Climate, Poverty and HALA

thai floods

Flooding in Thailand (Wikipedia)

Mayor’s land-use changes don’t do enough for poor people

The human suffering that will be unleashed by climate change is inconceivable. If unchecked, climate change will kill five million people between 2030 and 2050, according the World Health Organization’s projections.

It isn’t easy to think about such deaths: heat exposure, coastal flooding, malaria, dengue, malnutrition and diarrheal disease. It is the most vulnerable populations, particularly in Asia and Africa, who will suffer and die most often: the poorest, the youngest and the oldest.

In order to reduce this carnage, if it isn’t already too late, the United States must undergo sweeping change. We will need to strongly reduce corporate control of our economy and our government. Then, our government will have to dramatically reduce our carbon output by changing our transportation, our industry, our taxes, our consumption, our energy system, our land-use patterns and more.

While land use is the current hot-button issue at Seattle City Hall, climate change enters the debate through the back door.

Mayor Ed Murray deployed a task force to address Seattle’s housing crisis. The result was 60 recommendations called the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The key provision, and I’m simplifying here, is a trade-off: developers get to build taller and bigger buildings (AKA upzones) and poor and working-class people get some units in those new towers. The latter is called “inclusionary zoning.”

Critics and supporters are furiously debating whether HALA will actually do more harm or good in addressing our housing crisis. When pressed, HALA supporters often try to play climate change as a trump card in the debate over the “Grand Bargain,” as Murray calls it.

Dan Bertolet, an urbanist at Sightline, a local think-tank,did just that at the end of a recent interview. He says, we must change our land use in order to address global warming.

I agree, but I would add an important caveat: those land-use changes cannot hurt poor people in our own community. Otherwise our policy changes create more human suffering here in the name of reducing suffering elsewhere.

HALA’s upzones will certainly displace poor people and some of them may end up on the streets. That is what new bigger, taller buildings do—either they tear down cheap housing directly or they drive up rents by creating “hot” neighborhoods. What do you think happened in downtown Seattle over the last 40 years? Or South Lake Union in the last 20 years?

Sightline’s Bertolet, a sincere, thoughtful and knowledgeable man, disputes my understanding of HALA and displacement. He believes that I worry too much about “physical displacement.” Instead he prefers to focus on “economic displacement.” He explains, “More people want to live [in Seattle] than we have housing for, so the wealthier are going to win.” He argues, instead of fighting new development, “let the market build as much [housing] as it can.” Bertolet believes, that Seattle’s housing market is overregulated. He claims, “Upzones will reduce displacement if you look at the city as a whole.”

Even other urbanists disagree. “I don’t buy that,” says Rick Jacobus of Street Level Advisors, a national expert on inclusionary zoning. He adds, “There will be displacement and people will suffer.” Jacobus and Bertolet agree that Seattle needs to build a lot more market-rate housing. At the same time, Jacobus says the city must protect our poorest residents by enacting rent control, adding social housing and using tools like inclusionary zoning. (Jacobus, who has done consultant work for the Seattle City Council, knows rent control is illegal in Washington.) “It’s disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color that get freed up for development and people get displaced,” he says.

The inclusionary zoning piece of HALA is currently being considered by the Seattle City Council. By itself, inclusionary zoning is a wholly inadequate response to both displacement and the housing emergency among Seattle’s poor. The council must massively strengthen HALA’s provisions to create and protect low-income housing.

Climate change is no excuse for inaction against poverty in our own community.

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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