The J Is for Judge: Yes, Capitol Hill Has Changed. For the Better.

I was bummed when Seattle’s music community rallied around the Lesser-Seattle cause of saving the Showbox because I believe cities need the arts and their artists to be forces for progressive policy, not forces of obstruction.

Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard emerged as the frontman of that parochial crusade, which prioritized nostalgia over housing and embraced the knee-jerk narrative that development is bad.

The  housing/retail high rise that was supposed to replace the two-story Showbox would have generated more than $5 million for affordable housing in one fell swoop under the city’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability policy. It also would have provided hundreds of housing units in one of Seattle’s densest, most transit-rich neighborhoods.

I’m rehashing the Showbox issue because it turns out—judging from the unofficial, version of Death Cab for Cutie’s recent video, “Gold Rush,” (shot among cranes on Capitol Hill)—loopy nostalgia isn’t limited to one-off preservation crusades. If there was a Grammy for NIMBY politics, Death Cab would have it locked.

I don’t mean to be to hard on Gibbard. His explanation of the song on NPR was evocative and poetic. “The song is not a complaint about how things were better or anything like that…It’s an observation, but more about coming to terms with the passage of time and losing the people and the moments in my life all over again as I walk down a street that is now so unfamiliar.”

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

But at this tense and critical moment both nationally and in Seattle, where the populist inclination to be aggrieved by what’s “unfamiliar” can translate into harmful, exclusionary ideologies, it’s worth taking the politics of this local anthem to task.

I’m not exaggerating when I say “Gold Rush” is a NIMBY anthem. After lamenting how developers are tearing down his old haunts in favor profits and parking—“they keep digging it down/down so their cars/can live underground”—here’s the plaintive refrain:

“Change/Please don’t change/Stay/Stay the same”

When Gibbard uses parking as a trope to represent evil developers, he reveals that this song’s phoned-in politics are ill-informed. Sure, it worked for Joni Mitchell in 1970; back then, cities were, in fact, catering to cars with a set of messed-up priorities that we’re still trying to undo today.

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

Most notably, the city has tied the new development Gibbard deplores to reformed parking rules that dramatically reduce the amount of parking.  Check it out: Between 2004 and 2017, the average number of parking stalls for each new apartment unit has actually decreased from 1.57 to 0.63—a 60 percent drop.  And, according to the city, 30 percent of new apartment buildings have no parking at all.

In Capitol Hill, the setting for Death Cab’s mournful video, this progressive trend toward less parking might have something to do with all the groovy change that has come to the neighborhood: A light rail station opened on Broadway and John in 2016, the streetcar came online in 2015, and protected bike lanes on Broadway opened in 2014. None of this green infrastructure existed in the good old days, which are commemorated by an old gas station on the corner of Broadway & Pine. Meanwhile, hundreds of units of affordable housing are in the pipeline thanks to MHA and the new transit-oriented development blueprint for the neighborhood. One of the projects will have 308 units with no more than 20 parking stalls, or a maximum of one stall for every 15 units.

Certainly, Capitol Hill isn’t they gay enclave it was in the 1980s. But what hasn’t changed on Capitol Hill? There are tons of places—more than ever, it seems—for artists to play music and show their art. (There are even pizza places that stay open past 10:45 pm now!) Yes, it’s harder for artists to pay rent on Capitol Hill, but there are more opportunities for artists to be artists on Capitol Hill. And there’s a way to ensure artists can have housing in the city: By building more housing in the city.

Morning Crank: A Framework for Inaction

1. Nearly every candidate in this year’s Seattle elections, from urban planner Cary Moon to labor crusader Teresa Mosqueda to former US attorney Jenny Durkan, calls herself (or himself) an “urbanist.” (Moon was even endorsed by The Urbanist blog.) But what are the candidates telling neighborhood groups—the sort of organizations that too often stand in the way of the kind of new housing that would move Seattle toward an actual urbanist future?

At a recent candidate forum held by a group of Magnolia, Queen Anne, and Ballard homeowners, Moon said she would “restart” the process of allowing more housing in neighborhoods so that people already living in those neighborhoods—incumbent property owners—can make sure that their “culture” and neighborhood “character” is preserved.

Asked about Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which allows modest increases in housing supply in non-single-family areas, Moon responded:

The HALA process was way too insular and top-down. It was a small group of people, behind closed doors, who decided that they had a compromise with each other that they unleashed on the world and said, ‘You shall do this.’ That is not the way we do things in Seattle. A better process would have been to go to neighborhoods and say, ‘We’re growing this much and we need to create a healthy society where people of all income levels and all ages and stages of life can live in your neighborhood. Here’s the target goals for your neighborhood. How can we achieve these goals together?’ And work directly with these neighbors around how they want to grow. Do you want duplexes? Row houses? Backyard cottages? Upzone your urban village? [Put] the whole range of tools on the table and work with neighborhoods to figure out, what is the right way for you to grow that preserves your culture and your character of your neighborhood that you care about. That is what we should have done. And I would restart that process at this point and have a new discussion based in those constructive approaches and that positive future vision, because that’s the only way we’re going to make change in this city.

Moon’s response parroted both anti-development activists like Jon Grant, who’s running on a socialist party platform for council Position 8, and property values activists like Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne homeowner who sued to prevent the city from allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in Seattle’s single-family areas. (Not to mention former mayor Mike McGinn, who ran unsuccessfully this year on a similar message).

Although Moon has, to her credit, been consistent with this let-the-neighborhoods-decide talking point (she said something similar to Transportation for Washington, the political arm of  the urbanist Transportation Choices Coalition, in their endorsement interview, and to me), she’s savvy enough to know that promises to preserve “your culture,” “neighborhood character,” and even “your neighborhood” are dog whistles,  not neutral policy goals. Assuring homeowners that the neighborhoods belong to them, not newcomers or renters, and defining “character” as “exclusive single-family areas” creates a framework for inaction, not a blueprint for growth.

2. On a more positive note, it’s been fun to see Moon and Durkan try to outdo each other with proposals to advance pay equity for women and in jobs primarily held by women over the past two weeks—something I’ve never seen from any male candidate for local elective office, ever. (This, in case you’re wondering, is one of many reasons we need more women in local positions—try to imagine any of the male council members of the past 50 years adding “gender pay equity” to the mission of a standing council committee, which Jean Godden did, or expanding that mission to “gender equity” in general, as Lorena Gonzalez did after Godden left the council.)

The latest shot across the bow comes from Moon, who on Monday proposed a set of rule changes to promote pay equity and transparency from large employers and an ordinance that would bar employers from asking prospective hires about their salary history. Women in Seattle currently make just 78 cents on the dollar compared to men doing similar work, one of the worst big-city pay gaps in the country. Salary history requests contribute to this gap, because when employers base salaries on women’s current pay in a system that underpays them, it only perpetuates the problem. In addition to the salary history ban, Moon proposed working toward a local version of state legislation that would have banned retaliation against workers for discussing their pay, prevented employers from paying some people less for doing the same work as other employees based on their job title, and tracking women into lower-paying jobs.

The pay gap, unsurprisingly, is even worse in the tech industry, where female programmers make, on average, almost 30 percent less than their male counterparts. Durkan is supported by the political arm of the Seattle Chamber, which includes the Washington Retail Association and the Washington Tech Industry Alliance, organizations that opposed SB 1605 this year. The Chamber’s PAC, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, has poured $86,000 into an independent expenditure group, People for Jenny. I reached out to Durkan’s campaign yesterday afternoon to find out whether she supports a ban on salary history or a local ordinance that mirrors 1605 and will update this post when I hear back from them.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Meet the YIMBYs

This piece originally ran in Seattle Magazine; read the full version here.

Sara Maxana is exactly the sort of person you might expect to see getting involved in her neighborhood meetings. A single mom with two young kids, Maxana lives in a single-family 1931 Ballard bungalow of the type many neighborhood activists are fighting to preserve. Ballard, where the population grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2014, is ground zero in Seattle’s density wars, which pit pro-growth advocates, many of them young renters who moved to the city within the last decade, against the longtime homeowners sometimes disparagingly known as NIMBYs, for “not in my backyard.”

What you might find surprising is that Maxana isn’t a NIMBY. She’s one of a growing group of people who say “yes in my backyard,” coining a new acronym: YIMBY.

Maxana, who once worked at the sustainability nonprofit Futurewise, had more or less retired from politics. But she got re-engaged after Mayor Ed Murray proposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in 2015. The plan (see sidebar, below), which proposes higher density across the city—including the addition of more backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas—quickly became divisive.

Maxana started identifying as a YIMBY because she felt Seattle decision makers needed to hear a positive story about the changes that are coming to the city. She began speaking up at public meetings, studying the details of HALA and tweeting as @YIMBYmom, a quiet rebuke to those who say all urbanists—i.e., people who believe that cities should be dense, culturally vibrant, diverse places with lots of different transportation options—are single, transient renters with no ties to their community.

By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.

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Zachary DeWolf at the 12th Avenue Arts Building: trying to make Capitol Hill a place for mansion owners and street people alike

Although they span the political spectrum, from far left social-justice activists to hard-core libertarian free marketeers, YIMBYs generally agree that cities should be accessible and affordable for everyone, whether they own a million-dollar mansion or rent a $900-a-month studio, and whether they work as a barista or just moved to Seattle for a new job at Amazon.

Seattle might not seem the most obvious axis for this pro-density revolution. For one thing, it’s a city where the single-family home, especially the iconic Craftsman bungalow, is sacrosanct. So thoroughly did Seattle embrace the postwar ideal of the detached single-family house with a yard that it’s written into our zoning code, which preserves a remarkable 57 percent of the city’s buildable land exclusively for single-family houses. (In Portland, the number is 3 percent.)

But as more and more people move to Seattle—the city’s long-range plans anticipate 120,000 new residents by 2035—tension between longtime homeowners and renters, many of them relative newcomers to the city, has mounted. Rents in Seattle increased more last year than those in any other big city in the country, and in the past five years, the median rent has increased from just over $1,500 to more than $2,000. Meanwhile, the median income of renters, $47,847, is less than half that of homeowners, $108,768.

Instead of merely complaining about the housing crisis, Maxana says, YIMBYs “see growth as something that can catalyze change and bring about good things for cities.”

“I don’t see YIMBYs as addressing a problem so much as addressing an opportunity,” Maxana says. “We’re not trying to stop things; we’re trying to say yes to change. I think it’s much more exciting to be pushing for a vision than against what’s happening.”

For Maxana, that vision includes more new neighbors, more interesting shops and coffeehouses, more places to walk and bike and ride—in other words, more of all the things that are coming to her Ballard neighborhood already. “In Ballard, we have all these new breweries, and they’re child-friendly and they’re dog-friendly, and there are places to sit outside with your kids,” Maxana says. “I see more people in the parks, on the streets, on the bus. In my neighborhood, I can walk to five bus lines that get me across town to everywhere I could possibly need to go in the city. And all of that activity lends itself to more vibrancy, and just a more interesting place to live.”

Maxana can rattle off the statistics that describe Seattle’s housing crisis—for example, 40 new people and 35 new jobs are added every day, yet only 12 new housing units a day. But she and other YIMBYs argue that statistics don’t change minds; values do. “We cannot convince anybody with the data alone. We have to be speaking about our values and we have to be speaking from our heart—not ‘I feel this way and so should you,’ but ‘I’m a mom in Ballard and I want my kids to be able to live here when they grow up, and ultimately, this is why I support [density].’”

YIMBYs are starting to make waves at city hall. In July, under pressure from YIMBYs and other urbanists who argued that the city needed to do more to include marginalized groups such as renters, immigrants and people of color, Murray announced the city was cutting formal ties with the 13 neighborhood councils that advise the city on growth and development, eliminating their funding and creating a new advisory group to come up with a more inclusive neighborhood outreach strategy. (The neighborhood councils, Murray noted, are dominated by older, white, wealthy homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse city.)

While the YIMBYs didn’t make this change happen on their own, their support helped provide political cover for Murray and his neighborhood department director, Kathy Nyland (a former Georgetown neighborhood activist who is openly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause), for what turned out to be a controversial move. Many neighborhood activists liked the neighborhood councils as they were.

Some neighborhood groups are starting to move in a YIMBY direction. A Capitol Hill renter and self-identified YIMBY, Zachary DeWolf stepped into a leadership vacuum on the Capitol Hill Community Council in 2014. He was first elected vice president in 2014, and then president in 2015. As president, he restructured a traditional neighborhood group dominated by older homeowners into an organization run almost entirely by young renters.

His goal: to make the group that represents Capitol Hill more welcoming and inclusive. He has encouraged young renters to run for leadership positions; changed the style of the meetings from a traditional format with leaders sitting at a table facing the audience, to a circular roundtable where everyone can participate; and instituted more after-work hours/evening “community conversations” and “socials” to give a wider range of people a chance to get to know each other and discuss neighborhood issues.

The group’s policy emphasis has been different, too. Instead of advocating for anti-urbanist causes, such as banning corner stores in residential areas and placing a moratorium on new micro apartments as it did in the past, the council is discussing how to accommodate a supervised drug-consumption site in the neighborhood. As DeWolf puts it, “Instead of pushing [drug users] out to neighborhoods that are farther out, where there’s less resources and community, why not just keep them here and take care of them ourselves?” He adds, “At the end of the day, every person that’s in our neighborhood—whether it’s someone living in North Capitol Hill in a gajillion-dollar mansion or someone sleeping in the doorway on 15th in front of someone’s business, every type of person is our neighbor. To me, that is very YIMBY.”

Dennis Saxman, a longtime Capitol Hill activist and renter who opposes what he sees as out-of-control development and gentrification in his neighborhood, believes YIMBYs are well-meaning, but that they misunderstand the root causes of Seattle’s affordability crisis. “I don’t think they understand that Seattle was once notable for the strength of its neighborhoods and their differing characters, and that at one time, that was seen as something important to preserve and desirable,” Saxman says. “Now it’s seen as a way to market neighborhoods while at the same time destroying what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.”

Saxman says he admires a lot of what DeWolf has done to bring new people into the council, but argues that “they’re falling short” when it comes to including more racial minorities, longtime residents and low-income people. “I don’t think they’re authentically community-based,” he says.

Will Seattle’s future look more like DeWolf and Maxana’s vision—an ever denser city, where newcomers and their ideas are welcome—or more like the city of the past, where conversations were dominated by residents resistant to change? That may depend on whether YIMBYs can make the leap from a vocal group of contrarians who provide a counterpoint to conventional wisdom at city hall to a force that helps guide city policy while bringing new allies, including more single-family homeowners, on board.

One sign that yimbys in Seattle are having an impact came last June from 1,300 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. A group of 150 YIMBYs from all over the country convened at an inaugural conference, YIMBY 2016, to talk about their challenges and successes. The Seattle contingent, which included Maxana, Sightline Institute staffer and Capitol Hill renter Serena Larkin, and University District renter and YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein (who tweets at @YIMBYSea), showed up feeling a bit discouraged by local rancor over HALA. But they left energized after delegations from other cities expressed enthusiasm for what they see as an inclusive coalition of Seattle groups that support HALA, which include urban activists, developers, environmentalists and social justice organizations.

“All these other groups and cities kept telling us, ‘We need to do that work—how did you get all of those people at the table together?’” says Larkin. “It wasn’t the policies [the details of HALA] we came up with, but the relationships that they saw had been built through HALA.”

When you’re in the thick of things in Seattle, it’s hard to see what’s being accomplished here, notes Bernstein. “But when you compare Seattle to other cities, then all of a sudden we look like the success story. I think that there are battles that we’re losing, but we’re winning the war.”

Maxana points to the success of the housing levy, which funds low-income housing and which Seattle voters approved by more than 70 percent in August, as a sign that many Seattleites support the idea of building more housing, including affordable housing. “I see that, and I just have to believe something is clicking,” says Maxana. “And even though you have such a volume of vitriol on [private social media site] Nextdoor and in some of these neighborhood meetings, I think, for the most part, when I look at the city, I see people who want a good place to live not just for themselves, but for their kids and their neighbors.”

Including neighbors they don’t even know yet.

No, Trump Won’t Be “Good For Cities”`

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Over the last few days, I’ve seen a number of urbanists claiming that even if Donald Trump does deport millions of undocumented immigrants, ban abortion, eliminate health care coverage for 20 million Americans, and devalue the lives of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities, at least he’ll be “good for cities.”

After all (the argument goes), Trump is a developer, and a New Yorker—which makes him fundamentally urbanist, right? I mean, check it out: Not only did he help build the biggest, most urban city in the nation, he made a promise to “rebuild America’s inner cities,” which could definitely use some sidewalks and pothole fixes. And he vowed to spend $1 trillion on “rebuilding America’s infrastructure”—which can only be good news for mass transit, sidewalks, and crumbling city streets. (Finally, a Pothole President!) And just think: By clearing away local and state regulations that hamper housing production—like environmental laws that keep housing away from freeways, and zoning restrictions that draw borders around developable areas–President Trump will clear the way for a new urbanist renaissance.

Bullshit. Trump would be a disaster for cities, and not just because his ascension represents a total rejection of the diversity of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and people that makes cities great. He would be a disaster for cities because every policy he has espoused is (like his largely rural support base) profoundly anti-urban—and if you believe, as I do, that Trump means what he says, then it’s time to take a gimlet-eyed look at what Trump has said he will do in, and to, cities. Urbanists must stop indulging in the fantasy that there is a “real” Donald Trump who supports investments in public transit, urban housing, and programs that will give poor people in cities opportunities to succeed. There is only one Donald Trump. Here is what that Donald Trump seems likely, based on his own words and actions, to do.

Cut federal funding for mass transit.

When Republicans talk about transportation “infrastructure,” they mean, first, big highway projects, and second, roads and bridges in rural areas. The GOP platform adopted this year says this quite explicitly. “One fifth of (trust) funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities,” it says. “We propose to phase out the federal transit program.” Sound Transit 3, which voters overwhelmingly adopted Tuesday, relies heavily on that transit program–it includes $5 billion in matching funds from the federal government—as do most of the transit funding measures passed by urban voters across the nation last week.

Privatize roads, highways and bridges–and leave those that can’t turn a profit to crumble.

If you think a President Trump will not only renege on his party’s promise but reject it wholeheartedly then you haven’t looked at his infrastructure plan. In effect, Trump’s proposal would privatize the nation’s roads, bridges, and highways by providing tax credits to subsidize $1 trillion in private investment in infrastructure. Companies would make their money back for charging people to drive on those roads, bridges, and highways, and any project that doesn’t pencil out—that is, that doesn’t turn a profit for investors—won’t get built. (On Friday, Trump announced his pick to head up his “transportation and infrastructure” team—literal asphalt lobbyist Martin Whitmer.)

This will lead not only to a widening gap between poor counties and cities and wealthy ones, but a disinvestment in inner-city transit infrastructure. (picture wealthy exurban homeowners driving on pristinely maintained toll roads while overcrowded buses ferry carless city dwellers through traffic-jammed, pothole-riddled streets. Rail and express-bus lines that serve the suburbs will be able to pay for themselves through higher user fees, but public transit, which relies heavily on federal funding as well as local subsidies, won’t. (Think about it: Even if King County Metro raised bus fare to, say, $10 a ride—about what it would cost absent other funding sources—the vast majority of riders would be forced to stop riding, making the system unprofitable. Oh, and there’s that whole equity and social justice thing.)

Privatization also creates a perverse incentive for builders to cut corners and endanger public safety, by saving costs on bridge reinforcement, for example, or using less-reliable or less-durable materials. It also means that cities whose citizens can’t afford to pay for improvements  themselves—say, struggling citizens of Flint, Michigan poisoned by lead in their water pipes, or parents in low-income school districts with school buildings that are unsafe and out-of-date—will be left behind. Inner cities aren’t the crumbling, post-apocalyptic hellscapes Trump made them out to be on the campaign trail—far from it—but his privatization plans would send them spiraling in that direction.

Eliminate some federal housing subsidies, and abandon commitments to fair housing made by President Obama.

Trump hasn’t yet said who he’ll appoint to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development,  and in fact, the issue of housing—particularly housing for the homeless, a population that has boomed in cities even as the economy has recovered—didn’t really come up during the campaign. That’s a shame, because it would be instructive to know how Trump plans to address the growing crisis, which has led three West Coast cities (including Seattle) and Hawaii to declare an official state of emergency.

Seattle, in response to HUD policies under Obama that direct federal funds into “rapid rehousing” vouchers, recently released a plan called “Pathways Home” that reflects this approach, but if HUD dramatically changes direction, reducing the federal subsidies on which cities like Seattle rely or relying on privatization schemes like the one Trump has proposed to pay for other kinds of infrastructure, cities could find themselves trying to dig out of an ever-deeper funding hole. (That’s assuming that those cities that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities” for immigrants, including Seattle, still receive any federal funding at all).

Trump’s family, famously, was accused of discriminating against African American tenants in New York City in the 1970s, when Trump was president of Trump Industries. (A New York Times investigation uncovered “a long history of racial bias at his family’s properties, in New York and beyond.”) On the campaign trail this year, Trump vowed to overturn a rule adopted by the Obama administration called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires local jurisdictions that receive federal housing funds to address housing segregation and other disparities in housing access, in part by encouraging affordable housing development in more affluent, whiter neighborhoods. Right-wing outlets and pundits, from the Daily Caller to the Daily Sturmer, effusively praised Trump for his promise to reject Obama’s efforts to, as one alt-right site put it, “force ‘diversity’ on white neighborhoods.”

One day after the election, Mayor Ed Murray said he would consider floating another levy (in addition to the $290 million housing levy voters adopted earlier this year) to address the city’s homelessness crisis. As the impact of Trump’s presidency sets in, we’ll see how serious he is about that idea.

• Adopt policies that make the homelessness and addiction crises worse.

Last year, the One Night Count of the homeless counted about 10,000 homeless people living in King County, about half of them sleeping unsheltered. (Service providers suggest doubling that amount to get an accurate figure). Reducing that number will require funding not just for housing but for drug and alcohol treatment, mental health care, and job assistance.

Trump hasn’t said anything specific about dealing with those root causes of homelessness, but his health care plan consists of repealing the Affordable Care Act, which will leave some 20 million Americans, most of them lower-income, without health care. That includes mental health care, including treatment for addiction. Meanwhile, Trump’s only public statements about drug addiction have consisted of wonderment that an opiate epidemic could exist in America’s beautiful rural areas (“How does heroin work with these beautiful lakes and trees?”), and a promise to build a wall with Mexico to cut off the flow of drugs, War on Drugs-style. Neither of these statements bodes well for reducing the addiction epidemic, or for helping people who are homeless because of addiction get housing and health care.

This is far from a comprehensive list of reasons urbanists, and those who love cities, should be alarmed about the next four years—there’s also the promised crackdown on religious and sexual minorities, the prospect of mass deportations, the rejection of climate science, and the imposition of a 1950s good-ol-boy culture that is fundamentally provincial, anti-intellectual, and conformist. The next four years will reveal how much of this vision Trump manages to inflict on America, and how much cities react by pulling up the drawbridges and becoming not so much urban archipelagos as urban islands.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

#YIMBY2016 and Beyond

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It was exciting to be present at the first of what I hope will be many YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) gatherings in Boulder earlier this month. More than 100 people flew in to the college town from both coasts (and some places in between) to talk about how to build better cities and combat naysayers who want to turn back the clock on growth.

This movement, or group of thinkers, writers, builders, and planners, is inchoate, largely coastal, and overwhelmingly white and male, which could condemn it to be another clique of tech bros who think all political problems can be solved by technocratic advances and “systems thinking.” But it’s also politically diverse (the attendees included long-haired libertarians, free-marketeers who supported deregulation, and social justice advocates who believed in rent control) and filled not just with technophiles but street-level activists, single-family homeowners, people from small towns where NIMBYism is quite literal, and at least one current candidate for local office.

So what is YIMBYism? In brief, it’s the idea that a good housing policy is one that supports growth and welcomes newcomers, promoting affordability through a combination of reasonable regulation (opinions on the definition of “reasonable” differ) and new development to address the housing shortages in cities across the US. YIMBYs seek to increase participation by groups that are underrepresented in debates about housing (young people, renters) to combat the disproportionate power that single-family homeowners and their allied activist groups (think: the Wallingford Community Council and the Seattle Displacement Coalition) enjoy.

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The ideological differences among the YIMBYs I met in Boulder were more significant. Members of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF), for example, considered rent control sacrosanct, which wouldn’t fly with the guys from Brooklyn-based Market Urbanism, whose tagline is “Urbanism for capitalists.” Nor did an excellent presentation on winning people over to your point of view, by the Sightline Institute’s Anna Fahey, win over some in the room, who argued that trying to talk to opponents with totally divergent worldviews was a waste of time.

But after watching and participating in workshops and presentations from YIMBYs from Austin to Iowa City, I ended the weekend feeling like this was the start of something. Maybe not a political revolution or a takeover of the traditional neighborhood movement, but far more than a group hug inside a bubble of consensus.

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One thing that struck me right away was how in awe urbanists from other cities were of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), the plan crafted by a group of urbanists, developers, environmentalists, social-justice advocates, and neighbors to help keep Seattle affordable while preserving the city’s quality of life for the next 20 years. In particular, the Grand Bargain—an agreement in which developers agreed to set aside between 2 and 8 percent of new units for people making 60 percent or less of the area median income, or pay into an affordable-housing fund, in exchange for greater density—seemed to blow people away as an inspiring example of a city working with developers to capture affordability while giving them something of value.

Of course, the reality is that the Grand Bargain remains tentative, threatened by neighborhood opposition to even modest (typically one-story) height increases. Still, it was fascinating to see Seattle held up as a model of any urbanist idea; when you live here, it’s easy to feel that the de-suburbanization of Seattle will never happen because single-family homeowners have all the power. From the outside, at least, things look more promising than they can in the trenches.

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“The housing crisis is rarely referred to as a shortage.” This was a concept Sightline’s Fahey introduced on Day 1, and it’s one I returned to again and again over the weekend. It’s absolutely true: When people talk about the “housing crisis,” what they often mean is rising rents, but rising rents happen when there isn’t enough housing, and the solution to the problem is: Build more housing. When you frame Seattle’s increasingly unaffordable rents as a shortage, not the result of nefarious actions by greedy developers, you arrive at different policy solutions: Construction, not height caps. Mandatory affordable housing, not rent control.

The YIMBY movement has its blind spots. The folks who showed up, although surprisingly diverse in ages, skewed strongly male and white, like many discussions that involve stereotypically “male” topics like housing, planning, and development. I proposed, and Seattle YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein co-moderated, a discussion called “Men, Shut Up!” after watching conversation after conversation dominated by dudes who seemed in love with the sound of their own booming voices. Only problem was, our panel got combined with another discussion called “#YIMBYSoWhite”—a marginalization of exactly the sort that both conversations were hoping to address.

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There were other oversights beyond the gender and complexion of the folks at the conference—oversights that, I confess, didn’t occur to me until others pointed them out. Where was the geographic diversity? While the middle of the country was nominally represented by folks from Cleveland, Iowa City, Denver, and Austin, the gathering was predictably dominated by urban dwellers from the coasts, especially California. Also, the very location—a college town where average housing prices are higher than Seattle’s, with an 89 percent-white population—served as kind of a coastal stand-in, totally unrepresentative of the many diverse cities across the US that are facing the same questions about housing costs, density, and gentrification as coastal cities like San Francisco and Portland but with key differences that arise from their locations and demographics.

YIMBYs are acutely aware that power is determined by who gets a seat at the table, but when they’re the ones making that decision, they’re as vulnerable to human nature—inviting the people you’re comfortable with, going to a place that looks like the place you’re from—as anyone. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the specific conference organizers; I’m not claiming I’m above familiarity bias myself. What matters is that when someone points biases like this out to you, you’re willing to listen and change, and my hope (and expectation) is that the next YIMBY conference will be someplace like Atlanta or Miami.

Finally, it’s important to remember that people all arrive at their perspective for reasons, and that people can change their minds. The primary motivation for people who want the police to arrest people for being homeless, or for the city to halt all construction until all of North Seattle has sidewalks, isn’t hatred, it’s fear. People don’t want their cars broken into, so they think the solution is throwing addicts in jail or giving them one-way tickets out of town. People think the people moving here are technodrones with no interest in becoming part of the community or putting down roots, so they fight increases in density that might allow “those people” into “their” neighborhood. The trick is to find community and neighborhood leaders who are willing to listen to evidence and give it to them, along with reassurances. (It helps to have messengers who fit the profile of the people you’re hoping to convince, which is why Ballard homeowner and single mom Sara Maxana—@yimbymom on Twitter ,and pictured below—is such a great emissary for the cause).

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In an example I used in another session on finding consensus, people don’t like heroin addicts shooting up in their local parks, so they think the cops should arrest them for possession. The problem is, there aren’t enough jails or enough financial resources in the entire city budget to keep every minor offender in jail indefinitely, and treatment beds are far more expensive than those who say “just force them into treatment” imagine. If we can agree that some number of people will always use drugs, maybe we can also agree that people can’t get well if they’re dead. And if we can agree on that, maybe we can start to talk about safe consumption spaces where people can use under medical supervision, with access to treatment and other services, instead of on the sidewalk or in the bushes at a public park. And once a few people change their minds on that, a community dialogue can happen. Some people will always oppose safe injection sites or three-story buildings or the removal of even a single tree, but the vast majority are willing to listen, if we are willing to listen back.

I’m looking forward to next year. In the meantime, it’s time for YIMBYs to get to work.

Which Would You Rather?

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Behold, a stately, beloved single-family home awaits its cruel demise at the hands of “progress”—the same progress that created the hideous eyesore next door, which mars the idyllic landscape with its post-1960 scale and design.  Soon five families will live on a site that was ordained by God and the neighborhood planners of the 1980s to be home to only one. Farewell, sweet neighborhood character.

The Promise and Perils of Bell Street Park

Cars drive through Bell Street Park with impunity. Photo by Erica C. Barnett

Cars drive through Bell Street Park with impunity. Photo by Erica C. Barnett

In a piece optimistically titled, “6 Places Where Cars, Bikes and Pedestrians All Share the Road as Equals,” the Atlantic’s CityLab blog puts Seattle on par par with cities in Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands in our bike- and pedestrian-friendliness as one of the rarefied few places in the world where cars can coexist safely and peacefully alongside other roadway users.

Of course, the piece is talking about woonerfs—city streets, usually without traditional traffic-safety signifiers like lights, signs, and sharp curb cuts dividing “space from cars” from “space for people,” where cars, bikes, and pedestrians all use the same travel space. Woonerfs are popular lately because they are both fairly radical (for the U.S.) and relatively inexpensive solutions to car-pedestrian conflicts, limiting crashes by slowing everybody down to roughly the same speed.

But anyone who has witnessed Seattle’s downtown Bell Street Park (which my former colleague, Josh Feit, praised for “equalizing the infrastructure in downtown streets”) can tell you that it functions far differently from  true woonerfs in countries where “woonerf” is more than a trendy term for roads with benches.

On Bell Street, unsurprisingly, the experiment has been only a qualified success. Here, cars turn blithely onto a street clearly marked, at every intersection, with large “do not enter” signs, and drivers complain that the new road regime is just one more way for the city to rip off drivers with unfair traffic tickets. The presence of cars makes the street unpredictable for pedestrians, and the ill-defined boundaries of the so-called “park” (which may, at any moment, turn into a speedway for cut-through traffic) makes potential park uses such as food trucks and playgrounds dangerous or untenable.

I’m not knocking Seattle’s efforts (although it does seem like a few retractable bollards would fix the whole “Sorry-officer-I-didn’t-see-the-sign” problem, no?) Woonerfs are as routine in other countries as massive street-level parking lots are here, and it’s cool that Seattle is one of the first U.S. cities to really give them a go. But it will take a lot more experimentation—and a lot more half-functional woonerfs—for the city to convince drivers to share a public space with other users when they’ve spent so many decades considering it theirs.