment require cities to develop step-by-step plans to accommodate affordable housing, but also a racial equity component in the housing elements of their municipal comprehensive plans. Shoreline’s Racial Equity Analysis proposed policies to be submitted to the state for approval. These proposed policies were intended to reduce and mitigate displacement risk, and begin to undo racially disparate impacts; for example, removing certain language from policies that can cause unintentional harm or be interpreted or implemented in a way that could impact residents disproportionately.

    It took about three months to draft the report. We started with an investigation into the city’s history, asking questions such as: Is there evidence of redlining? Were the housing regulations from the 1940s through the 1960s restrictive? Were historic comprehensive plan policies unintentionally harmful?

    We sought answers to these questions while digging through any evidence we could find indicating exclusion, displacement, and racially restrictive covenants. We were able to divide this research into four main goals:

    1. Identify local policies and regulations that result in racially disparate impacts, displacement, and exclusion in housing, including:

    a. Zoning that may have a discriminatory effect

    b. Disinvestment

    c. Infrastructure availability

    2. Identify and implement policies and regulations to address and begin to undo racially disparate impacts, displacement, and exclusion in housing caused by local policies, plans, and actions.

    3. Identify areas that may be at higher risk of displacement from market forces, zoning, development regulations and capital investments.

    The jurisdictions are expected to establish anti-displacement policies and actions to make sure that historically displaced communities, or people currently experiencing racially disparate impacts, have support from jurisdictions to attain affordable housing. Special consideration will be given to investments in low- and moderate-income housing.


    One of the most important parts of this process was community engagement. Engagement with the Shoreline community was achieved through four distinct efforts: community-based organization interviews, focus groups, a virtual public meeting, and an online survey. The process required a significant amount of time and concerted effort, and we wanted to make sure it received the attention it deserved.

    Photo by Atwell [enlarge]
    Atwell dug into Shoreline’s history, demographics and socioeconomic data with the goal of drafting a report reflecting the true needs of the community, as opposed to the perceived needs.

    As one of the planners who worked on the proposal from start to finish, I can admit this project pushed us all in new ways. While I have experience with a number of other housing action plans, it was my first time addressing issues such as racially-disproportionate cost burden, housing accessibility, and areas of displacement risk. Identifying current and potential future barriers in the community that could impact affordable housing, such as new infrastructure, transportation and education access, and expiration of affordable housing covenants, was also a new challenge. I viewed those challenges as opportunities for strategic planning, and our team definitely expanded our skills, comfort zones, and knowledge of Shoreline’s community history and culture through our research.

    Our discoveries led us to a simple goal: to draft a report that reflected the true needs of the community, as opposed to the perceived needs. It was imperative for diverse voices from the community to be involved throughout this process, so we made sure to initiate and maintain engagement with the public

    As we concluded our research into the history of the city, our team created a snapshot of current city statistics including differences between income, rental versus homeowner households, and where people are living, to develop a map of who resides in various neighborhoods, and understand why households by racial group may live there.

    Based on the information collected, our team developed a Displacement Risk Analysis which identified where displacement was likely to occur by assessing Shoreline’s socioeconomic patterns, redevelopment attractors, physical displacement risks, and future vulnerability factors. Residential “displacements” are instances where a household is forced or pressured to move by factors outside of their direct control.

    Within the Displacement Risk Analysis, we reviewed data from the jurisdictional level down to the neighborhood level, investigating where households are statically more likely to be forced to move. For example, we found trends connecting the upcoming light rail stations to future housing instability, and the increased displacement risk near those stations. Upzoning is expected upon construction of the light rail stations, and increases in average home values or rental prices of nearby neighborhoods may be produced as a result. Considerations for rezoning and inclusionary zoning to create and preserve affordable units in the area were explored. To reduce displacement risk among vulnerable groups, these types of analyses and strategic planning solutions are important for planners to consider throughout research efforts.

    Our findings can now be found on Shoreline’s website, as well as the Washington Department of Commerce’s website, as examples for other jurisdictions.


    We learned two major lessons from this experience. One was that budgeting for community engagement is a must. To produce a document that will serve specific needs identified by the community, outreach has to happen from the earliest phase all the way through the end.

    The second lesson was to look at examples of similar work that has been done in similar jurisdictions, and reach out for clarity on how to formulate ideas and recommendations for your own project. Many localities are going through these new regulatory requirements for the first time, and therefore likely do not have a racial equity expert on hand. Seeking guidance from the state and working together with other jurisdictions to understand their effective policies was paramount. As planners, we had to ensure that the document was written in a way that everyone could learn and understand, and propose recommended policies and actions that were feasible and effective in meeting Shoreline’s specific housing needs.

    Just a few months after submitting the drafted proposal, I attended the American Planning Association’s conference in Spokane and was pleasantly surprised to discover employees of Shoreline presenting Atwell’s data analysis to the audience. I was honored to see our findings presented so publicly, and proud to know that our work could have a major impact on the city’s housing for generations to come.

    This was a very fulfilling moment for me professionally and personally, because we all live in a community. We are all impacted by policies that affect the housing available and affordable to us. The more educated we are on the regulatory systems and stakeholders responsible for housing cost and development, the better we can contribute to educated discussions with jurisdictions, developers, and landlords when creating plans that can impact — and equitably benefit — everyone.

    Amanda Hunt is a planner for Atwell in the real estate and land development sector, primarily performing long-range planning tasks for municipalities including housing action plans and comprehensive plan updates.

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