How Atwell planners are disrupting inequality in housing through community research and changes in policy rhetoric

Aerial view of a coastal residential neighborhood with houses on the waterfront and a densely packed area of homes extending inland. The shoreline features a mix of rocks and beach, with a calm body of water in the foreground. The background is forested, highlighting issues of housing inequality in this scenic locale.


In the late spring months of 2023, Atwell received a unique contract from the state of Washington that would push its planners to do something new and innovative: dig into the history of a city as well as propose new language for future policies related to housing in that area. Though not an easy lift, it would provide an opportunity to learn more about the community of Shoreline, Washington while leading the city’s planning and serving as a voice for housing accessibility and equality. The task would be accomplished through Atwell participating in drafting the city’s Racial Equity Report.

About the Growth Management Act

The Racial Equity Report that Atwell developed was in response to the Growth Management Act (GMA). First enacted in 1990, the GMA in Washington state requires fast-growing cities and counties to develop comprehensive plans and development regulations for their communities. More specifically, the GMA requires cities to plan for and accommodate housing that is affordable to all income levels.

In 2023, this legislation was amended. Not only did the amendment require cities to develop step-by-step plans to accommodate housing, but it also specifically required the inclusion of a racial equity component. This report was to consist of proposed policies to be submitted to the state for review and possible implementation. These proposed policies were intended to introduce specific actions that can be applied to disrupt any pattern of housing inequity; 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.

Creating the Racial Equity Report

For Atwell planner Amanda Hunt, who worked on the proposal from start to finish, the process was long but necessary–and fulfilling. “The goal was to reflect the true needs of the community, not the perceived needs,” Hunt explains. “Diverse voices from the community must be involved throughout the process, so conversations and public engagement must be ongoing.”

The requirement of a racial equity component raised a simple question: What data needs to be collected to write this amendment accurately and comprehensively? There were four key steps to follow to gain this information:

1. Cities and counties across Washington had to adopt a housing element in their comprehensive plans that identified local policies and regulations that induce racially disparate impacts, displacement, and exclusions in housing.

2. Once identified, new policies and regulations needed to be proposed to address and begin undoing racially disparate impacts through the racial equity report.

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

4. 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.

Atwell’s role in developing Shoreline’s Racial Equity Report

Contracted by the state of Washington, Atwell spent about four months drafting a report for Shoreline, Washington. The city was selected due to it having a higher percentage of income diversity than other city in the state. “One of the most important parts of this process was vetting everything to the community as we drafted the report,” Hunt recalls. “The process deserved and received a significant amount of time and concerted effort.”

The process began with an investigation into the history of Shoreline, asking questions such as: Is there evidence of red lining? Were the housing regulations from the 1940s through the 1960s restrictive? The team sought answers to these questions while digging up any evidence they could find indicating exclusion, displacement, and racially restrictive covenants.

As they concluded research into the history of the city, the Atwell team moved into creating a snapshot of current city statistics. They sought out data on differences between income, educational outcomes, and where people are living in the city to develop a map of what’s going on currently. They wanted to understand who resides in the city and who makes up the population. Based on the information collected, the team developed a displacement risk assessment which identifies where displacement is likely to occur by assessing Shoreline’s socioeconomic patterns and changes over time. Residential “displacements” are instances where a household is forced or pressured to move by factors outside of their direct control. The team then took the analysis from the jurisdictional level down to the neighborhood level, investigating where households are statically more likely to be forced to move..

The final product and coming full circle

After four months of collecting and analyzing data and dedicating 50% of each workweek to creating the report, the team put together the draft for the Racial Equity Report for Shoreline. It would then be reviewed by the necessary committees and stakeholders involved in city decisions.

Just a few months after submitting the drafted proposal, Hunt was pleasantly surprised during her attendance to the American Planning Association’s conference in Spokane, Washington, where she discovered employees of Shoreline presenting Atwell’s data. “I was really proud to see our findings presented so publicly,” she said. “This experience will continue to impact my work as a planner due to communication and community investment being so essential to the process. It was really an honor to work on this project.”

The team’s findings can now be found on the commerce website as examples for other jurisdictions.