Opinion: Tackling Seattle housing crisis requires cleanup of city’s toxic sites

The Mt. Baker Housing Association requested state funds to clean up this site for its Gateway Project, which will provide 150 new affordable housing units. (Photo courtesy Mt. Baker Housing Association.)

More than 1,000 people are moving to Seattle every week and the rise in rent is an all-too-familiar topic. We’ve seen home prices and rent more than double in the last decade. Many in our families — like many families of color — have been displaced by the rising costs of this city and now reside in places like Kent and Federal Way. The city we’ve lived the majority of our lives can begin to no longer feel familiar.

So what is the answer? We need to build more affordable housing in the places hardest hit by rent increases and we need to do it fast. Typical housing issues like zoning, siting, and funding will have a dramatic effect on this process. But our state legislature has a crucial decision to make that has a major effect on building new affordable housing, toxic clean-up and prevention funding.

It may not be the first issue that comes to mind, but cleaning up these sites is a key factor in siting and building new affordable housing in the neighborhoods that need it most. What you can afford can determine whether you are exposed to deeply and dangerously polluted sites, or if you have a vibrant livable community to call home. A 2016 Front and Centered report found that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic sites in Washington state. Here in Seattle, neighborhoods like South Park, Georgetown, and Skyway are still gravely impacted by the health effects from toxic sites and it threatens new investment in these communities.

Since the 1980s, Washington has had a little known program to clean up and prevent toxic polluted sites — in rural and urban communities alike — across the state. The state’s Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) has quietly helped clean-up over 6,000 sites statewide.

Through MTCA, Mt. Baker Housing Association’s Gateway Project will clean up a polluted sited and provide 150 new affordable housing units without displacing any current residents. This is the first MTCA project working in collaboration with a nonprofit landowner and provides a win-win case study for how these funds can help alleviate our city’s current crisis. But opportunities like this are currently under threat.

Last November, a state report found that MTCA funding varies greatly from year-to-year and demand far exceeds available funds. For years, the state has cut millions of dollars for cleaning up toxic sites and pollution prevention, and work here in Seattle and around the state has begun to stall.

If funding isn’t restored, those of us working on climate justice cannot continue the progress we’ve made to improve the health of everyday people. As a result, the community will fall deeper into the housing crisis, while those who can least afford it will be hit the hardest.

To break this cycle, we have to invest in cleaning-up and preventing what’s still coming into our neighborhoods. To do this right, we also have to fund state public participation grants to give communities a voice in their own futures. Without these grants, communities like those around Seattle’s Duwamish River clean-up wouldn’t have been able to engage in their own neighborhood’s restoration.

Right now in Olympia our legislators are making crucial decisions about the state’s budget. They need to know that we need a solution to fund toxic clean-up and pollution prevention projects. HB 2182 is a reasonable and equitable solution that will restore the MTCA program. It can help Seattle improve the health of local neighborhoods and provide a crucial piece of the puzzle to create more affordable housing.

We know we can work with communities to design housing that improves the neighborhood and creates healthy, affordable properties, places residents are proud to call home. Our legislature needs to step up and give more people in our city a new lease on life.

An artists rendering of the Gateway Project. (Photo courtesy Mt. Baker Housing Association.)