This image is titled: Dreaming about a new beginning [in a slum]
This image is titled: "Dreaming about a new beginning [in a slum]" wilpunt/gettyimages.com

What you will not find in Seattle today is a single solution to its housing crisis, which, for the past 20 years of rapid capital growth, has expanded its population of homeless humans. The reason why the city's mayor Jenny Durkan can only move the problem from here to there, and there to here, by clearing this and that settlement of homeless people or oppressing people in RVs is because Seattle is from crust to core a market-rate city. This kind of urbanism functions in much the same way as the laissez-faire (or let it be!) urbanism of 19th century Europe and North America, and also 20th and 21st century Global South. But there is one big difference between the laissez-faire city and the market-rate city of Seattle: the former has no slums. If this fact is carefully considered, it will be easy to see why a market-rate city that makes no space for the poor will have a large number of its citizens living in the streets.

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There are some on the left who might find the idea of restoring slums in Seattle to be regressive. But if you are (unlike the right) opposed to sweeps, then you must support homeless settlements and their growth, which is inevitable if they are left undisturbed. A homeless camp is nothing but the seed of a slum. It is poverty in search of a location to settle in the city. A sprouting slum will offer its inhabitants a stability strengthened by the bonds of a shared experience. The sweeps conducted by Mayor Durkan will not end the problem, but they do deprive the poor of the time and means to form, in the context of market-rate urbanism, a self-sustaining community. Seattle only keeps its poor in RVs and tents moving. This only means they have nowhere to go. A slum would end this enormous waste of time and energy.


In the entire history of the capitalist city, there has never been a market-rate city that has provided adequate housing (as quality and quantity) for the poor. Go back to Third Empire Paris (the 1850s), and you will find Napoleon III, that moment's defining leader, attempting to implement a number of public housing schemes to resolve the housing crisis caused by the world's first major gentrification project, organized by Baron Haussmann. (There was a little Saint-Simonist socialism in Napoleon III's urbanism.) All of these schemes, however, failed because their scale, unlike the Haussmannization of Paris, was too small. The world has only known one scheme that has adequately supplied housing to the poor in a market-rate city, and that has been the decommodification of large sections of that market. This is called social housing. In the US, we call it the projects.

As the greatest urban social scientist of the 20th century, Ruth Glass, pointed out in the text that gave the world the word gentrification, "London: Aspects of Change," the decommodification of housing in the West (particularly Europe) was a response to the two wars and market crash that weakened rentier capitalism. And it worked. Housing became a right, and the living standards of millions of Westerners dramatically improved. But as soon as rentier capitalism strength was restored, around the early 1960s, it began the political project of dismantling social housing and reviving its paradise on earth, the market-rate city. Glass described this revival in London as gentrification. But if there is no social housing available for the poor, and the city is spatially structured by the profit-logic, then there must be slums. It is one or the other.

Without a slum, Seattle also deprives its regional, national, and global poor with a point of entry. There is a way for high earners to enter this city. These are the numerous luxury apartments that have been built over the past decade. But where and how does a low earner come into the city? In the laissez-faire city of 19th century Europe and North America, and those of the Global South of our times, there are points of arrival for the poor. The British and Canadian journalist Doug Saunders calls them arrival cities.

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In Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World, he writes:

Arrival cities are known around the world by many names: as the slums, favelas, bustees, bidonvilles, ashwaiyyat, shantytowns, kampongs, urban villages, gecekondular, and barrios of the developing world, but also as the immigrant neighborhoods, ethnic districts, banlieues difficiles, Plattenbau developments, Chinatowns, Little Indias, Hispanic quarters, urban slums, and migrant suburbs of wealthy countries, which are themselves each year absorbing two million people, mainly villagers, from the developing world.

I am coining the term "arrival city" to unite these places, because our conventional scholarly and bureaucratic language—"immigrant gateway," "community of primary settlement"—misrepresents them by disguising their dynamic nature, their transitory role. When we look at arrival cities, we tend to see them as fixed entities: an accumulation of inexpensive dwellings containing poor people, usually in less than salubrious conditions. In the language of urban planners and governments, these enclaves are too often defined as static appendages, cancerous growths on an otherwise healthy city. Their residents are seen, in the words of the former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, "as an ecologically defined group rather than as part of the social system."

If Seattle's housing market or democratic institutions cannot provide affordable housing, then it needs to leave a space or spaces for the poor to do so on their own. Camps and RVs are nothing but the search, the longing for a settlement. They are not aimless or criminal. Their goal is to establish a platform for the development of human bonds that can grow informal micro-businesses and social services, a platform from which the poor can tap into the affluent markets of the city. Slums are only despised because the rich fear the genius of the poor. This genius is the true flourishing of the human, which is nothing but the weak depending on the weak.

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