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Faded Signs

The Debate About the Debate About the Housing Crisis

An aerial view of the 34 acres of unused land at Fort Lawton being considered for public housing. Photo courtesy www.seattle.gov.

With the City of Seattle’s Office of Housing uncertain about what to make of 34 acres of unused land in Magnolia, the bureau held a public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 9 to solicit suggestions from the public. Similar housing summits have historically been dominated by affluent owners of single-family homes in proto-suburban neighborhoods, but this hearing turned into a bullhorn for pro-housing interests in the city.

Attendees who expected a fair and balanced display of multiple viewpoints were disappointed early and often. Not only was crowd support overwhelmingly in favor of the city’s proposed 238-unit development, but the point was often made—most vociferously in a leaflet circulated by Kshama Sawant—that the tally of affordable units in question should number not in the hundreds but in the thousands. The deluge of pro-housing speakers who stepped to the microphone to testify before Office of Housing officials often peppered their commentary with individual anecdotes and observations, most pointing to the same conclusion: It’s time for the city to honor its recognition of the “housing crisis” with appropriately urgent action.

In the saga surrounding rising rents and rampant unaffordability, single-family homeowners have taken on the role of villain. Single-family homes are the least efficient use of space in terms of density of residents in a given space and single-family homeowners are often the most vocal anti-development players on the political landscape. Resistant neighborhood groups like the Wallingford Community Council have been described as maintaining “prejudice towards renters” and single-family zoning itself is rooted in racism. Even as several single-family homeowners testified at Fort Lawton in favor of affordable housing development, the polarization of Seattle’s housing debates—in addition to the dynamics of the housing market—have pitted camps against one another in a clumsy, unsubtle battle.

The city’s discourse about housing often passes out of politics and enters into something resembling a culture war, replete with memes, Twitter celebrities, foundational texts, and now, with the Fort Lawton hearing, seminal historical spectacles. The symbols and social circles of Seattle’s housing debates are indeed tightly wound, but calling them a subculture is not quite correct. The discourse more closely resembles professional sports, where local teams with their own fans and beat reporters belong to a broader federation that includes other cities. The contours of Seattle’s discussion are replicated in every liberal city where simpering politicians cater to a white-collar avalanche at the expense of working-class concerns, giving away large swaths of square mileage to luxury condos and homeowners while preserving precious little for renters, students and service workers. As widely shared as Seattle’s condition is, discerning the historical how motivating the political why is difficult.

Along with In Defense of Housing (2016) and Evicted (2016), Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America has emerged as a touchstone text in Seattle’s housing debates. An Amazon bestseller, the book relays the racist roots of America’s housing policy, dispensing firebrand solutions and bombshell historical insights along the way.

Rothstein writes that the Woodrow Wilson administration, frightened by the Russian Revolution, propagandized the American public into private home ownership in 1917, a tactic designed to keep socialist ideas from taking hold in America. Franklin Roosevelt carried on the mantle decades later, providing home loans and generous subsidies to aspiring white homeowners while barring Blacks and other undesirables from the same social welfare. Rothstein’s analysis implicates Seattle, where racially restrictive housing covenants in neighborhoods such as Sandpoint and Ravenna suppressed minority home ownership for generations.

With race and class disparities written deep into the material fabric of cities like Seattle, Rothstein concludes that a housing policy geared towards correcting racism would involve the federal government purchasing available homes and land plots, then selling them to historically marginalized peoples at a 80% discount. Progressive Seattle has much of the rhetoric and even some of the institutional leverage to author such a radical solution.

Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative was established in 2007 with an eye, in its words, towards “working with community-based organizations to support the movement to end structural racism.” The Initiative features a plan titled “Equitable Development – Seattle 2035” on its website, promising to “close racial and social disparities with capital and program investments” while “[analyzing] the impacts of proposed growth strategies on the city’s most vulnerable communities.” This equity-focused framework was apparently forgotten in the last decade, as Seattle grew to have the worst per-capita rates of homelessness in the country. Moving forward, the RSJI toolkit exists as a method of bureaucratic accountability that can guide the city into an actively re-distributionary mode of governing.

All across Seattle, plots of city-owned surplus land sit vacant, underutilized, or else sold to the highest corporate bidder. Politicians who value process over people have allowed these spaces to pass out of the public trust and into the hands of for-profit developers. Seattle could cultivate such spaces into public housing, or else enter the market as a broker who could skim off prohibitive land prices for non-profit housing consortiums, then distribute the land to civic-minded developers to turn these spaces into desperately needed affordable housing. The city, as its officials like to say, is in the midst of a housing crisis, which it should do everything it can to alleviate.

As for single-family homeowners, the challenge is to differentiate vulnerable house-dwellers from lucky millionaires. The former, often seniors on fixed incomes or recent entrees to the middle class, are gouged by Seattle’s regressive tax structure and endless stream of property tax levies. The latter saw their collective net worth and property values explode simply because they had the good fortune of owning property after the 2008 recession. Additionally, single-family homes in neighborhoods like the University District absorb a large share of the city’s rental market, with students in non-traditional housing arrangements living on lots owned by absentee landlords.

The city could start a comprehensive community land trust program that would afford young renters—especially renters of color—a middle way between owning and renting. Such a program could come with financial services and labor instruction designed to prepare young people for the dynamic, complicated roles the domestic sphere will play in their lives as they mature. In these city-stewarded land trusts, modeled, perhaps, after the Sherwood Co-Op, men in particular could be encouraged to learn tasks related to domestic upkeep that are too often offshored onto women. The public disparities of race and class are much discussed, while remedying the often privatized, domestic disparities of gender are not.

And as we strive to build the political will for citywide and statewide income taxes, we should make sure that property taxes disproportionately impact rich homeowners while sparing their poorer counterparts. All the while, we need to take a hard look at the impact that single-family zoning has on the cultural and economic life of Seattle. As relics of segregation and avatars of unearned privilege, NIMBY activists are often the face of resistance to social programs, affordable housing and mass transit.

Seattle’s housing debates seem like the terrain of wonks, insiders and elected officials. But the learning curve shouldn’t scare anyone away. At their heart, conversations about home are about who the city will and won’t hold space for in the future. Anything short of a social commitment to the downward redistribution of access and resources is window dressing.

Public comment and suggestions for what to do with the available land at For Lawton can be submitted via e-mail to OH_Comments@seattle.gov. The period for public comment closes on Jan. 29.

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