There’s a false narrative driving the massive upzoning of Seattle’s neighborhoods — the centerpiece of Mayor Ed Murray’s so called Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA).
It goes something like this: if you stand up for the preservation of the character of your neighborhood, especially if the neighborhood happens to be primarily composed of single-family homes and other lower density structures, then you are an exclusionary, a racist, a NIMBY.
At the heart of this narrative is the assumption that those who live in single-family homes are rich, white and old, and that they’ve succeeded in “locking up” the land needed to expand residential development by virtue of… living on it.
In the face of this driving narrative, facts don’t matter. No matter that new development often requires removal of existing low income and affordable units displacing many low income people and people of color to the suburbs.
No matter that the new units are priced hundreds of dollars per month above what most working people can afford. No matter that only 35 percent of the city’s land is zoned single family — not 65 percent as repeated ad nauseum by upzone zealots. No matter we’re already zoned for three times the residential capacity we need to meet our regionally assigned targets under the state Growth Management Act.
This is the “big lie” the mayor and others who would increase density at all costs use to legitimize what really is, at its core, a colossal developer giveaway: more density, more tax breaks, eliminating parking requirements and the environmental obligations citizens have come to expect.
In return, we’re supposed to get a relatively small number of so-called affordable units that developers are required to set aside in their projects. But it turns out “affordable” translates to “rates geared for those earning 60 percent of median income” — and, with a median income artificially nudged upward by the city’s influx of high-income professionals, what that really translates to is $950 for a studio and over $1,200 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
How does this begin to serve the 42,000 households earning less than 30 percent of median, or the 30,000 earning less that 50 percent of median (both groups disproportionately represented by people of color)? Most of these households rely on a dwindling supply of older, lower density, privately owned affordable rentals — precisely the units we’re demolishing to make way for HALA-approved big-box housing.
Despite record levels of new residential construction under current zoning and 10,000 more units going through permitting, this false narrative demands more market rate housing — more is always better.
As for the thousands of lower-income folks living in the existing lower density apartments on sites that will be upzoned under HALA, their fate is couched in words like “the old must make room for a younger generation” or “room must be made for newcomers.” What they really mean is that these sites are too valuable to be occupied by their current lower-income residents. The pro-density crowd either denies displacement exists or regards it as a necessary evil to allow the market take its course.
In a high demand city like Seattle, the additional supply of expensive new units never trickle down to those at the bottom. Yet we hear repeatedly, even from our elected leaders, that anyone who stands in the way of a developer’s right to max out their property is a selfish racist.
Let’s deconstruct the central notion of the narrative. Not everyone who lives in a single-family home is a rich, white homeowner. Twenty-five percent of all renters in Seattle live in single-family housing and a quarter of all single-family structures are occupied by renter households.
Moreover, 65 percent of all African-American households in Seattle are renters who depend on this stock of larger family-sized rental housing and lower density older larger townhouses, duplexes and triplexes. Consider that these single-family or low-density rentals make up a large chunk of the families with kids that go to our public schools. Much of this housing is located in the lower density multi-family and neighborhood commercial areas targeted by the mayor for significant upzoning.
Instead of pausing to address the displacement we’re already getting hit with, the HALA upzones across the city will greatly accelerate the loss of these older, affordable rentals that most low income and families of color depend upon.
The mayor and City Council pay lip service to examine policy through the lens of race and equity. But it’s just a lot of sensitivity training, bureaucratic study and symbolic hand wringing by a bunch of corporate white liberals. The audacity to accuse those living in lower density areas or in single family homes of being racist — it’s a colossal fraud.
This pell-mell rush to approve HALA and line the pockets of developers who will accelerate the loss of our city’s existing affordable stock only serves to drive a deeper wedge between rich and poor, black and white in our city.
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. More information on the coalition can be found at www.zipcon.net.