Our current zoning system, which restricts low-income people to a tiny percentage of the city and preserves two-thirds of the city as exclusive enclaves for mostly wealthy homeowners, has its roots in racism and classism.
That may not be the motivation of current Seattle homeowners who want to preserve these enclaves today, and certainly there are no explicit racial rules or covenants anymore, but any honest single-family neighborhood resident should admit that he or she is the beneficiary of a system built on racist, classist housing policies.
That, in fewer words, is what the development plan that spawned a thousand think pieces (and at least one sputtering editorial), the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda report, says on Page 24, where its authors note that Seattle’s existing zoning map, which preserves two-thirds of the city as exclusive enclaves for mostly wealthy homeowners, “has roots in racial and class exclusion.” Those seven words have shocked and offended many of the plan’s opponents, who argue that racism and classism are in the past, that those policies were built by individual racist bankers, not a racist system, that history has no lasting ramifications.
They’ve also served as conversation stoppers for many in the odd coalition of politicians and activists opposing the plan, a coalition that includes everyone from homeowners who say, “I support density, but…” to low-income housing advocates who claim that any upzones will just benefit developers who want to replace modest single-family homes with “$900,000 townhouses.” The most common diversion tactic (used by no-growth conservatives and anti-development liberals alike) goes something like this: “It’s just ridiculous to suggest that our zoning is racist. How dare they? This calls all of the HALA conclusions into question.”
The liberal anti-developer crowd was represented the other night by council members (and homeowners) Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant, who faced off against developer lobbyist Roger Valdez and Ellensberg Republican Matt Manweller before a Sawant-friendly audience at Town Hall. Although the topic of the “debate” was rent control, the discussion returned repeatedly to the HALA recommendations, which fundamentally shakesup the old assumption that single-family zoning is sacred.
Licata argued that development inevitably leads to displacement of people who live in buildings that are older and have fewer amenities, which function as de facto affordable housing, and Sawant accused her pro-density foes of believing in “trickle-down housing,” the idea that a greater supply of expensive condos and townhouses at the top of the affordability scale will lead, all by itself, to more affordable housing options at the bottom. Both council members accused their opponents of advocating free-market anarchy, unrestrained development without any government rules to help lower-income people survive in the city.
In truth, no one in Seattle is arguing that the government should do nothing to preserve and create affordable housing, or that “the market” will solve all our problems. Manweller may be saying stuff like that out in Ellensberg, but HALA certainly isn’t: Among the 28-member committee’s 65 recommendations is a comprehensive suite of affordable-housing interventions, from doubling the housing levy to expanding the housing trust fund to mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build affordable housing on site in exchange for denser zoning.
In reality, all those straw-man claims that HALA opponents make about their opponents are camouflage for their real target: Provisions in HALA that would allow slightly more density in single-family areas (a duplex or row house where an expansive lawn once sprawled across the urban landscape) and multifamily zones (an extra story or two on a low-rise apartment building). Increased density and growth, they believe, is the root of all gentrification and displacement, and the only way to stop it is to preserve Seattle’s single-family zones.
The problem is that gentrification and displacement are already happening, and will only be made worse by policies designed to exclude new residents from two-thirds of the city. The HALA report acknowledges that in the short term, giving developers more freedom to develop may not “immediately decrease rents.” But, they continue, it will ensure “a growing supply of larger multifamily housing across the city [that will] help to stem rent increases over the long-term.”
The idea, espoused by liberals like Licata and Sawant, that we should restrict new development to avoid gentrification, intersects conveniently and precisely with the conservative argument against allowing new people inside Seattle’s exclusive single-family communities, which says that we need to keep things as they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. (They would say they want to “preserve neighborhood character,” but it amounts to the same thing.) What this camp fails to mention is that single-family homeowners are the main beneficiaries of Seattle’s housing crisis; as renters are forced to compete for a limited supply of housing on a tiny amount of land, their property values increase by hundreds of thousands.
This curmudgeonly faction of no-growth advocates are represented not by the council members on stage at Town Hall this week but by pundits like Knute Berger and Danny Westneat, who can give you every reason from here to Spokane about why single-family zones are just sacred, they just are, and why rules that crack open the gates of those “exclusive” (HALA’s word) communities to people of color and the lower-middle class will destroy everything charming and wonderful and unique about Seattle.(It might also disrupt the upward trajectory of their home values, which increase in direct proportion to the affordable-housing crisis for everyone else.)
In a recent column, headlined “Save the bungalows and create affordable housing,” Westneat pined for the Seattle of days gone by, when households were larger (back when moms stayed at home and had four or five kids, and a man could pay the mortgage on a little bungalow on a Boeing salary) and the city had no need for 21st Century ideas like townhouses and duplexes and nontraditional families. “In the 1960s, Seattle had nearly 3 people per housing unit. Now it’s down to two and slated to go below 1.8 by 2035,” Westneat laments. “So part of the reason we need to keep developing like crazed Ayn Rand characters is because we aren’t utilizing the houses we already have.”
Actually, the reason we need to keep developing isn’t because developers are “crazed” Howard Roark clones but because people want to live here, and they need somewhere to live. Turn all the rec rooms you want into basement apartments (Westneat’s suggestion to avoid visible new density in single-family neighborhoods), but you still won’t make more than a tiny dent in housing demand. Westneat suggests that one in every 20 homeowners can be convinced to retrofit and rent out part of the family home, producing 6,000 affordable units. That’s optimistic, and it assumes affordability based on the premise that homeowners are inherently kind-hearted and won’t seek to profit from their tenants. Westneat should ask the owner of a small apartment building if that’s how it works.
Oh, and third: The new tax break Westneat would create to pay for all these basement and attic apartments would cost city taxpayers $60 million. That’s nearly half the current housing levy. For a tax break that would only benefit homeowners, that’s a pretty big ask. I know I’m not voting for it. But then, I don’t believe in trickle-down housing.
Berger, whom I debated before a live audience last Friday on KUOW’s Week in Review, took a typically mossbackian approach in his own recent column denouncing the mayor’s plan, which he said would ravage Seattle’s “bedrock single-family neighborhoods to accommodate” renters and other non-property owning life forms. (I like and respect Berger, but if a housing form that dates from 80 years ago is our “bedrock,” we need to rethink the entire premise of our city.) Seattle, Berger continued, is “a special place to live” and “a cool place to be” because it isn’t “elite” like Shanghai or San Francisco. Growth, Berger concludes, might be “simply a serpent devouring its own tail.” The more of them we let in, the more they destroy our quality of life, the very thing that makes them want to live here.
Obviously development must be shaped and directed, not allowed to run rampant. The problem is that no-growthers like Berger (“don’t destroy our bedrock!”) and single-family preservations like Westneat (“I guess we could handle a few more poor people, as long as we hide them in existing houses”) don’t have a comprehensive solution. All they have is delaying tactics.
Which brings us back to classism and racism. When the HALA committee bravely pointed out that Seattle’s current zoning “has roots in racial and class exclusion,” they were referring to redlining, restrictive covenants, and other practices that kept non-white and non-wealthy people out of white, wealthy areas. It’s no coincidence that the areas “protected” by redlining by mortgage brokers and other private entities correspond to the single-family areas that exist, and remain largely the province of the white and wealthy, today.
Single-family protectionists of all stripes–from standard-issue NIMBYs to well-meaning low-income activists–have responded that there may have been racism once, but that was all a long time ago, and the problems we have today are because of new residents, not past policies.
The defenders are dug in. They include apologists like University of Washington architecture professor Jeffrey Ochsner, who recently wrote a mass email (subject line: “Seattle’s zoning is not racist”) to neighborhood activists claiming that redlining is completely different from zoning because redlining was done by private individuals like mortgage lenders, not the government. “People who conflate zoning with racially restrictive covenants or red-lining are confusing legally quite different methods of land use control,” Ochsner writes. “They are also misinterpreting the available historical research.”
This dismissal-by-semantics is an insult to both history and people’s lived experience. To say that Seattle land-use policies became progressive the moment redlining was outlawed (by federal fiat, in 1968, after Seattle voters overwhelmingly voted to uphold it) is as laughable as saying that the Confederate flag became a neutral symbol of “heritage” the second the North and South were reunited. To say that laws preserving white enclaves today have no historical antecedent because their roots are in practice, not law, is to say that structural racism does not exist. And to suggest that Seattle’s current color and economic boundaries are mere accident, not legacy, is to whitewash redlining.
And this, ultimately, is the truth that few who talk about preserving “our single-family heritage” want to admit: That the “heritage” and “character” they are clutching is a direct result of excluding those who remain excluded today; that fancy enclaves would not have been creative and preserved without low-income ghettos; and that policies that continue to keep that heritage intact now are the legacy, if not the inevitable result, of our classist and racist history.