As most readers of this blog probably know by now, after city council president Tim Burgess announced he would join his colleague Mike O’Brien in opposing new rules allowing duplexes and townhouses in single-family areas, Mayor Ed Murray disavowed this controversial element of his own Housing Affordability and Livability Plan, citing “blowback” from angry single-family homeowners as his reason for tossing aside ten months of work by the committee he himself appointed.
When your best reason for abandoning a carefully considered policy that would bring Seattle into the mainstream of cities nationwide (currently, with two-thirds of our land zoned exclusively for single-family detached houses, we are very much an outlier) is, as Burgess put it on his blog, that “some believe it will lead to speculators buying up homes, tearing them down, and replacing them with more expensive multi-family structures,” you aren’t making an argument. You’re saying that a relative handful of very vocal single-family homeowners with the resources and the time to yell the loudest are enough to sway your opinion on major public policy decisions.
Although I hear Murray has privately blamed others, like Burgess, for caving to noisy NIMBYs first (Burgess’ defection made it harder for Murray to stand by his mandate), one mark of leadership is standing up to pressure even when doing so makes people mad at you. A hallmark of Murray’s administration, as Josh points out, has been bringing together warring groups and coming up with a consensus solution that the mayor then puts his political capital behind. Previously, Murray would walk into political hurricanes to preserve deals like the phased-in $15 minimum wage. Now, he’s ready to abandon a hard-won agreement at the first sign of a stiff wind.
The wind, or “blowback,” came in this case from the Seattle Times (chief instigator: Columnist Danny Westneat, owner, with his wife, Mercy Housing staffer Sarah Westneat, of a $700,000 house in Madrona), and an organized cadre of single-family activists who firmly believe that a townhouse or a duplex next door will ruin their property values, produce intolerable noise, undermine the aesthetic they prefer for their neighborhood, or make the neighborhood “unneighborly.” In the furious Twitter and Facebook discussions over the news in the last few days, neighborhood activists have even gone so far as to suggest that people who live in multifamily housing, as a class, don’t interact with their neighbors, participate in community activities like National Night Out, or have potlucks. (They’ve also said single-family homeowners don’t want to live near townhouses and duplexes because the people who live in places like that are constantly making noise, and they–unlike those of us who live in multifamily dwellings–like to sleep at night.)
It’s easy to other and demonize a large group of people if you’ve never socialized with one or visited any of their homes. (Seriously: No potlucks?) It’s even easier to fight factual statements, such as the observation that Seattle’s current zoning, housing patterns, and disparity in homeownership rates between white and non-white citizens, reflects a racist past, with rhetorical gambits. Those include semantics (“That racist practice wasn’t technically ‘zoning,’ so you aren’t allowed to talk about its impacts today!”), double-reverse-backflip accusations (“I think it’s just appalling that you’re calling XX a racist!”, and straw men (“You’re saying that brand-new townhomes will be affordable to low-income people!” or “You believe in trickle-down Reaganomics!”), among others.
And it’s easier still to shit all over density proponents for not respecting the Very Important History of Seattle’s (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly wealthy) single-family neighborhoods, which are, by the way, a massive anomaly among major cities; we need only look down the road to Portland, where just 3 percent of land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes, for an example of what an outlier Seattle is in refusing to allow housing diversity on 65 percent of its land mass.
What’s harder, apparently, is for single-family protectionists to come up with one single reason for their frantic efforts to keep two-thirds of the city all to themselves. The honest ones may say, “Because I don’t like the way that one building down the street looks!” but that’s about all you hear. When people respond to comments about the racial history of exclusive neighborhoods or the need to accommodate 120,000 people moving here in the next 20 years in a way that doesn’t crowd them all into high-rises on a few acres of the city by saying “But, but, but — what about what YOU’RE saying?” what they’re saying is that they don’t have a reason. Except maybe a feeling, a ticklish twinkle of discomfort that things change over time, and change can be hard to accept. When former city council member Judy Nicastro called Seattle “Mayberry with high-rises” more than a decade ago, she couldn’t have known how true her words would still be today.
Neighborhood activists, narrowly defined as those who live in single-family homes and have the time to show up at endless meetings and launch letter-writing campaigns and donate to politicians who then grant them an audience and take their views seriously, have always been a powerful force in this city. So it’s little wonder that a relative handful of these activists were able to cow Murray into abandoning a plan that a group of 28 people worked out over 10 months and that was backed by the full faith and credit of not just Murray but O’Brien, Burgess, and other council members who later turned tail. Little wonder, but a disappointment. Murray’s decision to cave under the same pressure that always faces political leaders in Seattle sends a message to single-family protectionists that victory is determined by who makes the most noise. Cry the loudest, and you’ll get your candy.
There’s another theory, though, that could also explain the mayor’s turnaround. Maybe single-family zoning was never really on the table to begin with. Murray and Burgess have both called the issue a “distraction,” a side issue that could undermine the entire HALA plan, including upzones in multifamily areas, if he let it drag on. If this second theory is true, then the single-family changes were always red meat for the neighborhood activists to latch on to and tear to bits while the mayor and council moved forward on other aspects of the plan that might otherwise have raised a similar outcry. Distraction gone, activists appeased (and given the opportunity to seem reasonable by not opposing the multifamily upzones), let’s move on.
Whatever the politicians’ reason for caving, they set economic integration back years by rejecting this small move toward a more diverse, and neighborly, city. They showed that they have no respect for hard-won agreements and will abandon them at the first sign of public pressure. And they taught well-connected, heavily entrenched neighborhood activists an important lesson: Bullying works.