Location, Location, Location! Mobility and Opportunity in East King County
By Emily Lieb
What’s in a neighborhood? Scholars (and realtors) agree: Where a person lives determines how much access to opportunity she has. Good schools, safe streets, high-quality housing that appreciates in value, accessible jobs and services, clean air and water—all of these things make it possible for people to do the best they can for themselves and their families. Poor schools, high crime rates, bad housing, an unhealthy environment, and relative inaccessibility do the opposite. Each one of these things is an obstacle standing between a family and its potential.
Unfortunately, opportunity costs money. Communities across the United States have swapped explicitly racist practices like restrictive covenants and mortgage redlining for supposedly race-neutral but no less exclusionary zoning rules and restrictions on the development of affordable housing. The result is that many high-opportunity places are just as segregated as ever—and that’s a big problem. As scholars Douglas S. Massey, Len Albright, Rebecca Casciano, Elizabeth Derickson, and David N. Kinsey put it in their recent book Climbing Mount Laurel:
As individuals and families move up the economic ladder, they translate gains in income and wealth into improved residential circumstances, which puts them in a better position to realize even greater socioeconomic gains in the future. By interspersing residential and socioeconomic mobility, over time and across the generations, families and social groups ratchet themselves upward in the class distribution. In a very real way, therefore, barriers to residential mobility are barriers to social mobility.
As a result, housing-mobility programs like King County ARCH—efforts to give low-income folks more of a choice about where they can live, and to make high-opportunity places more affordable for everyone—are about more than just housing. They can help reduce racial and class segregation while they lower those barriers to social mobility that trap, and keep, people in poverty.
Not long ago, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University teamed up with the Puget Sound Regional Council to map what researchers call the “geography of opportunity” in Seattle and the surrounding counties. Using data from five “opportunity indicators”—education, economic health, housing and neighborhood quality, mobility and transportation, and health and environment—the team confirmed that access to opportunity is unequally distributed across the Seattle metropolitan area. (See map.) For the most part, the region’s highest-scoring neighborhoods are concentrated in Seattle proper and in ARCH’s “sphere of influence” across Lake Washington to the east.
Those high-opportunity places in East King County also tend to be the places with the lowest poverty rates in the region. (See map.) High-poverty neighborhoods are concentrated south of Seattle; on the Eastside, by contrast, low poverty and high opportunity overlap.
What all this means is that in King County, too many low-income people simply don’t live in, or even near, high-opportunity places. That’s the problem ARCH is trying to solve.
There are a number of tools municipalities can use to increase access to high-opportunity places like the ones on Seattle’s Eastside, if they choose to; the problem is, most don’t. For instance, researchers at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley recently found that cities in the San Francisco Bay Area with large white populations aren’t planning for their fair share of affordable housing. This isn’t uncommon: in metropolitan areas across the country, affluent suburbs (and urban neighborhoods) too often fortify themselves by restricting the development of affordable housing—via exclusionary zoning rules that keep density low and prices high, for example.
That’s what makes King County, and King County ARCH, unique. ARCH is a voluntary partnership between King County and 15 King County cities: Beaux Arts Village, Bellevue, Bothell, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Issaquah, Kenmore, Kirkland, Medina, Mercer Island, Newcastle, Redmond, Sammamish, Woodinville, and Yarrow Point. ARCH works to increase access to high-opportunity places on Seattle’s Eastside in two main ways:
- Via its Housing Trust Fund, to which member cities contribute, ARCH helps build high-quality housing across East King County that is affordable and accessible to low-income people.
- ARCH also encourages member cities to adopt policy tools that make it easier for people who aren’t wealthy to move to high-opportunity places. These include incentive-zoning programs (adopted by Kirkland, Bellevue, Issaquah, and Redmond) that reward developers who set aside housing units for low- and middle-income households, along with ordinances (passed in Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, and King County as a whole) prohibiting what’s known as source-of-income discrimination against people who use vouchers or other subsidies to pay the rent.
And so we ask: How can we gauge the success of these measures? How can we tell what works and why, so that we can help other municipalities adopt, and adapt, these strategies?
Thanks to decades of research from the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program in Chicago to the Moving to Opportunity experiment in Baltimore, Los Angeles, and other cities, we are beginning to understand, in a general sense, the effects of housing mobility on poor people themselves. We know that moving to a higher-opportunity community can improve low-income people’s lives in significant ways: from recent studies of the MTO experiment, for example, we learned that children who moved to a low-poverty neighborhood before they turned 13 saw increased future annual income, higher marriage rates, and higher rates of college attendance at better-quality colleges. The great breadth of this work has made it possible for us to take a slightly different tack, looking in-depth at the experiences of individual families who have moved to East King County with ARCH’s help. What have been the benefits, and costs, of that choice? Would people make the same choice again today?
The Seattle metropolitan area has changed a great deal since ARCH began in the early 1990s. Over the past two decades especially, we’ve seen what King County planners call “a thinning of the middle”: in 2013, 41 percent of the population earned less than 80 percent of the county’s median income, which is around $86,000 for a family of three. In King County as a whole, 37 percent of residents are housing-cost–burdened, which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. (See table.) In North and East King County, it’s 34 percent (39 percent of renter households).
In the face of this rising inequality, rich and poor neighborhoods across King County have grown more, not less, entrenched. Seattle’s metropolitan area isn’t unique in this regard; in fact, in many ways it’s a bellwether for the rest of the nation. The question is: can ARCH be a bellwether, too?
 Douglas S. Massey, Len Albright, Rebecca Casciano, Elizabeth Derickson, and David N. Kinsey, Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013), 2.