Twilight of black Seattle,...
Twilight of black Seattle,... Charles Mudede

As everyone should know, wages in America were de-linked from productivity in the late 1970s. As a consequence, wages have been flat while productivity has sharply increased over the decades. The stagnation of wages, however, threatened an important component of capitalism: consumer demand. The two main solutions to this problem turned out to be: one, produce cheaper products by taking advantage of the wage differences (arbitrage) between the rich north and the global south; and, two, make workers rent their pay increase rather than receive it directly as a wage.

Under these conditions, the best and safest way for a working- or middle-class person to rent money from a market has been to own a houseā€”it provides collateral for low interest rates on loans. NIMBYism for sure has a history that extends back to the urban zoning revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was intensified in the neoliberal period (from 1980 to today) by the stagnation in wages. The old high moralism of zoning (and a morality that had its roots in the failure to find social and progressive solutions to urban poverty) was then coupled (and often confused) with income constraints. Many NIMBYs have been under the impression that they are fighting for middle-class values, when in fact what they truly fear is losing the ability to rent cheap money. The reason is why so much energy and emotion is put into protecting property values: if they collapse, then a homeowner is stuck with just wages and enervated welfare programs. A home is the only asset those in the working and middle classes can hope to obtain and exploit.

That said, I recently heard a very interesting view to the NIMBY situation from Sheley Secrest, a lawyer and Seattle-King County NAACP Vice President who is in the race for Seattle City Council Position 8. She is not a fan of HALA or its strategies for dealing with the housing crisis.

I understand her reason to be this: Because blacks in Seattle have not meaningfully participated in the processes that developed HALA's core strategies, the organization has failed to recognize the unique situation of many black homeowners. For blacks, there is no heavy moral side to obscure the economic side of homeownership. They are NIMBYS with eyes wide open, but without the historical, mythological, and often racist baggage of urban zoning. There is no confusion about what their home is: a way to rent money that used to be included in wages.

Much of the emotional energy of the anti-NIMBY movement is directed at the thick and suffocating morality that has, for over a century, characterized white homeownership. But Secrest points out that for blacks who do own homes in the CD, this asset is the only way they can pay for college tuition or health expenses. Also, black homeowners, whose numbers are falling in King County, have to face greater economic pressures and threats than white homeowners. They are often paid less than whites, and more likely to be unemployed than whites. HALA, Secrest thinks, needs to be more thoughtful about and engage with the black context, which has none of the morality of standard NIMBYism.