Since the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee released its recommendations on ways to increase affordable housing in Seattle, some people—namely comfortably middle-class white Seattle homeowners and the Seattle Times editorial board—have focused on one point in the report: that Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial exclusion. These critics say HALA is “playing the race card.”
The accusation was first raised by Crosscut and then echoed by the Seattle Times editorial board, which wrote that HALA attempted to "tug heartstrings and sell sympathetic Seattleites" on upzoning certain single-family residential areas by connecting the city's current zoning rules to racial discrimination. This argument even made its way inside city hall, where some single-family homeowners have accused HALA of calling them "racist."
The accusations, of course, are bullshit. While Seattle’s zoning itself isn’t based on racism, that doesn’t mean that racism hasn’t played a major part in shaping Seattle’s housing landscape. Nor does it mean that HALA’s recommendations, designed to address decades of racialized poverty, are “playing the race card.”
Let's start by debunking the argument made by the Seattle Times:
The paper’s editorial board criticizes the HALA report in a recent editorial by arguing that housing accessibility and income inequality are "important but separate issues" (their emphasis).
That's outlandishly false: disparities in wealth, of which home ownership is a huge part, are unmistakably racialized, both nationally and locally. The city's Race and Social Justice Initiative puts it this way: "Institutional racism increases disparities in housing, employment, criminal justice, education, health care and other areas."
I wouldn't necessarily expect Times publisher Frank Blethen to know this, but racism, classism, sexism, and a host of other -isms are deeply intertwined and often mutually reinforcing. Decades of work by critical race and feminist theorists have given that dynamic a name: intersectionality. Kyriarchy is a related term.
Blethen and the editorial board could also, you know, pay some attention to their own paper's news section. Last week, Times city hall reporter Dan Beekman broke the news of a new report from the Sightline Institute showing how wealthy white people with waterfront views dominate political spending in Seattle. Heidi wrote about the study's findings in greater detail.
So it's not just that the people who exert a disproportionate level of financial influence over our political process are white—it’s that they're white people with money, and that they happen to be the same white people with the most desirable homes in the city. Could there be a clearer example of overlapping racial, wealth, and housing hierarchies?
But the board insists that racial disparities in wealth and housing have nothing to do with one another, and that the city’s zoning is not racist, so therefore people are being unfairly victimized by all this housing-connected racism talk: "Seattle’s single-family zoning is not rooted in racism... It’s not derived from exclusionary covenants used in the previous century."
And while this point is technically true, historians at the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project say that doesn’t mean covenants haven’t shaped today’s housing landscape, or that racial segregation wasn’t reinforced in all kinds of other ways. They explain:
While the [HALA] report was technically wrong in referring to "zoning based on race," the distinction is pretty academic. Unlike some cities, Seattle never enacted segregation zoning ordinances. This was probably a matter of timing. Racial zoning was disallowed by the US Supreme Court in 1917, just a few years after cities began experimenting with any kind of zoning laws. Segregationists then turned to deed restrictions, restrictive covenants, and campaigns of intimidation to keep African Americans, Asian Americans, and other designated populations out of “white neighborhoods.” These were the tactics that became common in Seattle and as we document with our database of 416 restrictive covenants, they shaped patterns of segregation that lasted through much of the 20th century.
Racist covenants were merely a convenient substitute for racist zoning, which was outlawed.
In fact, you'll notice a connection between density—which is what the Times is agitating against—and racist housing practices in the project's online archive. Blacks were forced by racial covenants into a "highly congested" and "crowded" portion of the modern-day Central District, according to a 1948 article in Seattle's Communist Party newspaper, The New World. Much of the rest of Seattle, considered more spacious and more desirable, was reserved for whites.
City archives note that racial covenants (“deed restrictions that apply to a group of homes or lots in a specific development or 'subdivision’”) kept people of color out of white neighborhoods. “This and other acts of discrimination, such as realtors agreeing not to show houses to people of color, and red-lining, where banks denied credit to minorities, largely confined black residents to the Central Area in Seattle.”
Racial inequities continue to affect Seattle's housing market. The Race and Social Justice Initiative notes: "People of color have been historically under-represented in public decision making bodies that influence land use, planning and housing policy." (The initiative’s entire list of how discrimination continues to affect housing is at the bottom of this post.)
In addition to the Times editorial board, there are homeowners who've been frothing at the mouth about the HALA recommendations ever since Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote about a leaked draft of the committee's report with the breathless, erroneous, and since changed headline, "Get rid of single-family zoning in Seattle, housing task force says in draft report.” (In the end, HALA recommended greater flexibility to allow for more low-rise density in single-family zones, and upzones in only 6 percent of them.)
"We are not all wealthy people," complained Melissa Westbrook to the city council on July 20, "we are not NIMBYs, and we are, in particular, not racist, and I hate the implication from the committee." She identified herself as a Ravenna resident whose neighborhood is being unfairly asked to "share the burden" of greater density.
Another homeowner said HALA would green-light developers to “spread their cancer into our single-family zones.”
For chrissakes, HALA did not accuse Westbrook (who, by the way, generally does fantastic work as a school district watchdog over at Seattle Schools blog) or anyone else of being a racist, nor make that implication, nor will developers be spreading any cancers. HALA co-chair David Wertheimer told me he's been hearing people claim the report says that “anyone who lives in a single-family zone is a racist." He continued:
That’s absurd. That’s not what we’re saying... Early housing covenants and other exclusionary practices, together with the reality that more than half of Seattle remains zoned to single-family use, has created an environment that either intentionally or implicitly reinforced significant levels of racial segregation in housing. Although it clearly has been challenging for a predominantly white, progressive city to acknowledge the story of how we got to the housing patterns we have today, it is an important part of our history and an issue that we need to continue to create opportunities to address moving forward.
Here, in full (PDF), are the modern-day forms of discrimination that the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative suggested HALA do something about:
· People of color in Seattle are more likely than white people to be rental housing cost-burdened.
· People of color in Seattle have lower rates of homeownership than whites and are disproportionately impacted by foreclosures.
· People of color do not have equitable access to affordable housing in some high-cost parts of the city that also have good access to employment, transportation, high-quality schools, and other amenities.
· People of color have been historically under-represented in public decision making bodies that influence land use, planning and housing policy.
· Communities of color are experiencing increased displacement due to escalating rents.
· New housing developments are primarily producing smaller units that do not meet the needs of the larger average family sizes of households of color.
· People of color are unable to stay with their cultural community and support networks.
About the canard of the race card, Charles Blow said it best:
The truth is that the people who accuse others—without a shred of evidence—of “playing the race card,” claiming that the accusations of racism are so exaggerated as to dull the meaning of the term, are themselves playing a card. It is a privileged attempt at dismissal.
They seek to do the very thing they condemn: Shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.