A culture shift redirects the city

How Renton’s growth has forced it to open up more and change socially

As the exponential growth of Renton continues to challenge current and future city leaders, residents are noticing positive changes among their neighbors.

Since the city’s large population increase between the early 2000s and now, the faces of Renton have diversified and aged. The largest portion of the population increase includes older residents and minorities, presenting unique issues and perspectives to a fluid community.

Changes bring diversity

In the recent decade of growth, another important change helped define the city and its response to a changing landscape. Since about 2012, Renton has been a minority-majority population.

“The rate of growth of some of our minority populations has been the most dramatic change,” Deputy Public Affairs Administrator Preeti Shridhar said.

Shridhar has been examining population data in her time at the city, and one of the most significant changes has been the 168 percent increase in the minority population. This is more than neighboring cities, she said.

The first part of this series examined how Renton’s grown; this part will look at the stories and numbers of how its changed.

Violet Aesquivel has lived in Renton for a total of 27 years. She first moved there in 1979, but finally settled in the heart of downtown about 20 years ago after living out of state.

It was just an address for her. Aesquivel said she wasn’t involved in the community, and felt like a stranger. She was worried about walking around.

Now Aesquivel walks through downtown, says hello to passing faces and drives through the neighborhoods with confidence. She’s an active part of the Filipino American Community of Renton and the city as an original member of the Mayor’s Inclusion Task Force.

In the same time Aesquivel’s perspective of Renton changed, the Filipino community increased in Renton, along with almost every other community of color in Renton.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2010 to 2017 show the most significant increase of people of color was in Asian populations, mainly in Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese and Indian communities. Asian communities make up about 22 percent of Renton residents today, a 234 percent increase from 2000.

Other non-white groups have also seen a doubling or tripling of population from 2000 to 2017: the Hispanic/Latinx population increased by 257 percent, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community increased by 558 percent and Black residents increased 137 percent.

Benita Horn is a Renton resident and the city’s inclusion and equity consultant. As more people move to Renton, she’s seen more diverse families moving around her Benson Hill townhome. What she really likes about her area, and Renton in general, is the diversity.

“My kids, grandkids all live in Renton, and they go to school and see people who look like them, teachers who look like them,” Horn said.

Younger residents in Renton are also more diverse. Federal enrollment data for 2019 showed the Renton School District was 25.3 percent white and 24.9 percent Asian. The district is also 24.7 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 14.5 percent Black and about 1.5 percent of students combined are Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

Councilmember Ed Prince said as communities of color in Renton increase, the city has needed to change its outreach.

Shridhar said it’s important for the city to consider the variety of cultures, languages and histories that these different communities bring to Renton. Prince said he thinks the city’s use of social media has helped increase accessibility.

The Mayor’s Inclusion Task force shapes lots of changes to improving relationships and services to the increasing communities of color. Prince said that group and the Renton African American Pastoral Group have helped connect folks with the city, and staff like the Renton Police Department.

Julio Amador has lived in Renton for 19 years, and is an original member of the Task Force as a liaison for the Latinx community.

He said there’s no question Renton is more diverse than it was 19 years ago. He said with today’s presidency, folks in the Hispanic/Latinx community have felt harassed and afraid to go outside. But being in a diverse city, he doesn’t feel as threatened.

“By (Renton) being an inclusive city, I felt less exposed to harassment or attacks,” Amador said. “I absolutely feel safe, and I feel other communities would tell you the same thing.”

Highlands resident Rupy Kaur is a recent member of the Inclusion Task Force, as a representative from Renton’s increasing Sikh community. She said the Sikh community is well established in Kent and SeaTac and is starting to shift into Renton. Kaur said through the task force the city has reached out to help all of Renton be more informed about who Sikh’s are.

“It makes it a lot easier to have a turban … when people are educated about it,” Kaur said. “A lot more education needs to be done, but this has helped.”

Folks in Renton’s Sikh community were also pleasantly surprised when Kaur asked for their opinions on the city Parks and Natural Areas Master Plan, she said, because it felt like their input was wanted. Amador also spread the master plan survey to Latinx folks in Renton, and said it had a similar impact.

Kaur also helps with the Multicultural Festival, and said that and the mayor’s presence at the inclusion task force have made Renton feel more accepting. She said when she talks to folks in other cities, nobody has that kind of direct access to local leaders.

Horn said one way the character of Renton is more inclusive than other places is that residents reach out to other residents in different parts of the city. As a consultant, she’s seen places with silos of people who only stuck within their community. Renton has a longer history of embracing the goal of inclusion.

Mayor Denis Law began his 2019 State of the City with the song “They’re Coming to America,” using it as away to tie-in to the diversity of Renton, mentioning the work of his Inclusion Task Force and the work of Shridhar And Horn.

Shridhar said the dramatic change makes it important that equity is more than a checkmark for Renton.

“It’s one of the reasons we’ve been intentional in looking at who were serving and what we need to do to adjust the services we provide, to the community we serve,” she said.

Prince said the city will never reach an end destination for equity, but that it’s currently addressing issues in the right direction.

He also said he loves that fact that everyone at the city saw inclusion as a priority, and that everyone in the city has a voice at the table, both new and old.

Renton’s retirees

Aesquivel is a senior ambassador and an active member of the Renton Senior Center, and said she feels very at home there, with friendly staff and programs. She’s trying to organize more seniors, both Filipino-American seniors and other folks in Renton, to attend events at the center and create transportation for those seniors.

Twenty-five to 34 year olds have been the biggest ages shift, with 3,534 more residents within that age living in Renton. Still, the average age of Renton residents increased. This follows national trends but opposes other areas of King County, which are getting younger, as reported by the Seattle Times.

Shridhar said it’s not just white populations aging, but a very diverse group of seniors with different needs. The city is aware of the aging and looking at ways to offer needs at the Renton Senior Center.

Tina McKay, a realtor who lives in the Highlands, said she often helps seniors find homes but it’s hard to find one-story ramblers for the aging Renton population. Especially homes customers can afford.

Aesquivel also thinks it will be important for the city to increase affordable housing for seniors throughout the city; she has seen friends moving from bigger homes and wanting apartments.

Shridhar said there’s still an influx of young people, and that the city wants to make sure there needs are met too. She used the unveiling of the new downtown dragon sculpture as an example of more young people and young families gathering in Renton.

Renton’s cultural shift

Renton has become more well-known as a welcoming place.

John Houston grew up in Renton in the 1950s— his family had left the South to create a new life for themselves. They lived on a farm, on the one street composed of black families in Renton.

Houston said his family felt out of place in neighborhoods outside their street. Then in the 1960s, their land was then taken from them by eminent domain. He said it destroyed his family. When he decided to return to Renton, years later, people told him he couldn’t move back after what his family went through there, but he didn’t buy it.

After watching the recent decades of growth, Houston thinks Renton is the city his parents aspired it to be.

“You have a chance. You see black police officers, black politicians and school teachers,” he said. “Everyday, it becomes more and more of that.”

The population increase, which resulted in increased diversity, has opened up options for residents in Renton both in neighborhoods and in the types of businesses in the area, Horn said.

Longtime residents of Renton, like Aesquivel or Houston, who felt alone or excluded before said they’re starting to find identity within the city.

“There’s so many good changes, from where the city was to where it is today, anybody can be proud,” Houston said.

Shridhar said the city is not just focusing on people living in Renton, but those moving to Renton.

“Slowly but steadily we’re changing how we do business,” Shridhar said. “It’s not overnight, but it’s working towards making that transformation.”

A culture shift redirects the city
Photo by Haley Ausbun. On a sunny day at Liberty Park, folks new and old to Renton are using the facilities and enjoying one another’s company.

Photo by Haley Ausbun. On a sunny day at Liberty Park, folks new and old to Renton are using the facilities and enjoying one another’s company.