As Christopher mentioned in the morning news, today on Capitol Hill, a bunch of protesters blocked shuttle vans that Microsoft uses to ferry their employees to work. An anarchist paper gushed about it and posted photos. The protestors' point? Capitol Hill is too expensive for renters. Their beef with Microsoft? By helping wealthy-ish employees commute from homes in central Seattle to the company's headquarters in Redmond, Microsoft is displacing the young, working-class community that's characterized the neighborhood for the last few decades and driving up rents.
So the protesters stopped traffic, including the 43 bus, and handed out these flyers that complain of an "insane orgy of technology, development, and greed." Their goal: "FIGHT DEVELOPMENT."
- Image courtesy of @maguiresean.
These guys are super-totes correct that the rent's too damn high. I wrote last year that it's soaring to about $1,000 a month for a studio and $1,200 for a one-bedroom, and it's especially high in central neighborhoods like Capitol Hill. We absolutely should make it top priorities to (1) curb housing prices and (2) preserve and build new spaces that are affordable for independent business.
But what won't drive down prices? Stopping development altogether. Still, this anti-development pitch isn't just coming from this morning's showboating activists—it's been been pervasive for years. I wrote a piece in 2008 called "Queens of the Hill," about activists holding long-winded circle jerks about "oppressors" responsible for gentrification.
Blocking the construction of new housing in Seattle while demand increases—which it will, because the population is growing—will only make the scarce housing more valuable. And thus more expensive for renters.
It's also unhelpful to fight the wrong enemy, one chosen with tortured logic, by slowing down folks trying to get to work. Wealth in Seattle is a good thing. Those Microsoft employees spend money—money at the restaurants, bars, art-supply stores on Capitol Hill. Those Microsfties go out to shows, dance at clubs, see plays, read books, buy art. They fuel the economy that defines Capitol Hill. They are not the enemy. And while some developers are greedy motherfuckers, true, not all of them are bad, and development itself is not the enemy. Pretty much every wonderful home you've stepped inside was built by a developer who—this is not rocket science—made money off of it.
I'm not defending Microsoft here. They've done awful things that deserve to be protested. Microsoft funded a campaign to nix an income tax on the rich. Microsoft dodges millions in state taxes and billions in federal taxes. They should be paying their fair share. But that doesn't make them the a logical enemy of Capitol Hill renters, and Microsoft isn't going to fix that problem.
So these activists aren't just embarrassing themselves with a backward message and stunt, they're hurting their own cause. A good cause.
This sort of misguided activism drives reasonable people away from a legit issue and makes activism to fix that problem seem like some marginal bullshit. (These tactics aren't far off from police brutality marches that claim "All Cops Are Bastards" instead of reforming sick departments. Those folks make their own supporters want to puke.)
So what to do? A few years back, I suggested six tactics to preserve affordable places. But there is more we can do. (There's also a longer, research story to be written about ways to help bring down rents, too.) Just a very quick, very incomplete list: incentives for smaller three-bedroom apartments that accommodate families and rent for under $1,500, extract more workforce housing from downtown developers, allow taller buildings around the light-rail station, promote microhousing studios, expand the housing levy, give bigger tax breaks to developers who build less expensive housing, etc. Slog has smart readers: What do you think we can do, constructively, to lower rents? Whatever the suggestions, the realistic ones will almost all involve involve working with developers, banks, philanthropists, government, and community groups. They won't involve pulling stunts that are so stupid, so non sequitur, that it makes a reasonable issue seem toxic.