I want to tell you about 417 acres of land owned by the city of Seattle, about 1% of the Seattle that does not have a road on it. This land does not have any housing on it or city offices or facilities freely open to everyone. You have to pay money to use this land. This land is largely covered in non-native plant species, not rare or special non-native plants, but the most common non-native plant found everywhere. This land only gets 200,000 user visits per year, but despite costing money to use does not net the city significant revenue. Those 200,000 user visits per year probably represent fewer than 50,000 unique users per year1.

All of this land is very close to current frequent transit. It is near shopping, schools and other important amenities.

If you read my Twitter account, you’ll immediately recognize that I’m talking about our public golf courses. Before I tell you more about this land, let me tell you about a couple other issues of how we distribute resources in our city.

Last year, during our mayoral primary, one candidate, Nikkita Oliver, stood out for a reason that I think got a bit lost. One example happened when Oliver spoke with members of the bike community. The fellow that runs Seattle Bike Blog, Tom Fuculoro, posted about it. The main comment that got her in trouble:

But the real tough line that got me came when she called the Ballard Missing Link a “beautification project” that is “not an immediate need” during Candidate Survivor this week (17:25 in this video).

Oliver is quoted later:

Additionally, I have to stress that our city is currently in a state of emergency around homelessness. I believe it is the duty of our city leaders to prioritize addressing these exigent human service needs first. This may require us to put some projects, like construction of bike lanes on hold in order to ensure that we have the financial resources to address the state of emergency around homelessness in our city.

The point here: if this is truly an emergency, then even some important projects aren’t important enough. Oliver got better at talking about this, and she continued to make this point.

In the summer of 2016, when the north police precinct project came out with an absurd cost, it drew the attention of many. Some believe that we have too much policing and spend too much on the police, which made the north precinct project obviously wrong. But even many folks for whom a new north precinct is a reasonable project were concerned that we were spending an outrageously large sum that could be spent on other priorities, like housing. I personally found it easily arguable that the entire precinct project should be put on hold because the police can make do with the office space they have and people forced into homelessness cannot make do.

Last year, now disgraced Mayor Murray proposed a $275 million dollar property tax levy to help pay for transitional housing, rent support and services for those without homes and similar. It was one of the first times I was impressed with Murray. A tax wouldn’t be popular but it would be doing something that was slightly better than fiddling around the edges and lamenting our lack of revenue. Of course, the reaction immediately showed it wasn’t going to go anywhere and he soon gave up on it (and soon after became ineffective due to the accusations against him). But it seemed obvious that if you own property you’re clearly doing better than someone who does not have a home at all.

When the HALA committee released their recommendations, one of them was that all residential areas in Seattle be zoned for more density including allowing duplexes and triplexes in areas that currently only allow single-family homes. This was met with immediate outrage and while Murray and others tried to push forward with that recommendation, they quickly took it off the table to appease the largely wealthy and overwhelmingly white homeowners of the city. We’re left with relatively minor zoning changes to our single-family zones that are very close to existing dense urban areas. Even that proposal is being met with legal challenges which will serve to delay and limit the proposal which can only further reduce the amount of housing that we could be building.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a public hearing in the Magnolia neighborhood about a project to decide what to do with some free land in the remnants of Fort Lawton. The history of this area of Seattle is perhaps a familiar one to much of the county:

  • Native peoples who live there were ousted by largely white settlers in the 1800s.
  • During the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the land for this project and what is now Discovery Park was turned over to the federal government and used for a military base including artillery ranges and housing for soldiers.
  • During World War II, it was used to house prisoners, among other things.
  • After World War II, it gradually became less important to the national military as a base further south took over many of its responsibilities.
  • In 1972, most of the land was ceded to the city of Seattle and turned into a park.
  • A remnant of this land still owned by the federal government was offered to the city of Seattle in the early 2000s if it was used for affordable housing.
  • Throughout the 2000s, residents repeatedly challenged building housing here. The surrounding neighborhood had in the last century become one of the wealthiest and whitest parts of Seattle, partly due to exclusionary zoning and racial covenants which were supported by local, state and federal governmental bodies.

The hearing I went to was much different than previous ones. Nearly everyone spoke in favor of housing, hopefully much more than what they are planning to build. It was inspiring and a welcome change from the last few years when I’ve felt housing issues were hopeless to address.

Seattle has four public golf courses. (City of Seattle)

So what about those golf courses? I am not exactly advocating that we convert all the golf courses to housing, though if we did we could build 28,000 housing units and still reserve half as open space. Converting “parks” space to non-parks space is hard2. What I am asking is for folks to think about what our land use priorities say about us. What does it say that 1% of the usable (non-road) land in Seattle is devoted to a hobby only a small number of residents use and which you have to pay to participate in? What does it say during a housing crisis that this land is not only off limits but barely spoken about?

A popular claim in Seattle is that budgets are moral documents. Budgets seem like a boring negotiation of paying for this and that, but we are deciding who and what we support or don’t support. How we use and distribute our land is also a moral issue, one with a long history of exclusion. Despite all our wonderful parks, how we use land in Seattle shows little concern for the least well off among us. We require most of the land in Seattle used for homes to be large lots (5,000 square feet or more) and to contain no more than one detached home intended for a single family. This puts the cost of a home beyond many.

Historically, we also excluded non-white people from many of these same areas and have done little to repair this intergenerational harm. We have built relatively little public or affordable housing or provided paths to ownership for the non-wealthy. Even today, proposals to build affordable housing will result in neighborhood associations that organize to pressure it to be built elsewhere or not at all. And of course, public housing is now very expensive to build, as much as $320,000 per unit. After years of a so-called housing emergency, we need tens of thousands of units to meet the current need for affordable housing. The land is one of the largest costs to building, but even a single family home in such bad shape that it will just be torn down can cost $500,000 now.

If anyone in elected office or in a city department were to seriously propose converting even a small number of acres from our public golf courses into dense affordable housing—because surely housing for people is more important than having four golf courses—much of the city would respond with outrage. Too many in our city think we can solve the housing and homelessness issues without our wealthiest residents relinquishing our3power, privileges or resources. We care more about the privileges of single-family homeowners to only live near other single family homeowners, or the privileges of people who want to play golf, than we do the rights of people without homes. It’s reflected in how we use land and it must change.


Notes:

  • [1] The 200,000 visits is likely significantly far fewer than 50,000 unique users. I have a public records request out to find out exactly how many. You can read more about the parks budget here.
  • [2] There was an initiative in 1997 that requires sale or conversion of parks land to other uses to be replaced acre for acre with other park land. Golf courses are parks lands even though a tiny fraction of the city uses them and you have to pay to use their facilities.
  • [3] I count my family in this group. We own our home and recently built a fancy backyard cottage. That makes us wealthy.

Rachael Ludwick is a software developer whose been working in Seattle for eight years, living in North Beacon Hill with her partner, mother, and kiddo near the future Judkins Park light rail station (2023!). She’s currently the committeewoman to the King County Democrats from 37th Legislative District Democrats.

The Fight Continues: HOMES May Rear Its Head Tax Again Soon

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The Urbanist encourages dialogue on important urban issues through guest contributions. Over the years, we've had dozens of guest authors share their opinions and insights ranging from commentary on current events to community interviews and researched think pieces. If you would like to see your name behind a byline on The Urbanist, feel free to reach out to our Editorial Team at editorial[at]theurbanist[dot]org.
The Urbanist encourages dialogue on important urban issues through guest contributions. Over the years, we've had dozens of guest authors share their opinions and insights ranging from commentary on current events to community interviews and researched think pieces. If you would like to see your name behind a byline on The Urbanist, feel free to reach out to our Editorial Team at editorial[at]theurbanist[dot]org.

15 COMMENTS

  1. You are correct. Building on J.P.G.C. would spark outrage. Golfers are not a left-leaning bunch, so it’s not likely they would support anything you propose. I think, however, that there is more of chance of reimagining and actually building large-scale, municipally-owned public housing on city properties than repurposing golf courses for housing.

  2. Reducing the amount of parks in Seattle is not a forward thinking idea. Seattle needs to preserve it’s current parks and expand the # of parks for current and future residents. This is especially true as the population increases and the demand for parks increases. Painting groups of people or neighborhoods with such a broad brush, blaming current residents for decisions made by residents of Seattle 50-70 years ago is nonsense. This blaming of others is just getting old.

      • golf courses are to parks, as single family zoning is to affordable housing.

        we should abolish both. environment benefits bigly as well.

    • We’re not blaming people for their individual transgressions. We’re pointing out the benefits that society grants to them by virtue of race or class, and it frustrates us when they choose to ignore them.

  3. Golf is a subject of reconsideration at the Parks Dept. right now, as mentioned by Parks Supt. Christopher Williams at the 1/11 and 1/25 meetings of the Board of Park Commissioners.

    The issue is that golf participation is declining in Seattle, consistent with national trends. Seattle’s golf courses are intended to charge user fees sufficient to fund operating costs, but this is becoming problematic as the number of rounds played declines. The City must consider either beginning to subsidize golf, or reducing the operation of golf courses, or finding some way for golf to yield more revenue. A consultant has been hired to consider different operating models, with a presentation expected at the 2/8 parks board meeting.

    I care a lot about protecting public open space in the densifying city, but I do agree with this article and its question about urban priorities and the housing emergency.

    I can’t resist also mentioning that golf courses are responsible for most of the use of the most hazardous pesticide categories in Seattle parks, as discussed in this Times article last year by Maya Sweedler:
    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattles-pesticide-phaseout-lags-potentially-harmful-products-used-in-parks/

  4. This is a fantastic idea! Eliminate two of the courses by turning them into dense, walkable urban villages while leaving a large area of them as woods and adding in sports fields that are used much more heavily than golf courses.

    Sound Transit 3 is going to put a light rail station immediately next to Jackson Park, making it ripe for transit-oriented dense housing development.

    And, we should also charge the two private golf courses a property tax rate that is somewhat closer to what is paid by all other landowners in Seattle — or require public non-paid access to the “park” for non-golfing recreation.

  5. Let’s start with putting housing on Harbor Island. 200 acres of level water front, with utilities on it. Taxpayer owned, and vacant for years. Close to transportation.

    Harbor Island is ready now. Perfect for a Tiny House – RV Village, Modular Housing, etc.

    • Harbor Island is a Superfund site, surrounded by freight terminals and subject to high concentrations of diesel exhaust. You would be condemning anyone living there to future health problems. Let’s start with the golf courses situated by transit instead.

  6. Great article. Hope this idea gains momentum. Following the progress of 145th station and brt planning and design I’ve been surprised that Seattle or WSDOT rarely send a rep to the ST or Shoreline public outreach meetings despite being major stakeholders. Seems like park land is written off a sacrosanct no matter how underused.

  7. Yes! Yes! Yes! I’ve been talking to people about this lately as well… In particular, looking at West Seattle’s Golf Course. This property has additional green space next to it already (Camp Long) and would be just downhill from the Junction Urban Village and adjacent to traditionally low-income and diverse Delridge that is slowly being gentrified. Add to that Sound Transit is kicking off planning for the light rail line, which is currently envisioned to run elevated right along the side of the golf course on Genesee — which might present some opportunities for acquiring some or all of the land and avoiding some of the typical legal hurdles.

  8. Great piece to shake the comfortable out of their comfort. So many different interests play their part in this emergency.

  9. Why stop at golf courses? We should start really thinking broadly about our land use policies. Why aren’t we discussing using cemeteries for affordable housing? There is a lot of underutilized land we are wastefully using for for-profit memorial sites for people that aren’t even alive!

    What about using public libraries as safe injection sites? People have to pay late fees for books and a fee for their library card. Logically a more widely accessible public use would be as a safe space for people to use heroin with no fees. The facilities already have utilities and could likely be converted to a safe injection site relatively cheaply.

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