Building owner Katie Kulczyk choked back sobs as she described the high-density apartment building that had just been built next to her “lovely little two-bedroom townhouse” on Capitol Hill. The traffic congestion those new residents will create, she said, made the townhouse unlivable for her. “It shouldn’t always be about the people that are coming,” she said, prompting raucous applause from the audience. “What about the people that are here?” The testimony was so consistent—or redundant, depending on your position—that a drinking game could have been fashioned from the proceedings: Take one shot whenever someone said “neighborhood character,” two for “transient.” Ravenna homeowner Suzanne Ferris, for example, said she was “emotionally devastated” by the microhousing units that had gone up nearby, which she called “hotels for transient people coming to the U-Dub.
“The only thing slowing development now is that there aren’t enough people to process the permits at City Hall fast enough.”
John Fox has been fighting bad development since 1977.
SEATTLE WEEKLY • NOVEM BER 11 — 17, 2015
“My inheritance, my husband’s family’s inheritance, is being ignored as you move forward in this juggernaut to develop,” she later added. Through it all, committee chair Mike O’Brien kept his trademark aw-shucks smile plastered onto his boyish face, occasionally frowning or leaning forward to emphasize his empathy with some especially poignant point. Councilmembers nodding, the crowd politely angry: The whole scene played out as it had so many times before and since in the fight over Seattle’s growth. And though he naturally beams niceness the way the sun shines, O’Brien had additional cause to aim his nuclear-grade affability at the crowd of middle-aged white folks who mostly filled the Council chamber: They were his constituents, and it was an election year. Seattle is suffering an affordable-housing crisis—on this there is no debate. But the causes of and solutions to that crisis remain a well-gnawed bone of contention. On one side is a faction known as “urbanists” by friends and “densinistas” by enemies. Their ideology begins with the premise that housing is a commodity. Like all commodities, its price follows the tug-and-shove of supply and demand. Right now demand is surging, and with supply sitting tight in its snug little single-family bungalow, cost is surging as well. An obvious solution follows from this narrative: Build more housing. Keep building until it catches up with supply, or rents will stay high and poor renters will either pay more than they can afford, move out of the city, or become homeless. As architect David Neiman puts it, “You gotta build as much housing as there is demand . . . [or] the whole housing market stays in a bidding war for scarcity, and poor people lose.” On the other side of the debate are “neighborhood preservationists,” if you want to be polite, or if you don’t, “NIMBYs”—an acronym for Not In My Back Yard. In its most literal sense, “NIMBY” refers to hypocritical homeowners who support some project—a homeless encampment, a utility transfer station, a public-health clinic—as long as it’s located somewhere other than their own neighborhood. That is, it’s pejorative, denoting selfishness and dishonesty. But the
term has evolved—at least among densinistas— to more broadly refer to opponents of development, whether they’re hypocrites or not. The preservationists’ ideology starts with the premise that the capital costs of construction make new housing more expensive than old housing. Property owners with large debts to their investors are constantly squirming under the imperative to charge as much as possible in rents, while landlords of older buildings whose debts are paid off may have more wiggle room to leave rents be. Market-based housing development, they say, is synonymous with gentrification, displacement, and the sacrifice of Seattle’s soul for the sake of developer profits. As recent City Council candidate Bill Bradburd—whose campaign statements seemed to put him in the NIMBY camp—put it, “Market developers can’t build affordable housing—they can’t do it.” This is a high-stakes debate. Seattle rent has increased by an average of about 60 percent since 2000, outpacing inflation by half. During the same period, Seattle’s population grew by about 17 percent. Booming costs have increased the pressure on poor renters as they play the cruel Tetris of Seattle’s bottom-shelf housing market. Take Topher White. A restaurant worker and bike delivery contractor, he spends more than 80 percent of his income on rent, or $785 out of his roughly $900 monthly pay. Because of this, he says, “Really, really stupid things are barriers to me,” like having to choose between laundry and bus fare for a job interview. “It’s fine for six months,” he says, but then “having to pay so much of your money just for rent, it starts to crush your soul.” White’s not alone: He’s one of about 110,000 renters, or roughly one-sixth of the city’s population, that is “cost-burdened”— that is, paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. Both sides parade the poor in support of their position. If everyone cares about White’s plight, loves both affordable housing and Seattle’s green-urban character, then why do we have such explosive disputes over the minimum squarefootage of an apartment, or how much car (and bicycle!) parking a new residential building needs? Whence the micromanagement of development, and whence the hollering? Looking for answers, I spoke with some key activists in the fight for limited growth, plus some of their critics and a couple of old hands who have been here since time immemorial. The answers I found surprised me. I’ll bet you didn’t know that preservationists are fundamentally informed by a Marxist view of political economy, or that the city’s 1994 Comprehensive Plan was a high point for neighborhood/city relations, which took a nose-dive in the 2000s. Perhaps most important is the insight that our current battle over development has been going on for decades—long before the most recent boom— and is as much about people feeling as if they’ve been heard as it is about substantive questions of growth policy. Growth has long been controversial in Seattle.
By the 1960s—the same decade that the Space Needle signaled a city on the rise—Seattle PostIntelligencer columnist Emmett Watson was leading the “Lesser Seattle” movement against city boosters who wanted the Emerald City to become the New York of the West Coast. He agitated his readers to “keep the bastards out” by spreading rumors of how unpleasant life was here, in hopes that the mossy utopia of old Seattle might avoid what former Seattle Weekly managing editor Fred Moody once called “the demons of ambition” and putative progress.
The city then was a battleground. Efforts to stymie the bisection of the city by the Interstate largely failed. But when developers and downtown business owners attempted to replace Pike Place Market with a giant development under the banner of “urban renewal,” a coalition similar to the current anti-developer alliance emerged and successfully stalled the plan. Then, between 1969 and 1971, massive layoffs at Boeing sucked the region’s economy into a sinkhole from which it wouldn’t emerge for years. Financing for the development project dried up and the preservationists declared victory. The Boeing Bust ushered in a quieter time. Seattle abandoned its riotous growth for a soft slumber in which work was scarce and living cheap, as if Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman had a baby, except that the baby was actually a city, and that city had waddled out of the river of time and up the bank, where it took a 10-year nap. As Moody wrote in his 2003 Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, “A typical Seattleite got by on very little money and had all the time in the world to accomplish whatever it was he or she wanted to do,” which often included nature hikes, arts and crafts, and generally enlightened ne’er-do-welling. “Seattle [was] a city,” writes Moody, “where people chose to cultivate the mind and the soul, disdaining standard American upward mobility and statusseeking for a life in which people were essentially sympathetic with one another . . . ” Think Haight-Ashbury with the volume turned down and expanded to cover an entire urban center. Current City Councilmember Nick Licata lived in a commune; Capitol Hill became gay; artists lived in Fremont. To many it was a golden age. And in many ways, it’s this idyllic decade that older Seattleites are thinking of when they pine for the Seattle that once was: Old Seattle, the Urban Garden before the Fall. Then the ’80s happened. Microsoft started to take off, Boeing bounced back, Starbucks began to metastasize, and the Seahawks started playing like a real football team. Seattle slipped back into the rushing river of time. Moody again: “I looked back over the 1980s and saw them as a decade of gradual conquest of Lesser Seattle by Greater Seattle.” That tech-driven ’80s economy has carried us to where we are today, a generation later: South Lake Union has been transformed into a glittering monument to yuppie hubris, while the Central District’s diversity is being blanched out by a growing affluent, largely white, population. Seattle is competing for prestige with A-list cities like New York and Los Angeles, even as homelessness has escalated into a civil emergency. And our wrestling match with growth shows no sign of ending anytime soon, as Amazon and its ilk continue to drag our economy by the scruff of its neck toward an inferno of prosperity. Neighborhood preservationists are quick to point out that this prosperity is not equally shared by all residents of Seattle. By the ’80s, says activist John Fox, when “we saw the return of investment to Seattle and cities in general . . . the effect of that was the loss of low-income housing.” In other words, as money flowed into Seattle, space for poor people flowed out—precisely the same dynamic that Fox and other preservationists say they see today. When I meet Fox, he’s sitting in his University District office, an old broom closet in a community center, murky with shadow, surrounded by the echoing screams of young children as they bolt down the hallway outside. The impression I take from this meeting is of a man
November 11, 2015 edition of the Seattle Weekly