The Tenants Union’s Violet Lavatai talks about displacement, gentrification and growing up in the Rainier Valley
By Cliff Cawthon, Contributing Writer
While walking along in Columbia City’s business district, I noticed and shuddered at the installation of paid-parking zones. My mind started to contemplate the re-structuring of Seattle’s newest “hip” neighborhood. The orange flags identified new pay meters, but they also meant something more: Columbia City, like the commons of old, was being enclosed and reserved. There definitely wasn’t any going back.
The gentrification of Columbia City isn’t a new topic. This recent small, but noticeable parking change, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, was designed to address the “absence of available parking” in the neighborhood.
For the better part of two decades now, longtime residents and newer residents who’ve reflected the neighborhood’s traditional non-white and working-class character have been pushed out. Many have been lamenting this phenomenon, confronting it, trying to adapt to it, and/ or fighting like hell against it.
Violet Lavatai, the Interim Executive Director of the Tenants Union of Washington, is not just someone who is currently fighting displacement but she has also been forced out of Columbia City. (Full disclosure: I am co-chair of the Tenants Union board of directors.)
In 1975, Lavatai’s family moved from California to Columbia City to stay with her uncle. Today neither she nor her uncle, siblings or cousins can afford to live in the neighborhood and have moved elsewhere. I sat down and discussed how the neighborhood went from a largely working-class, people-of-color neighborhood to a largely middle-class neighborhood filled with fancy niche stores and gourmet restaurants.
**Note: During the interview, Ms. Lavatai was not speaking on behalf of the Tenants Union of Washington, but rather for herself. All perspectives and opinions in this interview are hers and hers alone.
Cawthon: When you first came to Columbia City, what did it look like in 1975?
Lavatai: It was so very diverse. There were people of every different nationality there. There were working families. During the summer, El Centro De La Raza would do a summer lunch program for us younger [children]. We would go up there and be a part of those lunch programs—it created community for us.
Cawthon: When did you start to notice that the neighborhood was changing in a big way and displacing longtime residents?
Lavatai: I started to notice the change in the nineties. I started to notice everything being torn down. It was just different businesses coming in after others were being torn down. There was a people-of-color-owned business—a swap meet—that didn’t survive. I knew right there and then that working families weren’t moving in. It was families with higher incomes moving in. The swap meet [and other small people-of-color-owned businesses] didn’t survive.
Cawthon: What triggered those changes to happen in the neighborhood?
Lavatai: Remember Microsoft [as well as Boeing] was a part of the growth in Seattle. In the mid-nineties, higher-income families came and that’s when some of the displacement started.
For example, in [the public-housing development] Rainier Vista, it’s different now, it’s mixed-income. Rainier Vista used to be a low-income, housing property. A lot of the people who lived there were people of color.
Cawthon: Some things have changed and some things stayed the same for the families in these neighborhoods. What changed? How did it change?
Lavatai: When Holly Park was dilapidated, the [Seattle Housing Authority] decided they were going to rebuild Holly Park and it was going to be mixed income: low, medium, and high-income residents. That’s how it started. They were [creating] a model where they would [bring in] high-income homeowners [to live alongside] low-income residents. They renamed Holly Park to New Holly.
Cawthon: What happened to the low-income families that were already living in Holly Park?
Lavatai: A lot of them were pushed out to Kent. A lot of them moved out of the city. [The Seattle Housing Authority] fixed up Rainier Vista and Holly Park and then a lot of [low-income residents] moved. This is where it started, in my opinion. The families living in low-income housing [at Rainer Vista] were the first to be pushed out. Get this: now, a lot of the people who own houses around New Holly are white people.
Cawthon: Do you see the same pattern in Columbia City?
Lavatai: Yes, particularly, with Rainier Vista. In Rainer Vista, there are a lot of white families [who own], and there’s a few people of color that own. This is the mixed-income model.
Cawthon: Is this a positive or negative thing for Columbia City and much of the Rainier Valley? And why?
Lavatai: If you want equity in housing, this is a negative thing. This isn’t equity in housing. For example, look at the stores you see [in Columbia City]. There’s a lot of [businesses] where low-income families can’t afford to go. There are a lot of new small stores but you’ll see the majority of them are owned by white people.
Cawthon: How will this trend change Columbia City and the Rainier Valley going forward?
Lavatai: As you can tell, it’s already happening. In the future, you’re going to see these neighborhoods becoming higher income and less diverse.
Cawthon: In 2017, The Seattle Times’ columnist Nicole Brodeur caught heat for writing “Columbia City is historically a pass-through. But now it’s a destination.” As someone who spent most of their youth in Columbia City, and someone whose seen these changes, how did that make you feel?
Lavatai: It actually pissed me off. Here are people who have no investment in the neighborhood, yet they’re talking about something that they have no idea about. Do you know what I mean? They had no idea what Columbia City was and what those who live there looked like.
Cawthon: What were some of your fondest memories of living in Columbia City and the Rainier Valley?
Lavatai: One of my fondest memories is the Columbia City Library. It’s the only thing that has never changed. My cousins, my siblings and I would use it for books and cassette tapes. Every time I see the library, it’s a reminder that the neighborhood is still standing. A lot of those empty churches and buildings that they’ve started to convert into [high-end] homes, those are things that represent what has been pushed out.
Cawthon: What do you think will happen in the future, and what should happen?
Lavatai: If the mayor doesn’t step in and create more affordable housing then you’ll see a different Seattle: a predominantly white, upper-class city.
Cawthon: Some people argue that higher-income residents, newer businesses and more mixed-income housing will make the neighborhood much better. What are your thoughts on this?
Lavatai: That’s what trips me out. If you’re higher-income and white, then your neighborhood is considered ‘nicer’. There’s lots of different crime and issues in many different neighborhoods. There are misconceptions that low-income and more diverse neighborhoods are bad. When I was younger, we stayed out until 1:00 am. There was a bar called Angie’s Tavern and everyone would hang out there. There wasn’t any ‘car-jacking,’ it was just everyone getting together and acting silly. What people are saying about whiter neighborhoods not having any crime or trauma is a lie and a stereotype that persists today.
Cawthon: What were the consequences of displacement for you, personally.
Lavatai: No one [but me] lives in Seattle anymore. My family members have their own lives in different cities—that’s the toll it has taken for us. The [Metro buses] number 7 and 48 were our Uber drivers. It’s nostalgic for me because we were safe. You could walk down the street at night in your own community.
Cawthon: In December, Mayor Durkan announced $100 million investment in affordable housing. Do you think that’s enough? What needs to happen?
Lavatai: We need rent control. We need housing that we can afford. If you want to live on Capitol Hill then you need to be making $100,000 per year. We need to build places that people can actually afford.
Cawthon: Would you like to own a home in Columbia City one day?
Lavatai: It’s one of my dreams right now to own a home in the city of Seattle. At the rate things are going right, it’s almost hopeless. You have developers coming and building [luxury] homes. The faster they’re building; the faster people are going on the street. That’s true, it’s a fact. What do they do with these big buildings? What do they invest their millions in these buildings for? If the city would build more housing units people could go into, we’d have very, very few people living on the street.
Questions, comments, tips?
Cliff Cawthon is a freelance contributor to Outside City Hall. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition, nor does he speak for the organization. George Howland Jr, longtime independent Seattle journalist, is his editor at Outside City Hall. Cawthon is a south Seattle-based educator, organizer, politico and writer, originally hailing from Buffalo, NY. He’s currently an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Bellevue College. Cawthon has been working in politics for the last 15 years. For the previous four years in Washington state, he has worked, most notably, as a workers’ rights and housing justice organizer and leader. He’s been involved in major campaigns, such as the Fight for Fifteen in Tacoma and statewide, and the Seattle Progressive Income Tax. In his down time, he’s the Co-Chair of the Tenants Union Board of Directors, a Commissioner on the Seattle’s Renters Commission, a freelance writer and a community radio host on Rainier Ave. Radio. He holds an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science.