“High-Rises and Dumps,” “No Flowers, No Trees,” and Other Reasons Urbanists Don’t Participate

Walker:

Walker: “Where are we going to grow?”

One place where the urbanist perspective on growth and development and the anti-density perspective collide, at least superficially, is that both sides claim to want more widespread participation in the process of deciding how to build Seattle for the next 20 or 50 years.  Urbanists talk about the need to provide more information to people who aren’t already engaged, and may not have a ton of flexibility during the day, to help them engage in discussions that tend to be dominated by homeowners and retirees. Density opponents say they’d love to hear what renters and other citizens who aren’t in the typical neighborhood-council demographic have to say, but that those folks  just don’t show up to meetings. Both sides appear to agree that more participation by everyone leads to better outcomes.

Where this surface-level unanimity breaks down, however, is in practice. While casual urbanists and renters with an interest in improving the city (and keeping rents under control) appear to genuinely want an invitation to the table, no one already at the table extends a hand, and meetings dominated by people who make mean-spirited generalizations about renters (or single people, or newcomers, or lower-income groups) as a class can be pretty alienating for members of those groups who do show up. Meanwhile, daytime meetings at City Hall are tailored for those with a lot of time on their hands (like retirees) and financial motivation to show up (like homeowners who want to protect their property values), not those with hourly jobs or those who just want the city to be a welcoming place to the next newcomer but don’t have time for endless subcommittee meetings. I spent a few hours this Saturday at a 9am meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, held at the Central Area Senior Center (now apparently rebranded as “The Central”), where Seattle Office of Housing Director Steve Walker faced off against a roomful homeowners (if there were renters, none identified themselves that way) who responded to  Walker’s brief presentation about what changes the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee had proposed to mitigate displacement, provide affordable housing, and preserve existing single-family neighborhoods with a barrage of mostly-rhetorical questions.

“[The] affordable housing levy that we have passed four times, that remains the darling of the country, that has built over 12,000 units of rent- and income-restricted housing that will remain that way for the next 50 years—that is the foundation” of the city’s affordable housing strategy, Walker said. “It’s the cornerstone to our city’s affordable housing strategy, and what is being proposed [in HALA] is to double down on that strategy.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Ed Murray said he would no longer pursue land-use changes in the 65 percent of Seattle’s land mass zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes off the table in response to blowback from angry homeowners and the Seattle Times, who argued that allowing duplexes and townhouses in some single-family areas would destroy the “character” of Seattle’s historic neighborhoods. (Last week, Murray indicated to me that that decision might not be final.)

If the point of taking single-family off the table was to appease angry neighbors and keep them from fighting other elements of the deal, it hasn’t worked so far. At various times during Saturday’s open-ended meeting, participants likened new residents to a “cancer” on the city (seriously, can we retire this metaphor?), suggested that Seattle could stop growth by making the city less appealing to developers and businesses, and decried the HALA committee as a secretive, closed-door cabal of developers who would have never been able to get away with proposing changes to single-family areas if all their negotiations had been public.

And, of course, there were the requisite murmurs about how everything had been downhill since former mayor Nickels fired former neighborhoods department director Jim Diers … nearly 15 years ago. “We need to talk things through in an open format, not like the secret HALA [process], Beacon Hill resident Roger Pence said. “There’s this myth out there among the urbanist generation that the neighbors are all NIMBYs and we don’t want to see anything built. That was certainly not true in the 1990s. ” Walker noted that the HALA committee included 28 people, plus many others on its advisory subcommittees, and that members were not prohibited from talking to the public or discussing the negotiations with the groups they represented. However, he said, the HALA committee—like a similar committee that came up with the widely praised $15 minimum wage compromise—needed some level of privacy just to build trust. “We had closed meetings because we wanted to generate, within that committee of 28 people with very different views on what makes sense on variety of issues, a  very engaged conversation that was not influenced by the media and was not influenced by politics,” Walker said. “And they, over time, had to develop a sense of trust to just begin to have some of these conversations. It wasn’t intended to be secret. It was intended to generate the kind of intense discussion we had, and a lot of those conversations were intense because the lot of those parties disagreed.”

Little boxes on the hillside.

Little boxes on the hillside.

Walker (along with new neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland, who joined him for a few minutes in the dunk tank) repeatedly ran up against a fundamental difference of worldview between the city and its discontents. For example, when one man asked Walker a rambling “question” that included quotes from The Monkey Wrench Gang and Cadillac Desert, accused him of being manipulated by a shadowy group of Oz-style developers hiding “in the wings behind the green curtain,” and concluded, “Why are we going lot line to lot line, with no trees, no flowers, no grass, and why do I get the idea that it’s really developers who … on the subcommittees, because none of the neighbors I know were ever invited to serve on those committees?” Walker basically just sighed. “Where are we going to grow?” he asked. “Because people are coming.” “So you’re assuming growth?” the speaker responded. “I’m not assuming; it’s happening.” “My hope is that growth will go to other cities and other states.” Walker left shortly after that particularly discouraging exchange, but the meeting didn’t end there. For another hour and a half or so (I left at noon), residents vented about growth, the planning process, and the “dismay[ing]  “conditions that [some renters] live in.” (The speaker who made that comment claimed he had Realtors knocking on his door and sending him flyers several times a week to try to buy his old house out from under him.) Finally, one resident, Beacon HIll neighborhood activist Melissa Jonas, pointed out one reason urbanists, renters, and other groups that are typically shut out of traditional neighborhood groups might feel unwelcome in echo chambers like this one. “Outreach is not just outreach to people you agree with,” Jonas said. I think neighborhood groups sometimes believe we know best, and we don’t invite people [who disagree]. There’s a sense of, I’ve lived in X neighborhood for X long [so I have a right to speak]. Someone who just moved there has the same right to participate in that conversation, whether they’re a renter or homeowner, driver or nondriver, parent or nonparent—we all have a right to have a voice.”

Leschi Community Council member John Barber scoffed at the notion that neighborhood groups don’t welcome everyone. “I don’t know who these exclusive neighborhood groups are—our neighborhood is dying for people to come to our meetings,” Barber said. “We have a monthly newsletter that is distributed at libraries, grocery stores, by mail, and in many public places. We really want people at our meetings.” The comment reminded me a bit of companies that say, “We’re dying to hire more women and minorities, but they just don’t apply!” If you don’t make an affirmative effort to include those traditionally excluded groups (starting by adjusting the tone of your comments about the poor people and renters you claim you want to see at your meetings), your lament is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps that fact is best illustrated by another comment the “growth is cancer” guy made after Walker and Nyland left.

“The city council has this idea that we’re all rich. I can tell you right now that [my wife] and I could no more afford our single-family house in Wedgwood [today] than a man on the moon,” the speaker said.

“They have this idea that growth is acceptable and we have to accept it, but we don’t have to accept it on growth’s terms. Because growth is like cancer and it kills cells and growth will kill us,” he continued. Once developers cash in and leave for Santa Fe or Arizona, he said, “we’ll be living with the high-rises and the dumps and all the developments that are built lot line to lot line. … There’s a minority, like those of us in this room, who will participate because we care.”

The implication was that that renters and urbanists and poor people and newcomers and minorities don’t care, because only white single-family homeowners with many years of financial investment in Seattle make the effort to show up at neighborhood council meetings on Saturday mornings. If all those other people cared, they’d be at the Central Area Senior Center. The fact that they weren’t there is proof that they don’t.

Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to prove them wrong.

Murray Gives In to Bullying, Abandons Housing Diversity Plan

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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.