Community councils have long history fighting racism and backing efforts to preserve Seattle’s low income housing stock

Attempts to link the neighborhood movement and single family character of the city to exclusionary practices are off base – the shoe is on the other foot

In 2018, when the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Upzone agenda works its way to the City Council, we can expect developers, and their pro-density Redlining_PHOTO_STimes_8-25-1975 - Editedmouthpieces to renew charges of racism against anyone who stands in the way of their “trickle-down” market-driven agenda.

To be sure, land use, zoning, and growth have a lot to do with the divide between rich and poor, white, and non-white in Seattle, but not as HALA proponents would have you believe.

In the late 1970s, John was the research coordinator for the old “Central Seattle Community Council Federation (CSCCF)” This is the early name and forerunner for what today is the citywide “Federation” of community councils. 

Seattle’s lineage of neighborhood activism and a network of what now is over 150 community councils covering every corner of the city, much of it can be traced to the 60s and 70s and the activities and ‘inspiration’ of the “Federation”.

The demographics of Seattle 40-50 years ago were different of course.  There was a greater proportion of the housing stock in single family but the Federation represented and spoke out, as it has throughout its history, on both tenant and homeowner issues. The neighborhoods represented by the Federation at that time were very diverse – made up of community councils from both white and predominantly black, lower-income and working class neighborhoods.

In the mid 1970s, Seattle was in the midst of a economic downturn largely due to the misfortunes of the dominant industry, Boeing.  But by 1977 suddenly the city was hit by an explosion of growth, much of it concentrated downtown. By 1980, an additional 10 million square feet of new downtown office space were added to Seattle’s skyline bringing a flood of workers into the city seeking housing. Rents rose 10 percent a year and home prices doubled to what was then a “whopping” $90,000.

From the Federation’s offices in the Central District, John’s task was providing background information for a staff of organizers schooled in the strategies of Saul Alinsky. They rallied residents to pressure city leaders to spend more on Central District infrastructure–dollars then going disproportionately to downtown, white, and wealthier neighborhoods.

Another battle involved ‘redlining’. Resident leaders, assisted by Federation organizers, held marches on banks and press events, including painting literal red lines around their neighborhood to protest the failure of financial institutions to provide loans or, if they did, not on equal terms with whites.

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Poster created circa 1975 from Margaret Tunks Collection included in her book Seattle Citizens Against Freeways 1968-1980: Fighting Fiercely and Winning Sometime

About this time, the Federation also fought I-90 expansion and earlier helped block plans to run a freeway through central area and largely black neighborhoods. And working with with area churches and the Black community, fought to desegregate our public schools.

Late in 1977, we formed the Seattle Displacement Coalition. With so much growth slamming the city, almost overnight a wave of new construction and reinvestment hit Seattle’s neighborhoods. A city commissioned study found that one in five Seattle households were being tossed from their homes due to redevelopment.

In response, the Displacement Coalition, worked closely with the Seattle Tenants Union, community councils, the Fremont Public Association (now Solid Ground), churches, senior and tenant rights groups in a successful effort to secure passage of laws controlling demolition, abandonment, condo conversion, and ending discrimination against households with children.   In 1980, many of the same groups formed ROOF (Renters and Owners Organized for Fairness) and launched a rent control initiative that unfortunately failed at the polls.

Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods were hit especially hard during this era. Several thousand existing low-income single room occupancy (SRO) and studio apartments were removed and by the early 80’s, homelessness had emerged as a citywide issue. The Coalition spent the 80’s fighting to preserve what was left of downtown housing and making sure that the city dramatically expanded funding to acquire and renovate those and buildings in surrounding neighborhoods. 

In 1982, we also partnered with Allied Arts and the League of Women Voters and introduced ‘interim controls’ on runaway downtown office development – to remain in place until measures were put in place to prevent displacement, protect historic buildings, ensure better design, and that developers paid their fair share.  The effort failed by a 6-3 vote of the City Council.  The Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, Audubon Society, Seattle Tenants Union, the “Federation” and most District Democratic organizations endorsed this effort. 

During this era we also worked to address the lack of housing opportunities for lower-income and minority families in north-end largely white and wealthier neighborhoods. We backed the City’s “scattered site” housing program that involved acquiring and renovating or building single family homes, duplexes, and triplexes, dispersing about 1500 of these subsidized units in low-density and and single-family zoned areas.  (Later we worked to save the program when in the early 2000’s SHA began selling off these homes to the highest bidder”)

Through decades of our work, neighborhood groups remained supportive, often actively joined and were pivotal to our efforts.  

Only in the last 5-10 years has the implication been raised that single family zoning and those living there or fighting to preserve the character of their neighborhoods are somehow racist.  Ironically, it’s precisely the presence of some remaining lower-density zoning in Urban Villages and along corridors, including single-family zoned areas slated for upzones, that stands in the way of more runaway growth that will set off still more massive displacement of low-income and minority communities.

These areas planned for upzone are chock full of what remains of Seattle’s naturally occurring, older, lower-priced rental stock, including larger rentals that families, especially immigrant and African-American families depend upon. It’s minority communities, especially African-American and first-generation immigrant families, that will be most adversely affected if/when these areas are upzoned.

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27-member multi-racial coalition of neighborhood group’s from across city hold recent press conference to announce appeal of HALA final EIS

Today, along with the Displacement Coalition, groups like the People’s Party,  ID-Chinatown activists and some Central Area groups have prioritized fighting displacement.  But frankly our ability to prevent loss of what remains of our city’s low income housing stock now hinges on the success of the current legal challenge to the city’s HALA-upzone plan by 27 neighborhood organizations.  Among their key concerns, those so-called “Nimbys” have charged the city with failure to adequately assess or mitigate displacement accompanying that plan.  Many of the groups are demanding developers pay impact fees and replace 1 for 1 any low income housing they destroy.

A hundred years ago, white wealthier neighborhoods adopted rules and covenants explicitly aimed at excluding people of color. The practice – that lingered even into the 50s and early 60s – was abetted by elected leaders and real estate interests. But just who’s carrying that banner today and pushing zoning changes and growth policies that increase our racial divide? 

It’s not neighborhoods but development interests profiting from the ‘HALA’ upzones  driving more low income and minority households out of our city – backed by their paid surrogates like Seattle for Everyone (bankrolled by billionaires), and (as in the past) abetted by local electeds like Rob Johnson (whose election was bankrolled by downtown PAC’s). It’s not surprising they want to deflect blame, but no less shameless to level a racist label on those same neighborhood activists fighting displacement today and skipping over their decades-long role in the fight for racial and economic justice in our city.

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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