OPINION: Which Seattle Will You Choose?

by Zachary DeWolf and Dylan Cate

As we examine our own stories and feelings about growth across our city, a particular quote from Dr. Maya Angelou keeps coming to the surface: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Right now, a lot of our neighbors see their neighborhoods, and they see them changing. They feel like they’re losing what has always been so attractive about the Capitol Hills, the Rainier Beaches, and the Ballards of Seattle. They’re watching the loss of the buildings they knew, the tree canopies they cherished, and the thoroughfares that made sense to them.

But frankly, the buildings, the trees, and the avenues don’t make Seattle the place we love — it has always been about our people because a city is made up of its people — and how it feels to be a person who lives here. We will most likely forget what we said to each other on Facebook, what buildings were torn down or changed, or how the neighborhood stores or homes looked. But we will never forget how our neighbors made us feel.

On March 18, the Seattle City Council will hold its final vote on a proposal called Mandatory Housing Affordability, or MHA. MHA has become an explosive line in the sand over which residents, business owners, and lawmakers in Seattle have been waging an internal conflict for nearly five years. The lines aren’t drawn over a particular policy — though everyone has their favorite, or least favorite. Instead, MHA has become a showdown about two competing visions for a city that is growing and changing at a rapid pace.

We’re making a choice between two futures: In one scenario, many of Seattle’s neighborhoods remain — by policy and politics — gated neighborhoods, “no-go” zones where those who have secure housing remain secure and in complete political control over development, and those without housing have no way of being included.

On the other side, anti-displacement proponents, racial justice champions, affordable housing activists, environmentalists, and folks like teachers and firefighters, healthcare workers, and public employees who are being priced out of the neighborhoods they serve, are arguing for a much different vision: a Seattle that makes a place for everyone in the incredible neighborhoods that define our city. Their vision is one of inclusion and intermingling, not exclusion and stagnation. A vision where we accept that our city is growing and that we must take bold action to ensure it grows in a way that serves all Seattleites — not just the folks who are housing secure.

Our bias is clear: we’re a community organizer and education and homelessness leader who have a deep commitment to fostering a city for everyone. But no matter which side you’re on, one point is clear: Inaction will result in more displacement, less diverse and dynamic neighborhoods, more of our neighbors experiencing homelessness, and greater inequality in Seattle. Inaction is a vote for that future.

No one can dispute the fact that thousands of people are moving to Seattle every year — we don’t have enough housing for everyone. The result? Rent increases accelerating like a treadmill gone haywire — and those who can’t keep up are falling off into an experience of homelessness, or giving up on the city and moving to suburbs or exurbs, where they’ll have less access to transit and jobs, for example.

To do nothing is to lock in a future where Seattle is an exclusive, monolithic enclave, a shrinking island that has abandoned its duty to building a social safety net for its most vulnerable residents and has externalized the costs of that safety net onto smaller, poorer suburbs. Seattle will be a feudal city, where a narrow minority of land and homeowners hold outsized influence on the city’s politics. Does that sound like the Seattle you fell in love with when you moved here?

We believe that another future isn’t just possible for Seattle — it’s morally imperative. What makes our neighborhoods great isn’t that they stay the same, it’s that they change. It’s that, in places like Roxhill and White Center, a Latinx-owned art gallery just opened up next to a French/Japanese bakery, blocks away from great schools, libraries, several, regular bus routes, a community center, and dozens of units of affordable housing for seniors. Change and movement invigorates our neighborhoods like immigration invigorates our nation — an interface of ideas, cultures, traditions, beliefs, generations, and ideologies is what makes Seattle a national leader in so many ways.

This moment of change presents the opportunity to build an affordable housing safety net, to make sure that current and future residents who don’t own homes aren’t left without secure housing in a changing and growing city. And, whether they see it or not, many of the people fighting against this safety net are simply fighting to protect their existing privilege at the expense of others. Housed people should not be making policies and decisions for people who aren’t housed. They should be listening, supporting, and fighting for folks to have the same rights and privileges that they already enjoy.

It’s simple, really. If we put our heads in the sand or fight tooth and nail to stop our growth from being tied to the production of affordable housing via MHA, we’re saying that we believe that our ability to control entire swaths of land around our homes trumps others’ ability to meet their basic needs. When we go to sleep every night with 12,000 of our neighbors experiencing homelessness and sleeping and dying outside, we’re saying we’re OK with that. We’re OK with our kids’ friends’ parents being displaced and leaving our public schools. It’s saying that our enjoyment of light, trees, and views are amenities worth fighting for, but our neighbors’ right to shelter isn’t.

Furthermore, the familiar argument that “I am for affordable housing, just not in this particular place” is indistinguishable from the argument that “I oppose affordable housing everywhere.” Why? Because, no matter where affordable housing is proposed, some people will oppose it for personal, sentimental reasons. No one’s love of a park trumps someone else’s right to a basic human right like housing — and those two needs aren’t even incompatible, as we are often told.

So, time’s up. If you’re for affordable housing, fight to have it in your neighborhood.

In the end, no matter how you ended up in Seattle, we are not all that different; most of us probably want the same things. And we’re better together. No person is an island. No neighborhood is an island. Displacement is already happening. If we do nothing — or prevent action — we’ve chosen to actively participate in accelerated displacement. Inaction, or regressive action, is a vote for more of the same. Everyone has to get used to the idea of a denser, more vibrant, more diverse city. We believe that’s what a better city looks like — and that’s the future we’re fighting for. We all must to do our part to make that happen — even if that just means stepping out of the way.

We urge the Seattle City Council to vote yes on HALA and MHA at its March 18 meeting.


Zachary DeWolf, a citizen of the Chippewa Cree nation of Rocky Boy, Montana, serves as the District 5 Director on the Seattle School Board and is a program manager with All Home.  He lives in Central District with his husband Derek and their dog Maya. 

Dylan Cate is an organizing strategist who works with community and labor organizations to build power for their members. He moved to Seattle from his home state of Vermont 10 years ago, and now lives in West Seattle with his fiancé and a lovable, overweight cat named Frank.

6 thoughts on “OPINION: Which Seattle Will You Choose?”

  1. But frankly, the buildings, the trees, and the avenues don’t make Seattle the place we love ..”

    Of course, people make a city. But as a person who grew up without real neighborhoods, I love it that in Seattle you would never mistaken Ballard for Georgetown or Columbia City for Lake City. It’s that different. And I would surely miss our tree canopy which is vital for the actual survival of a city.

    I miss the neighborhood councils that were open to all. In my old neighborhood of Roosevelt/Ravenna, I helped write our last plan, Liveable, Sustainable Roosevelt. It was ignored by the Mayor and the Council (as were other neighborhoods). If the neighbors aren’t part of the neighborhoods, then why have any delineanations at all?

    I wish there was a middle ground. I wish there were a way to keep older neighborhoods BUT make those residents as responsible as those who live on the main line for new housing. That could have been possible.

    What we will get if this passes is freedom for developers, not citizens.

    Lastly, how odd that DeWolf, who sits on the Seattle School Board, says nothing about how schools are treated in this plan. They are called “amenities” throughout. Schools are not amenities like a Starbucks. They serve as hubs for neighborhoods. There is nothing in this plan that takes into account schools and enrollment plans. (At one point, the plan even said that any new city housing that had a bottom floor available, that space would go to charter schools.)

    Sad, that an elected official in charge of schools, can’t even raise his voice for their support in any city plan.

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  2. There is a middle ground. what made Seattle great was not just its neighborhoods, but the neighborhood planning process that celebrated and define division-based upon progressive and equitable values. For instance, the families and preschool kids who advocate for the City to bridge Southeast Seattle’s worst open space gap are not enemies of affordable housing merely because they opposed a blind 95′ upzone of the same area the City selected for their badly needed neighborhood park. Thanks to council members Gonzalez and Harrel, those options were pulled back to preserve the cities ability to provide amenity and livability. But sadly, many MHA proponents didn’t care about such nuances, and fought the amendment all the way.

    It is unfortunate that Mayor Murray started this machine rolling without attempting to harmonize neighborhood planning with development. If we want a pathway forward without the divisiveness, then We need to reconnect neighborhood planning with City policies. It may take a little more homework than hey developers dream of blindly upzoning without regard to previous community planning efforts, but it is worth the effort and will hopefully get us all treating each other more like neighbors again.

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  3. There is a middle ground. What made Seattle great was not just its neighborhoods, but the neighborhood planning process that celebrated and defined a vision based upon progressive and equitable values. For instance, the families and preschool kids who advocate for the City to bridge Southeast Seattle’s worst open space gap are not enemies of affordable housing merely because they opposed a blind 95′ upzone of the same area the City selected for their badly needed neighborhood park. Thanks to council members Gonzalez and Harrel, those park destroying upzones were pulled back to preserve the City’s ability to combine amenity and livability with affordability. But sadly, many MHA proponents didn’t care about such nuances, and fought the amendment all the way.

    It is unfortunate that Mayor Murray started this machine rolling without attempting to harmonize neighborhood planning with development interests. If we want a pathway forward without the divisiveness, then we need to reconnect our neighborhood planning with City policies, and inspire true planning. It may take a little more homework than a developers’ grand bargain dream of blindly upzoning without regard to previous community planning efforts, but it is worth the effort and will hopefully get us all treating each other more like neighbors again, and less like enemies of common values and visions that can be harmonized if we work together.

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