May 14, 2017

I love my adopted hometown of Seattle. As the city grows, though, I’ve started paying attention to the difficult conversations and lengthy acronyms that frame the debate about where old and new residents should live. The Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) movement, which started in the San Francisco Bay Area as a backlash to latent Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) interests, is now here in Seattle as well. Curiously, there’s also an “urbanist” school of local politics that encourages more density, more mass transit, and less parking. Seattle harbors a surprising number of anti-urbanists. YIMBYists and urbanists face frequent clashes with long-time residents who want to preserve the ways of life that, in much of the city, have been frozen since the 1960s.

The ’60s were a great time for Seattle, especially for white residents. The city hit its all-time high in population — only recently surpassed — as the economy continued its post-WWII boom. In 1962 the Century 21 Exposition introduced the Space Needle and Kurt Russell to the world, and the fairgrounds continue to be a major tourist attraction called Seattle Center today. The city was awarded an NBA team in 1967, which played at the Seattle Center Coliseum (now KeyArena), and its first baseball team, the Seattle Pilots, in 1969. The city of Seattle was literally on its way up: before the Space Needle was finished, the tallest building on the West Coast was the 1914-built Smith Tower.

The city’s residential character was also changing in the ’60s. In Capitol Hill, to the east of Seattle Center, several cheap motels built for the event now serve as moderately-priced apartment buildings. On Upper Queen Anne, just north of Seattle Center, large mansions still dominate a neighborhood that literally and figuratively looks down on density and newcomers. Meanwhile, restrictive covenants kept black residents in Seattle clustered almost exclusively in the Central District, or C.D., in 1960. Seattle’s black population was much smaller before World War II, so this led to a lot of building new homes densely on existing land, or “infill” as it’s now called.

Seattle’s growth since 2000 has led to a great deal of infill development: a builder might knock down an older single-family house to build a three-story apartment building, for example. The lack of enforceable restrictive covenants and the lack of prejudice among newcomers have caused the once-cheap C.D. to gentrify significantly: it is now less than 20% black overall and portions of it have been absorbed for marketing purposes into Capitol Hill. A local movement called Africatown aims to preserve the mid-20th-century black heritage of the C.D., although its leadership has been accused of disregarding the historical Japanese and Jewish populations of the C.D. and protests against a Jewish C.D. business owner have included overtly anti-Jewish statements. Last year local activists in Queen Anne blocked plans to allow backyard cottages to be built behind single-family homes in a rare example of fighting construction in other people’s backyards.

Most of Seattle is still reserved for single-family homes even though the sizes of families have shrunken since 1970. The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, touched off a political firestorm when opponents accused the mayor’s office of “doing away with the city’s single-family zoning.” Even though the city made a few revisions to HALA after the initial outcry, “No HALA Upzones” signs still dot the single-family homes’ front yards in Wallingford, the neighborhood in which I work. Some sit next to pro-refugee yard signs in a cruelly contradictory tableau: let poor refugees into the United States, they say, but don’t let them live in this expensive neighborhood. Car tab fees in Seattle recently increased as part of a voter-approved mass transit package. The famously anti-transit Seattle Times beat the drum against higher car ownership fees until legislators started work on reducing them — the premise being that it should be cheaper, not more expensive, to perpetuate the region’s notorious traffic jams. Keeping houses and lots large, parking free, car tabs cheap, mass transit insufficient, and neighborhoods exclusive will keep the city stuck in the mentality of the 1960s. In the interest of intersectionality, the desire to keep the quiet sprawl of single-family neighborhoods is also a coded way of keeping undesirable economic classes and races out of one’s neighborhood.

In Seattle we point and laugh at the Ohio steelworker who believes the President can make the mills reopen, but we also expect our local government to keep neighborhoods frozen in time and in socioeconomic makeup. There are no easy answers here: newcomers need somewhere to live and old-timers are much more likely to vote in local elections. Taking the side of developers, as the YIMBY movement does, is unpopular: the progressive site Truth-Out recently described the movement as “the alt-right darlings of the real estate industry” in an article that is highly accusatory towards white male tech workers like myself. This is a fight that, like so many social-justice movements, requires me to do much more listening than speaking.