The big lie: Pro-density backers toss racist NIMBY label at anyone opposing the Mayor’s ‘HALA’ upzone agenda


Why they must be racist…they’re living in a single family home

McCarthy-like attacks designed to marginalize neighborhood groups

Reprinted from our 2017 January column in Pacific Publishing Newspapers by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

There’s a false narrative driving the massive upzoning of Seattle’s neighborhoods – the centerpiece of the Mayor’s so called Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). It goes something like this: if you stand up for the preservation of the character of your neighborhood, especially if the neighborhood happens to be composed of mainly single-family homes and other lower-density structures, then you are an exclusionary, a racist, and a NIMBY.

At the heart of this narrative is the assumption that those who live in single family homes are rich, white and old, and that they’ve succeeded in “locking up” most of the city’s land otherwise needed to expand supply of new residential development.  

In the face of this driving narrative, facts don’t matter. No matter that new development often requires removal of existing low income and affordable units displacing many low income people and people of color to the suburbs. No matter that the new units are priced hundreds of dollars per month above what most working people can afford. No matter that only 35 percent of the city’s land is zoned single family–not 65% as repeated ad nauseum by upzone zealots. No matter we’re already zoned for 3 times the residential capacity we need to meet our regionally assigned targets under the Growth Management Act (GMA).  

This is the “big lie” the Mayor and backers of increased density at all costs use to legitimize what really is at its core a colossal developer giveaway: more density, more tax breaks, eliminating parking requirements and formerly necessary environmental obligations citizens have come to expect.  

In return we’re supposed to get a relatively small number of so-called affordable units that developers are required to set aside in their projects. But it turns out “affordable” means at rates geared for those earning at 60 percent of median income–$950 for a studio to over $1200 a month for a two-bedroom unit.

How does this begin to serve the 42,000 households earning less than 30 percent of median and another 30,000 earning less that 50 percent of median (and disproportionately represented by people of color)? Most of these households rely on a dwindling supply of older, lower-density, privately owned affordable rentals–precisely the units we’re demolishing to make way for runaway density HALA upzones will promote.

Despite record levels of new residential construction under current zoning and 10,000 more units going through permitting, this false narrative demands more market rate housing–more is always better.  

As for the thousands of lower-income folks living in the existing lower density apartments on sites under HALA that will be upzoned, their fate is couched in words like “the old must make room for a younger generation” or “room must be made for newcomers.” Translated this means, these sites are too valuable to be occupied by their current lower-income residents. The pro-density crowd either denies displacement exists or regards it as simply a necessary accompaniment of “letting the market take its course”.

In a high-demand city like Seattle the added supply of expensive new units never trickles down to those at the bottom. Yet we hear, even from some elected leaders, that anyone who stands in the way of developers’ right to max out their property wants to “build a wall” around their neighborhood.

Let’s deconstruct the central notion of the narrative. All who live in single-family homes are not rich white homeowners. First of all, 25% of all renters in Seattle live in single-family housing and about 25% of all single-family structures are occupied by renter households.

Moreover, 65% of all African American households in Seattle are renters who depend on this stock of larger family-sized rental housing and lower- density older larger townhouses, duplexes and triplexes. Consider that these single-family or low-density rentals make up a large chunk of the families with kids that go to our public schools. Much of this housing is located in the lower density multi-family and neighborhood commercial areas targeted by the Mayor for significant upzoning.

Instead of pausing to address the displacement we’re already getting hit with, the HALA upzones across the city will greatly accelerate the loss of these older, affordable rentals that most low income and families of color depend upon.

The Mayor and Council pay lip service to the need to measure policy from a race and equity lens. Sensitivity trainings, report after report, and lots of symbolic hand wringing by a bunch of corporate white liberals that fill City Hall. Then they have the audacity to accuse those living in lower density areas or in single family homes of being racist. It’s a colossal fraud.

The pell-mell rush to approve HALA and these massive increases in density that serve only developer profits further accelerating the loss of our city’s existing affordable stock, serves to drive a deeper wedge between rich and poor, black and white in our city.

And our Mayor and his pro-density pals have the gall to toss charges of racism around at our neighborhoods and the people who care deeply about them and fight to keep them livable, affordable, and racially and economically diverse!

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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