Anti-Density Activists’ Race and Social Justice Gotcha Backfires

In blue: The parts of the city where apartments are illegal. (h/t @sharethecities)

SCALE, a group made up primarily of activist North End homeowners, is suing the city to prevent the implementation of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which—in addition to allowing increased density in multifamily areas around the city—would allow duplexes, townhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings to be built on six percent of the land currently zoned for exclusive single-family use. In exchange for the right to build about one story higher than what’s currently allowed in these areas, developers would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into a fund to build affordable apartments elsewhere. The city has already implemented MHA in a number of areas, including the University District, South Lake Union, and downtown, where Showbox fans are trying to stop one of the first developments proposed under the new rules.

Since the beginning of its drawn-out attempt to kill MHA, SCALE has mischaracterized the plan as a citywide upzone, which it is not; currently, two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land is reserved exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, and MHA would only remove a tiny sliver of land at the edges of those areas, adjacent to “urban villages” and “urban centers” that are already dense and well-served by transit. As council member Debora Juarez said last week, “with that six percent, what we’re trying to do is right a historical wrong”—that is, racist redlining—”because we know that for people of color, marginalized communities, refugees, and immigrants,  in order for us to build wealth, we need to have a home.”

Historically, SCALE and its leaders—who include Toby Thaler, head of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, Bill Bradburd, a onetime city council candidate who called the city’s entire Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda “dumb,” and Sarajane Siegfriedt, a longtime Lake City neighborhood activist —have argued that townhouses and small apartment buildings violate the “historic character” of single-family areas. But last month, they switched tactics, portraying themselves as social justice advocates and defenders of low-income communities. Making their case to hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, SCALE argued that the city failed to consider feedback about the impacts of expanding urban villages on low-income people and people of color in conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) about the proposal, and then tried to bury that feedback.

In fact, the city spent the better part of a year doing outreach to nontraditional neighborhood groups and marginalized communities to find out their concerns about the potential impacts of MHA and wrote a final EIS that responded explicitly to those concerns, changing the zoning mix in neighborhoods with a high risk of displacement in an effort to help people stay in those communities.

SCALE’s evidence for the supposed coverup: A single letter from a group of city employees, known as the Race and Social Equity Team, who were charged with reviewing the city’s draft environmental impact statement for the MHA plan through a race and social justice lens. Their report (pages 9-18), which was submitted several months after the end of the public comment period for the draft version of the plan, suggested that the city needed to go further than it did in the draft EIS to address the race and social justice impacts of upzoning low-income neighborhoods where people of color are concentrated.

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“A number of honorable city employees conducted a thorough review of the race and social justice equity aspects of the EIS, but the city executive administration ignored their work,”  Thaler said at a special city council meeting on the plan last week. “There is no explicit reference in the EIS to [race and social justice at all.. … Read the record! This is a coverup!”

The letter, submitted by Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections staffer Dan Nelson on behalf of staffers at several city departments, says the draft EIS “did not consider race as deeply” as other factors related to housing affordability, and suggests that the city should collect  “qualitative information” from community residents about what historic resources and cultural assets they consider most important and vulnerable to displacement as MHA moves forward, and to continue doing so on an ongoing basis as MHA proceeds.

There is ample reason to do this kind of analysis. Historically, zoning (both official and unofficial, through policies that redlined people of color out of the most desirable areas of Seattle and cities across the country) has been used as a tool of discrimination against people of color in cities. In order to avoid perpetuating that legacy, race and social justice must be considered carefully as part of every land-use decision the city makes. The city also, it must be said, has not made this a top priority until relatively recently; Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, an effort to programmatically eliminate institutional racism within the city itself and in city policies, still has not been fully implemented 13 years after it was adopted in 2005. Many of the recommendations in the race and social equity team’s letter involve addressing race and social justice proactively in the future, not just with MHA but with other policy initiatives that impact communities of color. Undeniably, this is an area where the city still has work to do.

Looking only at MHA, however, it’s important to note that contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released. The letter, which reflects concerns about the draft version of the document—namely, that it did not adequately consider the plan’s potential for driving people and institutions out of their neighborhoods through physical and economic displacement—was just one of dozens of responses from community groups, committees, and interest groups across the city, whose extensive feedback is summarized here.

The MHA process included many new kinds of community outreach—led by former neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland—aimed at reaching communities that have been poorly served by traditional neighborhood groups like the neighborhood councils that make up most of the SCALE “coalition”.  I covered a number of these, including the city’s new community liaison program and Community Involvement Commission, last year.

Contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released.

Taking all that feedback into consideration, the city then changed the proposal between the draft and final versions to explicitly discourage high-intensity development in areas that were determined, through a separate process called the Seattle 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis, to have both a high risk of displacement and low access to economic opportunity, which tend to be neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income people and people of color. (“Displacement risk” was determined by factors such as race, ethnicity, and “linguistic isolation,” according to the city.) At the same time, the final EIS emphasized development in areas with a low risk of displacement and high access to opportunity—the same north-of-I-90 neighborhoods, in other words, where most of SCALE’s members own houses.

The changes the city made between the draft and final EIS came response to direct community feedback, independent of the letter from city employees that SCALE considers its smoking gun. Those changes include:

• Reducing the amount of new housing that can be built in several areas where community members raised concerns about displacement, including the 23rd and Jackson-Union, Othello, and Rainier Beach residential urban villages;

• Increasing the zoning capacity in areas that have historically excluded low-income people and people of color—defined in MHA as places with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity—such as the Admiral residential urban village in West Seattle and the Ballard hub urban village, to encourage more development in those areas; and

• Amending the EIS between the final and draft version to explicitly direct the city’s office of housing to spend payments collected for affordable housing from developments in high-displacement risk neighborhoods into affordable housing in those neighborhoods.

Last month, SCALE rested its case before hearing examiner Ryan Vancil with testimony from, among others, Maria Batayola, a former Beacon Hill resident who testified that she has lived in Bellevue for four years but who still chairs the Beacon Hill Community Council’s land use committee. Batayola testified that her group joined SCALE in its lawsuit because they believed the city had failed to consider race and social justice in deciding which areas would receive upzones under MHA. But on cross-examination from an attorney with the city, Batayola said that she thought Nelson’s letter, and the Race and Social Equity Team’s report, were in response to the final document, not the (substantively different) draft. (Under questioning, Batayola reversed herself. She did not discuss the changes the city had made since the first version of the EIS.)

The hearing on SCALE’s lawsuit will continue later this month, and will likely last well into September; MHA can’t move forward until the lawsuit is resolved. Meanwhile, the housing crisis continues. Every day that MHA is not in place, the city loses out not only on opportunities to address the ongoing shortage of market-rate housing, it loses out on funding for affordable housing as well—a slow drip-drip-drip that adds up to millions of dollars in lost housing opportunities.

Whether restricting the creation of housing—any type of housing—will work as a long-time anti-displacement strategy is, of course, another question—one that city council member Teresa Mosqueda posed at last week’s meeting. “I still struggle with the terminology that if we were to do more development—again, through the community lens, led by community organizations and neighborhood leaders who who can talk about the type of housing that they’d like to see—we can actually benefit by seeing increased housing and density requirements in some of these areas that are being called at risk of displacement.

“If they are at risk of displacement, then [it seems like] we would like to see more opportunities for folks to live in those areas and not get pushed out,” Mosqueda concluded.

Note: This post originally identified the Fremont Neighborhood Council as the Fremont Neighborhood Association.

11 thoughts on “Anti-Density Activists’ Race and Social Justice Gotcha Backfires

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  5. At least Erica put her name on the blog post as opposed to you. Why don’t you use your name, too? Afraid we will find out you are most likely a wealthy, pretentious asshole who lives in a home worth more than a million dollars with all the time in the world to write up an extensive rebuttal full of bullshit, mansplaining and blatant attacks on the truth.

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  8. Excellent piece. Thanks for writing! The amount of bad faith arguments bandied about by anti housing folks is astounding. I’m glad you’re taking the time to deflate them.

  9. Erica:

    There are so many inaccuracies and misrepresentations in this piece it’s beyond your usual obfuscation and ideological spin.

    1. Headline: SCALE and its members are not anti-density: we are anti “stupid planning” that will displace vulnerable populations and erode the quality of life in Seattle.

    2. Map: Included in the blue (“Single Family Zones”) is every large park in the city, such as Sand Point (Magnusson Park) which has multi-family housing being built. On the blue.

    3. “SCALE, a group made up primarily of activist North End homeowners” — you link to Seattle Fair Growth’s page, not SCALE’s. SFG hosts the SCALE page. Try here: https://www.seattlefairgrowth.org/scale.html Guilt by association is a typical reactionary tactic when you can’t cite facts to support your ideological position.

    4. “Showbox fans are trying to stop one of the first developments proposed under the new rules.” Linking the Showbox argument to the SCALE appeal is a dead red herring. It has little to nothing to do with the issues raised in the SCALE (and eight companion) appeal(s).

    5. “a citywide upzone, which it is not” — The MHA upzone proposed in Council Bill 119184 and discussed in the challenged MHA FEIS impacts every corner of the city. You can spin this one if you like, but “city-wide” is not the same as “every acre in the city.” It is facile to argue that the wholesale change in all the LR, C, and NC zones in the City of Seattle is not “city wide.” Many of these up zoned areas are outside the urban villages; they are the blocky white areas on your map, in a number of areas they are difficult to distinguish from the street grid.

    6. “two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land is reserved exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses” — This lie has been debunked so many times, I’m not going to bother. The number is wrong, the description is wrong in many areas, and the allusion to “exclusionary zoning” is a YIMBY lie.

    7. Juarez’ quote is good: “in order for us to build wealth, we need to have a home.” The problem is the MHA proposal does not build wealth. At best it will replace existing affordable housing, both rental and owned, with subsidized rental housing—somewhere else. MHA contains no provision to mitigate for the loss of existing affordable housing that will result from upzones. MHA contains no provision to help vulnerable communities maintain or acquire home ownership.

    8. “Toby Thaler, head of the Fremont Neighborhood Association…” We are the Fremont Neighborhood Council: http://fremontneighborhoodcouncil.org/ FNC is proud to be one of the few if not only neighborhood organizations in the city that has actually helped build low income housing in our community: https://capitolhillhousing.org/ourproperties/buildings/fremsols.php

    We have welcomed such projects to our community (e.g., http://fremontneighborhoodcouncil.org/call-for-artists-for-new-building-on-aurora-ave/) and will continue to do so notwithstanding your insulting slurs.

    9. “But last month, they switched tactics, portraying themselves as social justice advocates and defenders of low-income communities.” I have been a social justice advocate my entire life, starting with supporting squatters on Morningside Heights in NYC in the early 1970s. Your personal insults and yellow journalism are the dregs of reporting in this town.

    10. “A single letter from a group of city employees, known as the Race and Social Equity Team…” This is a blatant falsehood. I provided you with information about the entire scope of the RSJ team’s review (the acronym stands for “race and social justice”), much more than “one letter. Dear readers: Please read the record for yourself— https://www.dropbox.com/sh/0vb40p9bpcg4svh/AADqMLYOQpgfE6QFK0BkPfS0a?dl=0

    I think it is disgusting that a few courageous employees of the City have to rely on an outside appeal—yes, brought in part by non-POC folks—to have their calling out of the racist impact of the City’s MHA proposal brought to the attention of the citizens of Seattle.

    11. “zoning (both official and unofficial, through policies that redlined people of color out of the most desirable areas of Seattle and cities across the country) has been used as a tool of discrimination against people of color in cities.” Another repeated blatant mis-statement of history. The truth in Seattle is far more complex. Zoning was not the primary mechanism for racist housing patterns. See the statement by the UW Race and Social Justice History Project at https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10152891801027035&id=126908547034

    This information has been out there for years now; why do you keep repeating the lie?

    12. “contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit” — SCALE’s administrative appeal to the hearing examiner is not a “lawsuit.” A lawsuit would be an action in federal court that the MHA proposal makes displacement and segregation worse in Seattle in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

    13. “The changes the city made between the draft and final EIS came response to direct community feedback…” This is pure spin. But even SAGE and others concerned about displacement who initially supported MHA now agree that the current MHA proposal will not accomplish what it’s promoted to do by the City. See http://www.pugetsoundsage.org/why-we-need-comprehensive-strategy-to-stop-displacement-alongside-mha/

    14. “Last month, SCALE rested its case before hearing examiner Ryan Vancil…” SCALE has not finished presenting its case. SCALE and other appellant witnesses will testify through next Tuesday, August 21. And then there will possibly be rebuttal witnesses after the City finishes presenting its case, currently scheduled for August 31.

    15. Your attack on Maria Batayola for her testimony memory lapse on draft v final is despicable. It reflects far more on your credibility than hers.

    16. “Amending the EIS between the final and draft version to explicitly direct the city’s office of housing to spend payments collected for affordable housing from developments in high-displacement risk neighborhoods into affordable housing in those neighborhoods.” Amending the EIS cannot change the non-inclusionary nature of the MHA. That decision was made in the summer of 2016 when the Council adopted SMC 23.58C.040. MHA is not an inclusionary zoning ordinance. “Inclusion” is totally reliant on the discretion of the City Office of Housing in partnership with the non-profit housing developers, who have already indicated that in the “high opportunity” areas they are not likely to be able to afford the land on which to build. Especially not after the upzoning pushes the cost of land up even more.

    Erica, you should be embarrassed to have your name on this piece.

    • 1. Zoning to allow for affordable housing is “stupid planning”?
      At least NIMBYs finally bein honest.

      2. Apartments are illegal in Parks. N.E. ways that white area to the northwest of the white box at Magnuson Park? It is zoning for low rise III where the affordable housing you mentioned is going. Like, for a pedant, this is a bit of an own goal.

      3. You didn’t refute that SCALE was not a bunch of white, north end homeowners. Another OWN GOAL!. It is the NIMBYest NIMBYs to ever NIMBY in Seattle. Ya’ll sad.

      4. No one likes you.

      5. Yo Mr Mansplaining McSplainersen, you are legitimately wrong on this too! Oh and now we all know why no one likes you.

      6. The city has been using the 65% longer than Erica has been alive or you have lived here. Once again, the white mansplainyness is wrong, and quite pathetic in its wrongness.

      7. You’re wrong and more amazingly your neighbors loathe you.

      8. Oh you finally score a win. Look at you! Oh he’s beaming! He’s such a big boy! He busted out his big boy ‘splaining pants! Your mummy most be so proud of her little man.

      9. You once helped squatters, now you help white homeowners prevent affordable housing, and that makes you a social justice advocate? Did I get that right? Dregs of reporting! This man is a hoot.

      10. These are fun. None of them state what you are desperately hoping they claim.

      11. Please, kind sir, let us know when in Seattle zoning was not a tool of white supremacy?

      12. The city’s own docs claim it’s a lawsuit – semantic grandstanding aside, no one cares. Would love to see this go to federal court and lose, however we all know SCALE would find phenomenal allies with the current presidential office holder, Ben Carson, and our conservative courts.

      13. SAGE is not appealing this MHA.

      14. Oh! The lonely pedant scores another point! That is two, for those playing at home.

      15. No. Really. No one likes you.

      16. Not even your neighbors.

      Really. Get a life, home skillet.

  10. North Beacon Hill. Folks like the light rail station and the neat new brew pubs. But, not so happy about the increased density. Pretty much every land use notice posted for new multi-family development in the Urban Center, is quickly announced to the community with a call to arms to fight it.

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