When Density Can't Help the Poor

Updated: Feb 28

The Need for an Inclusionist Approach to Growth

Even as we do our best to add affordable housing wherever possible, we have failed to succeed at scale because Seattle's basic road-map for growth is rooted, at it's core, in a philosophy that forces out the poor and less powerful.

When the worth of our land is only ever measured by its market value, then things like community, culture, and inclusion will simply never be affordable.

The impact of this toxic philosophy of growth has exacerbated our crisis of houselessness, has congested our roads with a workforce that's been forced to live outside of the city, and is forcing the closure of small businesses, official landmarks, community gathering spaces, and cultural treasures across the city.

Though some might argue that we're simply changing out the old for the new, the reality might be far more grim. We are fundamentally breaking our local economies by relying on out-dated policies, while foregoing an opportunity to innovate our way toward a sustainable model for growth -- something potentially critical to the survival of our species amidst a radically changing global climate.

We Don't Have to Reinvent the Wheel

Rich or poor, these days it feels like everyone in Seattle is getting squeezed by the constant pressures of new construction and displacement-based development.

You only need to look around, to see it happening in nearly every neighborhood. The daily anxiety of the scarcity of land is felt across every class of wealth in our City. Whether you’re living outside in a tent, trying to keep your legacy business, or hunting for that elusive Seattle Craftsman in a neighborhood with sidewalks, it seems harder and harder for anyone to find a space to call home.

Yes, this is America. Money talks. But over fifty years ago the citizens of Seattle rose up in defense of a place that they loved; they rose in defense of the Pike Place Market, which was slated for destruction by those with more money and power. They said maybe -- just maybe -- there's another way. Maybe money doesn't always get to talk. Maybe sometimes community and affordability matter.

In 2020, that model may again be our only hope. At some point, we'll have to choose people over profit.

Housing Really Does Come First

Ask our City's political wizards about housing, and almost every time you’ll be told the same thing: Seattle needs more “density” because there’s too much demand and not enough supply. We're told we need more places for people to live, and this is largely true.

Fun fact: most counts show that over 80% of King County’s houseless population was living here already, prior to living outdoors or in their cars. Most people just got pushed out.

Yet the theory goes that, if we actually build enough new housing, things will eventually become affordable and we'll all be okay. Tragically, we now have after over twenty years of actual data and the theory isn't holding up as hoped. After decades of a "just-build-more" approach, there’s still not even close to enough housing that people can actually afford.

The problem is, the maths don't really add up.

Math Issue #1: A just-build-more approach assumes that with enough new construction, rent prices will stabilize because the demand for new housing will be satiated. This sounds good on paper, but in practice it takes about three full decades before new housing eventually becomes affordable. That's simply too long to be relevant to our current housing crisis. Even if we could speed that up somehow, there's reason to believe that increasing supply can actually increase demand within an urban environment.

Math Issue #2: It's a mistake to think that demand will decrease in Seattle anytime soon, regardless of the nerdy specifics of housing economics in urban environments. On the contrary, we can see in the real world that rents in Seattle just keep rising because demand for more housing refuses to slacken its consistently upward pace.

If supply cannot stabilize demand, then increasing supply will never contribute - even a little - to affordability.

In a big way, demand is unlikely to stabilize in Seattle because climate change is not impending. It is already here. At this very moment, all but a handful of humans are living on a planet where dead, white, old American barons of oil, plastics, cars and coal have long since burned the sea and darkened the sky.

Yet the region of the Salish Sea is likely to remain a climate refuge for decades to come. There’s only so many floods, hurricanes, blizzards, and heatwaves that an average person can abide. Those who can will tap into savings. And Seattle? With its healthy watershed, lush greenery, and tolerable winters? Those are maths that actually do add up.

Math Issue #3: Some is not better than none. We've definitely added a lot of new housing across Seattle, but most of it has been priced for the top 1%. We use that new construction to raise a little money for affordable housing, but so far it's such a small percentage of the total that it hasn't made a dent in our housing crisis.

Instead, this policy of skimming a little cash off the top of new developments has almost certainly exacerbated our affordability crisis, instead of easing the pressure.

That's because over 90% of Seattle's new housing has been built exclusively within the few areas of the city where renters and working class communities were already living. Since rarely can those renters and workers afford to move back in, we've arguable displaced vastly more people over the past two decades than we've accommodated.

We didn’t arrive here by accident.

As a former political aide and local organizer, I've watched for years as lobbyists for our city's most powerful landlords and developers won the day over, and over again. They were not evil, or even ill-willed. They were just doing their jobs which, just like most of America’s, was simply to make more money. That was it. So, very predictably, they lobbied for a system that would help landlords and developers make more money off the land they owned.

It wasn't that their money ever shifted votes, like in some kind of seedy Netflix Original, but the outcome might have been far worse than in the shows.

Instead, their long-term campaign of influence shifted the underlying frame of mind within Seattle's entire body politic. Right became left, and war became peace, and in less than two decades Seattle’s progressives had somehow become the loudest champions of an eighties-era free-market, trickle-down housing policy. Remarkably, this philosophy remains the basis of our growth strategy in 2020, although in more ways than one we seem to be living in a Seattle of 1984.

Sometimes, History is Important.

Let's back up a minute to the actual historical eighties. For the first time in decades, there was a meaningful national spotlight on the moral failures of unchecked wealth and inequality. The Civil Rights and Anti-War movements had seen genuine success, and investigative journalism had helped topple a presidency. America's wealthy titans of oil, plastics, cars, and coal were literally losing their minds because of it. They watched their moral standing as political leaders rapidly crumbling across the country. They needed to respond, and opted for a new plan. They found one in the great state of California.

To paraphrase, they recruited a b-list actor named Ronald to play the role of relatable-grandpa, and used his quirky charm to sell the American people on a new-fangled notion that helping the rich would actually help the poor. Give the rich their due, he said, and eventually that wealth will trickle down to the rest of us as jobs and economic prosperity. America's middle classes were promised they'd rise with the tide of its industrial elites.

Looking back, it was clearly a bald-faced lie. But we all wanted to believe in a Bootstraps America where we'd strike it rich and it'd be us up there at the top, with all the perks of fame and glory. So we ate it right up. We chose to believe the lie, and sure enough those titans of industry won 49 states for reelection in 1984.

Fun fact? The Eighties were also when our first inter-state lottery systems were invented, and it's easy to imagine why ticket sales might have suddenly been up.

Forty years later, most of us can see more clearly the tragic legacies left behind by the failed policies of the Eighties: an enduring national housing crisis, a systemic national mental health crisis, and the apathetic genocide of thousands of gay Americans. But perhaps its most insidious legacy is the cancerous ideology that purports to help the folks at the bottom by helping the folks at the top.

A Changing Story

Today in Seattle we hear a shockingly familiar refrain about how to solve our local housing crisis. Our leaders push to build more housing for everyone, but most of what gets built ends up actually priced for the wealthiest among us.

We're told it's our only choice because there isn't enough money to build public housing for everyone. So instead, we've chosen to rely on a system where the rich eventually abandon their old and dingy apartments for shiny fancy new ones, politely freeing up some of that housing dinge for us less-fortunates.

I would agree, if you’re thinking it seems a little crazy that Seattle has become the intellectual scion of America's corporate titans. Ironically, it may have been inevitable.

If there's two things we love in the Pacific Northwest, it's the glory of nature and our pervasive self-identify as charitable human neighbors. For over 50 years the PNW led the world in ecological conservation, fighting suburban sprawl by promoting urban density. The City of Seattle was also among the first in the nation to make race and social equity its official top priority.

Unfortunately, even the most thoughtful of ideologies can leave us more vulnerable to the powerful among us.

Surprising no one, Seattle's biggest landlords and developers were among the first to take notice of the change. I used to watch from the edges of the room at political fundraisers, campaign events, and official meetings, as long lines of lobbyists distinctly changed their tune. Suddenly these up-zones were no longer about increasing the tax base, or about attracting business and foreign investment. Suddenly they were all about reducing housing costs, and about saving the forests and the farmlands.

Wait, sorry.. say that again? You're building a skyscraper because you really love polar bears?

But the story stuck. We love the environment here, and we all like to think we’re decent people. After a few years, I started hearing colleagues repeat the same lines, and the same buzzwords. A few years more, and it was journalists, and non-profits. Then campaign speeches and then elected officials.

And now? in 2020? It's basically every political wizard in the City. It's how we sound smart, at parties with our activist friends. “Haven’t you heard?” you’ll overhear, “Density is how we get affordability, because all the neighborhoods with houses were created by racism.”

Some is Not Better than None

Under the just-build-more approach, pretty much the only places getting torn down and rebuilt as luxury are the places where all the renters, hourly-wage workers, artists, and musicians have been living and hanging out.

Neighborhoods that were already a little bit dense to begin with – places like the Central District, or Ballard, or Hillman City, or Belltown, or the Junction, or just about any of the cute little neighborhood centers throughout the City – are not just cultural treasures being lost to displacement-based development. They were also Seattle's workforce housing hubs.

That is why, in the effort to get affordability from density, what we actually accomplished was to replace our existing workforce housing with new luxury units for the wealthy.

The rational that's been made under just-build-more is that any small increase in density is a political victory for affordability. But a little is not the same as a lot, and density doesn't work when most of the neighborhoods in the city are basically taking a pass on new housing.

This is a real thing: about two thirds of our city's land really is still set aside for low-density houses, largely because of actual historical old racist laws from a hundred years ago. That’s just a fact, which means we have to deal with it.

We have to come up with a way for every neighborhood in Seattle to grow equally, and not just because it feels like the trendy, or anti-racist thing to do. Honestly, it might be the only actual way to preserve some space for community and affordability in Seattle.

It's Not that We Haven't Been Trying

If it sounds like I'm laying blame at the feet of city leaders, I should be clear that I am most assuredly not. The City has been trying for decades to increase funding to build more affordable housing, and sometimes succeeding. The problem is that so far it's never been close to enough to keep up with all the housing that we're losing.

As just one example, the City has promised to fund around 6,000 new affordable housing units over the next decade, with money we'll get from new construction. But over that same window of time, the City can likely expect up to 10,000 affordable units (which currently keep up to 15,000 Seattleites from being houseless) to disappear or see significant rent hikes, because of earthquake safety retrofits being proposed by the City.

So even without counting all the new luxury development (that will have to built, in order to raise that cash in the first place) and even without all the people that will keep moving in as climate change worsens, we'll still be more than 4,000 units in the hole. That's simply not a sustainable plan for our future, and we will never really succeed at scale until we change the underlying plan for how we grow.

We Need a New Philosophy of Growth

If we want to retain any amount of space for community or affordability in Seattle, we need to make a profound public decision to simply end displacement-based development.

For the past several years in Belltown, we've been exploring a combination of policies that we believe could allow Seattle to realize such a radical philosophical change.

No, there is no single magical answer to all our struggles. But we're not a bunch of dummies in Seattle, and solving the problem of growing without displacing is demonstrably an achievable goal.

Fortunately, much of our current plan for growth was literally just made-up-out-of-thin-air in the late 90s, and almost everything that's made can also be unmade. Seattle is truly among the most innovative cities yet surviving on Earth, so what better place to combine our collective brainpower and evolve our way toward a future that values inclusion instead of exclusion.

Can we truly shed such morally archaic philosophies as "money talks" and "might makes right"?

Our planetary ecosystem is literally convulsing under the weight of such out-dated philosophies run amok, and so is Seattle's. It's hard to imagine a better time than now to design a sustainable, inclusive approach to growth. We have the chance to save our city, and set a model for others to follow, but we have spent the last decade polarizing ourselves into warring camps of NIMBYs, YIMBYs, urbanists, and preservationists. It has torn at the social fabric of our entire Seattle family, and we are gaining very little in the fight.

Perhaps it's time we throw out all the old labels, and work to create a better plan together, as inclusionists.

You can follow @RiseUpBelltown on Instagram for regular updates, or sign-up for our periodic email updates. This post was written by Rise Up principle organizer Evan Clifthorne, with help from the members of the Belltown Oversight and Advisory Team. If you'd like to help shape these blog posts, we'd love to hear from you! :)