I should probably introduce myself. I’m Doug Trumm: Seattle Renter, Fair-Weather Bicyclist, Committed Urbanist. I recently agreed to serve as the Publication Director of The Urbanist, taking over for my esteemed and equally unpaid colleague Stephen Fesler, who remains on as a Senior Editor and frequent writer. As someone who cares a lot about The Urbanist and wants to use it as a platform to share information with others interested in urban issues, I hope you’ll take a moment to hear me out.

Yesterday, The Urbanist published the second part of an interview conducted by Policy and Legislative Affairs Director Ben Crowther with two members of Seattle Fair Growth. You may already know Seattle Fair Growth as one of many groups working to block or weaken the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). Some urbanists–including some within The Urbanist–thought that this interview should have never been published. Some urbanists voiced very real concerns about giving a platform to opponents and publishing the ideas of a group which unapologetically perpetuates oppressive land use policies rooted in segregation, racism, and classism. Some even suggested that The Urbanist itself was racist for even interviewing Seattle Fair Growth and giving this group the space to joke about the fact that it had been labeled as a racist group.

For this, we at The Urbanist apologize. The mission of The Urbanist is to “serve as a resource for promoting and disseminating ideas, creating community, and improving the places we live.” At the heart of this mission is an invitation for dialogue across various ideologies. The goal of our efforts is to “share ideas and ways that we can make positive relationships and advance particular community efforts.” If you read the blog, you know we support HALA and advocate on a near daily basis for implementing the 65 policy recommendations therein.

Identifying and calling out racist policies is one of the driving factors behind my motivation for volunteering with The Urbanist. One goal of my work with The Urbanist is to undo the damage caused by redlining, “urban renewal,” Japanese internment, plowing highways through thriving Black and Latino communities, disinvestment, and workplace discrimination. All of these are urbanist issues.

The purpose of this post is also to thank those of you who suggested that The Urbanist interview more groups led by people of color. Thank you for making The Urbanist better. Please continue to partner with us in these efforts.

The Urbanist and I, personally, disagree with Seattle Fair Growth on many things. However, I feel it is important to understand the perspective of Seattle Fair Growth and other groups like it. Doing the hard work of understanding these groups makes our urbanist policies better, and it sharpens our critiques. Calling single-family zoning proponents racist gets us only so far. We need to win on policy details, and urbanists shouldn’t delude themselves that burying an argument is equivalent to defeating it.

While neither I personally nor The Urbanist as an organization am interested in serving as an apologist for Seattle Fair Growth leaders Sarajane Siegfriedt and Jon Lisbin,  I do think we as urbanists should pay attention. We should particularly concern ourselves with areas in which their stated policy objectives align with ours, such as on reforming Washington state’s overly strict liability laws for condominiums and eliminating Seattle’s fees on and overly restrictive regulations of accessory dwelling units (mother-in-law apartments).

We don’t have to agree with a group’s core mission to work with them to get policies implemented. But, since we did give them a platform, I’ll take a moment to linger on areas where Seattle Fair Growth is dead wrong:

  • While we share an interest in tree canopy, we know that chasing some arbitrary goal of expanding Seattle’s canopy to 40% is likely to lead to more forests to get plowed over in the suburbs–not to mention higher housing prices in Seattle.
  • One-for-one replacement of naturally-occurring affordable housing sounds nice, but in practice it kills housing production as a developer requirement. The government must take a larger role for policies like this to work, and even then one-for-one would likely work only on a larger scale than at the project level.
  • While existing zoned capacity may allow a significant number of housing units to be added, it will not allow them to be added in an equitable pattern. We need housing abundance and to keep zoning on the edge of scarcity is not the way to do that, especially when we are adding more than 20,000 residents per year.
  • It is really appropriate to “sprinkle around duplexes and triplexes.” It is very appropriate. Mixing housing types is how good cities are made.

We intended to publish a third installment of this interview, but decided not given the series was sowing discord rather than understanding. That section contains Siegfriedt’s comments about condo liability laws and eliminating mother-in-law apartment fees and the off-street parking requirement.

Update: Ben Crowther has published the conclusion of the interview on Medium. Those interested can check it out there.

Broaden the Boom: How to Rezone Single-Family Seattle

26 COMMENTS

  1. Doug, the racist argument is old and tired and not based in fact. It is a disappointing tactic to quiet those voices you don’t agree with.

    Ben, thank you for reaching across the divide and attempting to find common ground. It is too bad your colleagues choose to not do the same.

    • We are attempting to call in rather than call out. I thought Buckywunder said it well in a comment on Part 2:

      “The other factor that really can’t be laughed off any longer is the role that racism and classism played in perpetuating the social injustice and economic inequality of our current land use codes and zoning, which has perpetuated and worsened the lives of low-income, new arrivals to our country and people of color. The information relative to this history is EXPLODING in the form of new books, studies, data-driven internet maps and the like. Not being aware of or referencing this history in formulating your opinions in addressing housing affordability is a particularly bad look right now. It basically delegitimizes you.

      As a privileged white townhome-owner in an urban village, I say it is incumbent on predominantly white, single-family homeowners to recognize the history that they have benefitted from and to be prepared to sacrifice for the greater good of the larger society. While not having to hold the racist/classist views that created the current system in the first place (think of it as a type of urban apartheid), you d*mn well have a responsibility to recognize the need for a modern “truth and reconciliation” process to address the resulting inequities. Shouldn’t that be the part of the Seattle Way?”

      • So there’s no single family zoning in predominantly minority neighborhoods? And increases in density have resulted in more minorities and more affordability in neighborhoods? Btw Jon Lisbin, in case you didn’t know, is part of a mixed race family.

  2. Again, a young white couple from out of state who buys a house, in lets say, Wedgwood is “racists” due to buying a house zoned SF back in the past mid-century (70+ years ago) by someone’s great grandpa is benefitting over others who have lived in Seattle 20+ years. Why would they be racists? Why would you call proponents of SF zoning racists?

      • “stacking the deck against African-American households being able to live there (in SF houses)” Ok what is keeping African-Americans out of Wedgwood? is it the zoning, the neighbors, the location? Who is actually making the decision on where they want to live? (Everyone makes their own decision) Is it possible people of many different ethnic groups actually choose on their own where they want to live, in what type of housing, and in housing they can afford? Everyone has different preferences and financial circumstances. If not, who is directing people to live in other housing, neighborhoods, structures? Do minorities who choose to live in SF zoned housing support the “structured racism” keeping minorities out of SF zoned housing? Calling SF zoning and people who live in houses racists is nonsensical. A couple (pick any ethnic group) gets a job with Amazon and moves to Wedgwood from Atlanta. They choose to live in a single family house, now they are racists by supporting SF zoned housing in Seattle? And now you can add that to your stats to support your “Reality Based Housing” argument.

        • “Everyone has different preferences and financial circumstances.”

          Except that African-Americans overall have less rather than more income and wealth and thereby are less able to afford single family detached homes, and more likely to be able to afford multi-family housing.

          So calling people who live in single family homes racist on that basis is indeed nonsensical. I live in one myself.

          But calling single family zoning racially invidious in its effect is obviously true, as the data I posted shows.

          So then, what should “supporting single family zoning” as policy be called if not that?

          • Don’t buy your conclusion based on the data you provided. cause and effect? Really. You could replace SF houses with “Cars” and Multi-family housing with “Transit” and you would draw the same conclusion.

          • Banning low cost cars by law would indeed have a racially invidious effect on the ability of African-Americans to own cars. And eliminating transit would indeed have a disparate impact on the ability of African-Americans to get around (as people with less rather than more money are more dependent on transit).

            So indeed I think anyone would find it intuitively obvious if, say, a community favored car-centric policies (or, at an extreme outlawed anything but luxury cars because they like them better) and eliminated public transitwould be something fairly described as racially invidious…

            (This is not an original observation by see – e.g.,

            http://www.blackcommentator.com/106/106_transportation_racism.html

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lawrence-j-hanley/transit-public-sector-cut_b_7648298.html)

          • “African-Americans overall have less rather than more income and wealth” — Very true; inequity driven racism is baked into our economic system. However, building more market rate housing is not going to solve either systemic problem (the inequity or the racism).

            Bryan, you can (and do) post your argument ad infinitum but until you produce an example where up zoning to facilitate an increase in market rate housing actually reduces displacement or produces more housing affordable to lower income people, it’s not very probative. (The MHA tack on to the up zoning does produce some positive impact, but Seattle’s program is too low a % and not very inclusionary.)

          • “more housing affordable to lower income people, ”

            attached – 9 unit homes are more affordable to lower rather than higher income people; so un-banning them on more land will produce more than we’re getting today

            “reduces displacement ”

            lower income homeowners struggling with being priced out by property taxes who could subdivide and sell half (or more) of their lots will be less likely to be displaced

          • You are either willfully or ignorantly ignoring available data. Please start distinguishing between market with fast growth of high pay jobs, market without (where filtering [trickle down] over a few decades could actually work), and between private and public/NGO owned/subsidized developments. Anecdotes aren’t proof of anything except to show where our biases lie.

  3. We seems to be losing sight of the value of dialogue between people of competing viewpoints. Why are we so scared of listening to people who have different opinions than us? What are we afraid of?

    Time for a little remedial John Stewart Mill:

    First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

    Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

    Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

    Fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

  4. Good thing we’ve got a bunch of white men with urban planning backgrounds to explain how racism and housing equality works.

  5. “We should particularly concern ourselves with areas in which their stated policy objectives align with ours, such as on reforming Washington state’s overly strict liability laws for condominiums and eliminating Seattle’s fees on and overly restrictive regulations of accessory dwelling units (mother-in-law apartments).”

    That’s absolutely true in a general sense–political victories almost always involve coalitions with people who disagree about plenty of other things. But they barely even agree with you here. The owner-occupancy requirement they support makes it virtually impossible to get financing to build a ADUs, which means they only want to legalize ADUs for people wealthy enough to have the kind of accumulated capital to pay for them up-front, which eliminates most of the middle class. As with almost every issue, there’s a gapingly large gap between their reasonable, progressive sounding rhetoric and the likely consequences of the policies they actually support.

  6. Nice effort, I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I think what we need — in this country and this region — is more empathy, and I appreciate your efforts.

    A few thoughts: First, I find the issue of racism to be, frankly, pretty silly. As someone who has lots and lots of first hand experience with racial issues and racism, I thought the comments made by the Seattle Fair Growth folks were not in the least bit racist. At worst you have racial insensitivity, or perhaps ignorance of white privilege. Well, welcome to Seattle! My guess is most of the people in this town that are “woke” when it comes to racial issues got their knowledge from reading James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Good stuff, certainly, but you really can’t expect everyone in a town as isolated and ridiculously White as Seattle to understand what it is like to be a person of color when there are so few in most neighborhoods.

    More to the point, I seriously doubt this is what motivates them. In fact, i would put money on that. My guess is if there is a single member that even sniffs of saying something racist, they are removed quickly. My guess is they could care less *which family* moves in next door, as long as it is a family. As long as they mow their lawn, put in some interesting landscaping (or not, really — variety makes Seattle special) everything is OK. But replace that house with a duplex? Oh, now we have trouble.

    Because duplexes are ugly. Or at least, some of them. Well, a lot of them, really, which is what motivates the group. My guess is almost all of the members (and their supporters) are motivated by an interest in preserving “pretty Seattle”. I get it. I certainly get it. Just the other day, I happened to walk from my house in Pinehurst, towards Ravenna. I stopped at Growler Guys, and had a pint. Then I decided to walk on 19th, south from Lake City Way. Wow. What an absolutely charming neighborhood. I won’t link to it here, but really, the houses are marvelous. Not in the least bit pretentious, which adds to the charm. This is not like the Capitol Hill mansions. These are relatively small, (formerly) middle class houses, all packed in together. Not exactly row houses, but certainly not suburban. Nothing like what exists north of Lake City Way, actually. That is because the lots are smaller, and the distance between the houses a lot less. I can understand why a lot of people want to preserve that.

    The problem I have with their approach is that are going about it all wrong. They are focused too broadly on preservation — a laudable goal — without focusing on what, exactly they want to preserve. Do you want to preserve:

    1) Low density? Wow, that sound terrible. That is a recipe for a very boring, and very expensive city.

    2) Parking? Well then, have everyone pay for parking. It is unfair to ask one group — renters — to provide something you feel is important.

    3) The pretty old houses? Fine. Then pass preservation laws. Go ahead and preserve the houses that you find so pretty, while enabling each and every one of them to be converted to an apartment. Allow each lot to hold more than that one house as well.

    Instead we have a mess. We are losing those pretty houses every day, while — most of the time — only adding one monster house in return. That’s because the houses haven’t been preserved, but the silly “one big lot, one house” rules have.

    The other problem I have with the group is that they are economic denialists. They are ignoring basic economic theory (and frankly common sense) when it comes to housing. Allow for more construction, and the price of housing will go down. Put restrictions on development, and the prices will go up. (Ceteris Paribus).

    Zoning is a trade-off, and we need to acknowledge that. It is good to have goals, and if your goal is to preserve pretty houses, I’m fine with that. But simply trying to preserve outdated rules that are obviously making it very expensive to live here is a terrible way to to that. In the end, you are likely to lose both the pretty house, and the affordability which was one of the key elements that went into its design.

    • A lot of that looks right to me, not in every detail but unusually close for us who routinely disagree on everything. (I’m not SFG by the way, but have much in common with them.) I think your solutions are all wrong, but just skipping that, what do you think about this: let zoning and for that matter land use decisions more generally be done on a case by case basis, here and there, according to the apparent potential of the location?

      There would have to be a sort of specialist engaged to make these decisions, who we might call for lack of a better term “urban planner”, but it wouldn’t be some geek in an office downtown drawing GIS maps. It would be someone who gets to that area, and sees that it’s a really sweet little neighborhood, and cares about that. It would be someone who knows that the community up north in Lake City want more dense development in certain areas, and is also familiar with their other concerns, and takes them all seriously. It would be an acknowledgement that this is a serious business with very long term consequences, and it can’t be done well by a half dozen people downtown factoring policies into a GIS system.

    • I am part of SFG. IMO, the only part you got right is that none of us are racists or motivated by racial animus in any way. Furthermore, while I can only speak for myself, I don’t think most of our experience of non-white people and systemic (institutional) racism in America comes from “James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates.” In my case, it comes from being brought up in a strongly anti-fascist Jewish family, coming of age living in NYC, making the rent driving cab, and learning about our imperialist political economy—domestic and global—during the Vietnam War atrocity. I’m well aware of white privilege—including my own—and don’t need you to explain it to me.

      More to the point, your observations about SFG are mostly inaccurate (sorry Donn). All you have to do is read the front page to see that “preservation [of] pretty old houses” (“focused too broadly on preservation”) is not high on the list of goals. Neighborhood empowerment and prevention of displacement are the main goals, not “preservation.” There’s a reason many of us (myself included) supported Nikkita Oliver for mayor; she spoke directly to the need for the City of Seattle to promote policies that prevent displacement—especially of lower income and thus POC communities—not promote it.

      It’s OK to have disagreements about solutions, but I really wish growth advocating urbanists would not mischaracterize SFG and others’ positions. Accusations of racism are about the worst, but the problem of not hearing each other doesn’t stop there.

      • OK, I exaggerated – he’s right that the racism thing is silly, and that’s about it. Particularly inasmuch as it’s about SFG, which I can’t speak to anyway. But for me … I can look past the trivializing language and the misguided solutions, and see some recognition that an SF neighborhood can have something worth preserving, in the face of pressure to redevelop lots either with townhouse “duplexes” or oversized rebuilds. This is unusual here. It ties in with neighborhood empowerment, of course.

        • Yes, that recognition is present, and I should acknowledge it. Many if not most cultures have something worth preserving. Western Civ under the rubric of “modernity” seems bound and determined to destroy (“wasting”) much of it.

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