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New bill could transform vacant land around I-90, North South Corridor, into affordable housing

Vacant lots on either side of Interstate 90 could be revitalized if a new passes.
Rebecca White
Vacant lots on either side of Interstate 90 could be revitalized if a new passes.

Over decades, Interstate 90 and the North South corridor construction permanently removed hundreds of homes and small businesses from Spokane’s East Central, a predominately black, and lower income neighborhood.

A billintroduced this session would create a process to return some of that land to its former purpose.

Senator Andy Billig, a Democrat who represents Spokane and the Senate Majority Leader, says some of the land that was taken for Interstate 90 and the North South Corridor, the state never needed. He says a new bill he introduced this session will create a streamlined process which will allow that land to be redeveloped into parks, affordable housing, or community public spaces.

“I’m always struck when I drive on I-90 toward Seattle when I notice that I-90 goes under Mercer Island. It didn’t bisect that community, but in East Central, it goes right through,” Billig said. “It separated a middle school on one side, an elementary school on the other side. Neighbors were split. We have an ability now to right some of those wrongs.”

The bill has strong support from Betsy Wilkerson, a Spokane City Councilwoman and long-time East Central community leader. Wilkerson lived in East Central when the state started buying up land for new highways, and says hundreds of residents lost both their homes, and sense of community.

“In my opinion, this is an opportunity for them to do the right thing, to help us revitalize that neighborhood and that core,” she said.

Wilkerson says she’s hopeful there will be an environmental justice component to the bill, or funds to protect potential new residents from air pollution and other environmental impacts living near a highway can cause.

This bill is one of a flood of housing bills before the legislature this session. Billig has also signed onto a billthat would create a tax incentive program for Spokane and Tacoma to turn downtown parking lots into affordable housing.

SB 5853, which will allow the Department of Transportation to lease land around Spokane highways to affordable housing providers and other groups, is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate’s transportation committee late next week.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.