Statement on the Seattle Planning Commission’s Zoning Report

The Seattle Planning Commission’s (SPC) recent report about the impact that single-family zoning is having on exacerbating race and class disparities in Seattle is a sight for sore eyes. Finally, we see the city’s own independently-reviewed research and data back up what urbanists and housing activists have been saying for years: namely, that until Seattle tackles the roots of racism in our restrictive land-use policies, Seattle’s pretensions towards progressivity will remain just that.

“The growing economic exclusivity of detached housing in single-family zones contributes to disparity along racial lines by continuing the legacy of excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes.” — From the SPC Advisory Report “Neighborhoods For All.”

I first learned about single-family zoning and its roots in racial retrenchment while I was an undergraduate filmmaker at the University of Washington. As a student-employee unionized with UAW 4121 in the mid-2000s, I worked with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project to produce a series of documentaries about racially restrictive covenants and zoning codes in Seattle. Those films are still being used by local instructors to teach Seattle-area youths about our ugly collective past.

Map showing real estate segregation in Seattle, circa 1936. Linked courtesy of Curbed (https://seattle.curbed.com/2016/10/24/13389350/seattle-redlining-great-depression-maps-gentrification).

In the early 20th, century in neighborhoods like Magnolia, Wallingford, Green Lake, White Center, and Ravenna, discriminatory capitalists prevented property from being sold to people of color. The structural racism and economic exclusion were bolstered by zoning laws that made apartments illegal, for fear that working-class renters would bring crime and decreased property values. As time as progressed, single-family zoning has exacerbated the climate crisis: since the overabundance of single-family zoning means that apartments are currently illegal in 66% of Seattle’s city limits, the available housing stock has bottlenecked, pushing people who work in Seattle (often as not, Millennials in the service economy) to live in suburbs that require them to spend more time in their automobiles.

In the last few years, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing toxic smog and forest fire smoke blanket our city for weeks on end, with people locked out of affordable housing arrangements due to a legacy of discrimination. But things don’t have to be this way. If ever there was an issue that could unite young people, racial justice activists, environmentalists, and working people, reconfiguring our regressive zoning regime is it.

While commenting on the heated debates about housing taking place on the current City Council, Alex Pedersen — a candidate in this race who defends single-family zoning — recently remarked to KUOW that he promises to “take the temperature down.” I appreciate the attempt to maintain decorum in our civic discourse; but given the fact that single-family zoning is a contributor to increased carbon emissions and the rising planetary temperatures that come with them, we’ll need bold housing solutions if Seattle is going to be a national leader in lowering the global thermostat.

That’s why, in the coming weeks, my campaign team and I will be rolling out the first planks of our official housing platform. These are the policies I will push as a candidate, and introduce as a city councilman. They are informed by over a decade of researching and writing about land-use decisions in Seattle, and many years spent as an organizer, activist and advocacy journalist.

At the start of my bid to represent District 4 on the Seattle City Council, I promised to lead a campaign that fights for the rights of the most vulnerable to this city. Housing is indeed a human right; but a “right” with no policy is like a tree without roots.