OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Looking back at the fight against displacement

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 mouthpieces 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 at all as HALA proponents would have you believe.

In the late 70’s, John was the research coordinator for the old Central Seattle Community Council Federation. While there’s still a citywide group bearing that name, back then it was a coalition of community councils from predominantly black, lower-income and working class neighborhoods. 

During this period Seattle saw an explosion of growth, much of it concentrated downtown. From 1977 to 1980, 10 million square feet of new downtown office space brought 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.

About this time, the Federation also helped block plans to run a freeway through central city 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 joined tenant rights groups in a successful effort to secure passage of laws controlling demolition, abandonment, condo conversion, and ending discrimination against households with children. 

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. 

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 1,500 of these subsidized units in low-density and and single-family zoned areas. 

Addressing our affordable housing crisis has always been first about stemming the loss of existing affordable housing to the forces of redevelopment. And then, finding more public dollars to expand our affordable housing stock. 

Through all this work, neighborhood groups remained supportive and often endorsed and joined our efforts. Only in the last 5-10 years has the implication been raised that single family zoning is somehow inherently racist, and that those living there or fighting to preserve the character of these areas are somehow racist. It's a charge that ignores decades of neighborhood action around the call for more equity that’s still a central focus of the neighborhood movement. 

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. 

A hundred years ago, white wealthier neighborhoods adopted rules and covenants explicitly aimed at excluding people of color. The practice was abetted by elected leaders and real estate interests. But just whose carrying that banner today and pushing zoning changes and growth policies that increase our racial divide? 

It’s not neighborhoods but development interests and their paid cheerleaders profiting from the ‘HALA’ upzones driving more low income and minority households out of our city.  No wonder these interests want to deflect blame elsewhere, but it’s rather 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.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a low-income housing organization. More information can be found at www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/.