Centuries-old discriminatory policies cast long shadow on Puget Sound region

A sweeping new report tries to illustrate how government actions in the distant past have negative effects even today for communities of color.

By: - July 8, 2023 10:00 am

(Getty Images)

Discriminatory policies that shaped the Puget Sound region can be traced back centuries and have left a lasting imprint, affecting where people live, how healthy they are, the wealth they have to hand down to their children and a range of other outcomes.

A new report from a regional planning agency attempts to chronicle these policies and their consequences all the way from the 1700s up until the present. The Puget Sound Regional Council, a multi-county planning agency, released the new interactive report on Thursday.

The goal is to give the council and local governments a resource to use when they look at the future of the region. It will be especially useful for smaller cities who don’t have the resources to hire dedicated equity staff, the regional council’s president and Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson said. 

“This work will have a profound impact on the lives of all our region’s residents,” Julius Moss, co-chair of the council’s equity advisory committee, said in a statement. 

The report shows how policies over the last three centuries have led to significant racial disparities for people of color across King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties. 

Wealth, homeownership, home values and the degree to which people have been displaced are all areas where there are gaps between racial and ethnic groups throughout the region, according to the report. 

Past discriminatory housing policies, such as racial restrictive covenants and redlining, have made it difficult for people of color to pass down wealth, according to the report. 

Homeownership rates for people of color are much lower than rates for white households and American Indian or Alaska Native households own homes at the lowest rates. 

For people of color who can afford to purchase homes, property appraisals rates tend to be lower and mortgages are more likely to be denied. 

Additionally, homelessness and incarceration rates are higher for people of color in the region.

Redlining’s lasting mark

With many of these outcomes, government policies such as redlining, highway expansions or lack of sufficient transit, according to the report.

Redlining maps were drawn for many cities across the country, including Seattle, to help determine who qualified for home loans by showing where housing investments would be riskier. Most often the areas deemed most risky were places where more people of color lived, according to the report. 

The practice, along with other policies, often pushed people of color into areas with busy highways, sparse services and limited transit. Often these were also places where health outcomes are worse off than in wealthier neighborhoods.

A new study from the University of Washington showed redlined communities regularly experience worse air quality than their counterparts, which can lead to worse health outcomes.

Similarly, a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that redlined neighborhoods are likely to have double the number of pedestrian fatalities today compared to other communities. Black and Indigenous people have higher pedestrian death rates compared to the rest of the population.

Meanwhile, racial restrictive covenants during the first half of the 20th Century severely limited where people of color could purchase homes and rent apartments. 

In King County alone, 342 subdivisions and 30,000 parcels had racial restrictions, according to the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project at the University of Washington. In Pierce County, 85 subdivisions and 1,500 properties were restricted. 

Attempts to rewrite the past

A number of recent policies at the state level are attempts to right some of the  wrongs mentioned in the report.

The Legislature this year passed a bill that will allow people who have been subject to restrictive racial covenants, or are descendents of those individuals, to receive compensation from the state in the form of an interest-free down payment loan. The money will come from a $100 document recording fee for all real estate transactions. 

Another new law this year will expand the types of housing that can be built across the state, which will eliminate single-family zoning in most cities and towns. The bill allows duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes in some areas to be built across the state, with the hope that more units will mean more options for people to afford housing in places where they’d prefer to live.

Washington’s new Climate Commitment Act also looks to help communities that have been historically subject to environmental harms. The law creates a cap-and-trade program that requires the state’s highest polluters to clean up emissions from their operations or purchase allowances from the state. 

The revenue from those allowances will go toward programs that help fight climate change or go toward communities who have been disproportionately affected by it. Some of the programs already funded through this include lowering costs for heat pumps, investing in transit and helping tribal communities.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.