Seattle Keeps Growing Despite the ‘Dying’ Pronouncements

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This stretch of 4th Avenue recently got a new protected bike lane and continues to be a busy nondead street. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Conservatives keep saying Seattle is dying, but repetition hasn’t made it true. Despite the gloom and doomsday pronouncements, Seattle is very much alive and kicking. In fact, Seattle is the fastest growing big city in America — again — as Gene Balk noted in an FYI Guy column yesterday citing new United States Census Bureau figures showing Seattle hit 769,700 on July 1, 2020 — 2.2% growth year-to-year. It was just 2017 when we crossed the 700,000 mark.

That data is reflected on the ground. Walk around Denny Triangle or Belltown or the University District or First Hill or Stone Way or Roosevelt and the construction cranes envelope you. Thousands of apartments continue to rise. More than that, sidewalks continue to bustle with life. Street cafes have popped up all over the place and added to the ambience and flavor of the city.

Mount Tahoma is still majestic and jutting right where it belongs on the horizon on a clear day. The Salish Sea is still to the west. The Pacific oysters still taste amazing and Atlantic ones still taste like garbage. Three national parks are still in our backyard. Olympic National Park — one of the quietest, wettest, and mossiest places in the country — is still a few hours to the west, as is Rainier National Park to the south and North Cascades Park to the northeast. Meanwhile, Dallas is still as flat and featureless as a cookie sheet broiling in the Texas sun.

As much as right-wing cultists try to conjure an image of a crime-ridden corrupt failing city, the real Seattle just won’t die. I’m sure many Seattleites share my experience: relatives who live far away (especially the conservative ones) trying to explain Seattle is dangerous, disorganized, and falling into chaos based on something they saw on TV or some godforsaken corner of the internet — firsthand experiences of actual residents to whom they are related be damned.

Some of the external angst seems to sink in. The Downtown Seattle Association has fretted over an economic slump in the central business district which they blamed on crime and disorder, as did New Urbanist author Richard Florida when he phoned in for Crosscut Festival, peddling his ‘Downtown Disorder Syndrome’ narrative. This hypothesis seems to blame protesters and progressive lawmakers for creating the “disorder” and neglecting to nurture the business environment. It’s not as blunt as Sinclair-owned KOMO in calling for more incarceration and locking up people experiencing homelessness — who are all assumed to be addicts — for forced drug treatment. But it still basically accepts the premise that Seattle is broken and needs to get tough on crime and “disorder.”

But if Downtown Seattle really was in a crisis, we would expect banks and developers to be running away. That doesn’t seem to be happening. The pipeline of large projects doesn’t seem to be petering out, whether in Downtown or in urban hubs across the city. For example, a 44-story apartment project at 5th Avenue and Virginia Street is proceeding with a design review on June 15th, advancing the plan for 440 homes. On the same block, Vulcan is building another 44-story tower with 458 homes and is close to breaking ground. In general, skyscrapers seem to be climbing farther northwest up streets like 5th Avenue, as shown in the rendering below.

Vulcan is planning a 44-story tower at 5th and Lenora. (Credit: Ankrom Moisan)

The Civic Square project across from City Hall is close to finally breaking ground to erect a 58-story story condo building, which would end a 16-year saga to redevelop the Public Safety Building instead of leaving it a hole in the ground. And in the University District, several towers are rising, even with the Mandatory Housing Affordability fees some had worried would weigh them down — ditto First Hill and on the waterfront, which is newly freed from the shadow and stench of the demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct. Lake City has hundreds and hundreds of apartments on the way, as does Northgate and Greenwood and Ballard and Mount Baker and Columbia City and Junction and so on.

The vitality and heartbeat of a city isn’t measured in construction cranes and development proposals, but it’s a pretty good sign it’s not about ready to croak.

This isn’t to say Seattle doesn’t have problems; it has real challenges to face. Homelessness is stubbornly high, tenants are struggling with severe rent burdens, housing is too expensive, somehow most of the city is still cordoned off for single-family homes, and the state has blocked most progressive revenue options to build social housing. But those problems are surmountable, especially when people have confidence Seattle has the vigor to survive a new tax or housing debate or conservative smear campaign.

And Seattle’s politics do seem to be shifting in a progressive direction to meet the new challenges. Seattle and SeaTac were the first to pass a $15 minimum wage. Economists predicted doom and a University of Washington study even claimed to have found evidence of job loss, but later studies reversed that and confirmed workers benefited from higher wages, as did the economy at large. Surprise, surprise!

Last year, the City Council passed Jumpstart Seattle, a progressive payroll tax projected to raise $214 million per year and boost social housing investment, economic recovery, and equitable development. It passed despite stiff resistance and economic doom predictions from Amazon and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which is suing in an attempt to block the tax.

Jumpstart ended up being essential to avoiding deep social service cuts in the fall, as Mayor Jenny Durkan, who declined to sign the tax, felt no qualms about raiding it to balance her budget. Facing fierce opposition from the Mayor, the Council also voted to cut the Seattle Police Department (SPD) budget by 18% after it became clear police reform efforts were stalled out and SPD’s budget had grown bloated, swelling by 36% in five years. Seattle also voted with an overwhelming 80% majority to boost bus service to support essential workers and come out of the pandemic strong, complimenting ambitious voter-approved light rail expansion plans.

Before our eyes old orthodoxies are falling by the wayside, like the firm belief that police budgets must always go up, social services must go down at the first sign of crisis, minimum wages must stay flat to promote job growth, and corporate taxes must be avoided to keep big companies from fleeing. Overthrowing these orthodoxies to make progressive change makes Seattle a great place to live, defying the doomsayers. Ironically, it’s also these changes that so vexes conservatives and centrists, bringing on their paranoid backlash.

Growing faster than any other major city in the country, Seattle somehow got tagged as a laggard and failure. It’s funny the stories people spin. But it’s tough to rewrite characters who are walking and breathing and ready to tell their own story without the reactionary funhouse mirror effect.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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RossB

Seattle is not dying. Seattle is booming. Seattle has been booming for at least a decade. By that I mean that employment is very high (compared to the rest of the country) and lots of people want to live here.

The fact that Seattle is booming, and there are lots of homeless people go together. Seattle is booming, which pushes up the cost of housing. We aren’t building enough housing, and a result, housing prices are extremely high. High housing prices and homelessness go together. This is intuitive, and studies show this to be true.

Until Seattle changes the nature of its zoning, and allows growth in all of the single family zones, we will have lots of homelessness, and this seemingly contradictory message of Seattle dying and booming at the same time.

ballardite

The high housing prices you speak of are single family homes. This is because less than 25% of Seattle is zoned for Single Family Housing and since jobs are coming back to downtown families want them. Also, Covid has spurred many to want to move to a single family home for health reasons. We need Single family homes in this City – it’s what makes Seattle a place people want to move too – because our neighborhoods still have a small town feel about them.

RossB

The high housing prices you speak of are single family homes.

Bullshit. It is for apartments. Did you ever bother to read the article I cited? Here, let me copy the third paragraph:

Rising rents have long been associated with climbing rates of homelessness. This research demonstrates that the homeless population climbs faster when rent affordability – the share of income people spend on rent – crosses certain thresholds. In many areas beyond those thresholds, even modest rent increases can push thousands more Americans into homelessness.

(Emphasis mine). Holy cow, the word “rent” is mentioned four times, and you think they are talking about the cost of single-family-homes.

You also have the zoning completely backwards. Here are the various zoning types per acre for Seattle:

Single Family: 18,818
Multifamily: 3,159
Commercial/Mixed Use: 3,072
Major Institution & Public Facilities/Utilities: 4,099
Industrial: 3,072

I omitted rights-of-way & open space. You can find more details by looking at page 428 of this pdf.

Clearly the problem is not lack of acreage reserved for single family houses. It is quite the opposite. The area zoned “Single Family” means that the house has to be on a big lot. Some of the area zoned “Multifamily” is actually houses (row houses or town houses). Thus if you really want more houses, you should push for more of the city zoned multifamily, and not single family. If you really want lower rents (and thus fewer homeless) than you should join me in pushing to get rid of the single family zone, so that we can build more housing of all types (apartments, row houses, small houses on small lots, etc.).

Ott Toomet

Zoning is only one variable (although an important one). The other two unrelated reasons I see are

  • general trend of rising inequality the last 40 years. The low end of the income distribution is getting less and less in real terms, and it seems to be a wide trend. There is little Seattle can do here, we can tinker with taxes a little bit not much if we do not want the money to move over to Bellevue. There would be somewhat more freedom if we had a regional tax authority for Seattle metro area. But for now, Seattle has little choice.
  • The other big trend over last decades has been increasing geographic concentration of economy. The best jobs tend to be in big cities, and if you are from a small place, then you may well prefer to move into a shiny city instead. Seattle has been a winner, in economic terms, and pulled in all kind of people. And not all of them have made it. I don’t think Seattle can do anything here.

If you relax zoning completely, you get various kinds of cheaper housing. Cheap housing helps, but those who cannot pay even cheap rent are still out. And as long as the economy here is good you see more and more people moving in.

Eric

Right. “Just build more” isn’t the end-all be-all answer, but very few people are arguing that it is. Housing affordability is a multi-faceted problem. Relaxing the zoning can help. A bunch. All those single-family teardowns going for $500k (and up) just for the land…let people split that land six ways and you’ve just cut $400k off the minimum cost to build a new home on that block.

Zoning rules don’t do anything about the cost of materials and labor required to actually construct a home, but if we can mostly remove land costs from the equation that makes a big difference. We’ll still need a system of subsidies for people who can’t even afford materials and labor. Once we’ve reformed zoning we’ll likely find that the amount of subsidy we need to provide per home is less than it is now when the land costs are so constrained by zoning. That will make the problem seem much more tractable from a financial perspective.

macswell

The Seattle is Dying narrative is obviously ridiculous and bogus, and I personally love the majority of council (a common KOMO axiom), but I will say that the 3rd and Pine bus stop (the busiest in the state) showcases issues that are hard to ignore.
Many, many people are openly suffering in the open, representing the failings we’ve had to create real solutions for these folks, especially during COVID. As an externality, people traveling through the area feel less safe to make transfers at the stop or to move through the area generally, especially those traveling alone (direct feedback from friends). My partner has been witness to many violent fights in their daily transfer from light rail to bus this year. I don’t have a great immediate solution, but it is pretty intense downtown right now.

ballardite

Yup – expect that to get worse and worse as the work from home ends and people start commuting into the city for work again. 3rd Avenue is and has been an open air drug dealing corridor. Remember in January 2020 the mass shooting outside the Mcdonalds on 3rd where 9 people were injured and it happened right at rush hour sending hundreds of people running for cover? Also the two shootings in the downtown light rail tunnel? That’s what we were dealing with before Covid-19 and if we don’t make any changes – that is what is going to come back there. We need a surge in police in that area rising at the same rate as the population that is coming back to work so that we can head off the possibility of these types of things happening again. A sort of downtown community policing force – if you will.

CHRISTOPHER H BURKE

You don’t need to talk to far-off conservative relatives to hear the Seattle Is Dying drumbeat. Plenty of people right here in the city are conjuring “an image of a crime-ridden corrupt failing city.” See Nextdoor, ST comments, MyNorthwest, etc.

A Joy

Nextdoor skews pretty hard towards the NIMBY crowd, and MyNorthwest is right wing radio supported pap.

CHRISTOPHER H BURKE

True. And they are all local.

A Joy

They’re still far off, both in the sense that they are a fringe that does not reflect the general views of the region and in the sense that their view is askew.

Downtowner

I’m not sure when Doug was walking around, but downtown sidewalks are hardly ‘bustling with life’, by any measure. It’s true that Seattle is not dying. It’s true that downtown residents are not fleeing in droves. But it’s also true that our central business district is feeling more and more suburban all the time due to the lack of sidewalk activity. Homelessness IS a major culprit in this reality, whether we wish it to be or not. Denialism doesn’t help anyone.

Ryan DiRaimo

Downtown has retail space designed for a peak population of 400,000 people (the population of a typical non covid workday). With offices closed, there is too much retail saturation for 90,000 downtown residents to support. On one block there will be a boarded up Starbucks closed thinking the apocalypse is arriving; one block over Anchor Coffee house is bustling with customers and activity in the plaza.

Until our city upzones itself to allow homeless housing to be created, you will keep seeing more people pushed into the homeless situation. It is visible in every neighborhood from Downtown to Bitter Lake.

ballardite

There are empty apartments everywhere you look. Drive around and take a look. Every apartment in the city has a “now renting” or “now leasing” or “vacancy” sign. Also, townhomes sprouting up everywhere and even Habitat for Humanity homes coming soon in several neighborhoods. There isn’t a lack of housing.

RossB

There is a lack of affordable housing. Prices are too high because there still isn’t enough housing for the extraordinary demand that has occurred relatively recently. Prices are way above what they were a decade ago. This is why Seattle has so many homeless. Don’t believe me, just read the studies.

Douglas Trumm

I’m not denying we need to address homelessness. I deny that a big wave of sweeps and arrests will magically make the problem so away. I advocate for massive investment in social housing so that all Seattleites can have stable housing.

There are not minor technocratic fixes to a problem this big. A charter amendment won’t end the crisis. We need to invest in housing, mental health, education, affordable child care, affordable transportation, etc. But if you have a shortcut to everyone being housed, I’m all ears. https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/02/22/growing-social-housing-in-seattle/

ballardite

But Seattle Taxpayers shouldn’t be required to pay to house every homeless person that comes here. A Seattle report showed 40% of the homeless came from outside Seattle with 21% from outside the State. There should be an option to require the state the person came from to pay for services in Washington. Also for the city the person came from to pay for services in Seattle. And it only makes sense that cities outside Seattle are required to provide some homeless housing and services – especially since the cost can be lower serving more people per dollar in outlying areas.

Tim Sparkles

Dude, we’re already paying for it: through the emergency room, the police budget, sanitation personnel, and quality of life.

Housing First is _cheaper_ than any known alternative. It will _save_ you money.

asdf2

It’s not that simple. The “housing is cheaper” arguments treats the Seattle homeless population as some kind of fixed quantity, unaffected by incentives. But, in reality, people’s decisions are affected by incentives. Fact is, when city X is more generous towards the homeless than neighboring city Y, homeless people in city Y will flock to city X to take advantage. If the benefit is extreme enough, such as unlimited free housing, people will ride for hours – or days – on a Greyhound bus to take advantage of it, provided they can scrounge up enough money to pay for the bus ticket.

The result is that cities essentially get punished for their generosity, by having to shoulder the burden of housing people from all over the region (or, possibly the state or country). Yes, the crueler options, such as police, jails, and emergency room services cost money too – possibly even more per person. But, being cruel deters homeless people from choosing their city over somewhere else, rather than encourages them, which, in turn, keeps the total overall cost of dealing with them somewhat reasonable.

RossB

A shortcut? I’m not sure if there is a shortcut, but it it pretty clear what we need to do:

1) Change the zoning so that market rate housing prices go down. This means building a lot more of the so called “missing middle”.

2) Doing what Houston did to deal with the homeless.

Instead, the city will take a provincial approach, acting as if we are the first and only city to have this problem. We will ignore the fact that the current zoning approach never leads to cheaper housing, and ignore the fact that some cities have managed the homeless situation much better than us.

CHRISTOPHER H BURKE

I’m not sure why Seattle refuses to learn from other cities’ experience, in homeless policies, transit, etc. It’s kind of the local version of the US refusing to learn from the experience of other nations.

Michael A. Rice

Seattle is not “dying”, but there are huge issues that don’t seem to be close to being solved. The tents on the sidewalks, the needles on the sidewalks, the aggressive panhandling, the fights between the homeless (drug addicts or not) are real. They cannot be brushed away because there are many skyscrapers being built. These are quality of life issues that until they are dealt with are going to drive the narrative that Seattle is “dying.” I do not believe the current city council has any idea on what to do to fix this. The “homeless industrial” complex has an incentive not to fix the problem. If the homeless go away, many agencies will lose their funding and people will lose their jobs. Additionally, this is not just a downtown issue. There are large homeless encampments in the parks all around the city. Where there are homeless camps there is drug abuse. All you have to do is walk around and you see the needles. I would like to hear how this is going to be fixed. I have lived in North Seattle since 1984. Seattle is a different city now. Better in so many ways, but way worse in many ways also.

A Joy

Drug use among the homeless is actually less than the national average by a few percentage points. Where there are people there is drug abuse. It’s just more visible around homeless camps because there are less places to throw away the evidence.

Michael A. Rice

I find your claim to be very interesting. Where did you see this?

A Joy

A simple Google search. Seattle’s homeless drug use rates are 30-34%, depending on the study. National average: 34-38%

Michael A. Rice

A simple Google search? As a teacher, I would never allow a student to get away with such a flip response. Please cite the source and the study, so we can have a more substantive discussion about this.

A Joy

This is not a classroom, and you are not my teacher. The information is easy to find, and I refuse to do the free labor for you.

Michael A. Rice

So, in other words, you just made this up. If you look up the comment thread, you will see that other people actually include links to the claims they make.

A Joy

I’m not going to use lmgtfy.com. You have to put in a minimum of effort to educate yourself. I’m not here to hold your hand.

ballardite

So we can ignore the problem then?

RossB

No, we don’t ignore the problem. We focus on the biggest problem with homeless people: they don’t have a place to sleep. Not that they have drug problems, or mental illness — they don’t have homes. It sounds pretty obvious, but this is the issue. When rent is too expensive, people become homeless.

Take steps to make housing more affordable, and do what other cities have done to reduce homelessness. If you don’t know what those cities are, and what they have done, then maybe you should spend more time educating yourself, instead of acting as if you know something about the subject.