Making Room in the New Seattle (Part 1)

This is the first part of a two-part series about housing activism in Seattle. Read Part 2 here.

Photo: Joel Mann via Flickr

The Belltown Funky Studios in Seattle is the kind of building that inspires a double-take. No, you're not imagining things if you think the 1890 landmark's three-gabled upper story looks a little wonky; it is, Angela Compton tells me, "literally concave. People make jokes about ‘The Slant’.” (Those words are spray-painted on the wall.)

The building's an odd relic of an old Seattle—the 19th-century one that boomed with the timber industry and as a jumping-off point for the Klondike Gold Rush—but it's also a lifeline for residents struggling to hold on to a place in the new Seattle, now the land of the Amazon Gold Rush. The building received historic landmark status in 2015, but those protections were relaxed in 2018 when a city board determined it was too damaged to save.

Meanwhile, its tiny apartments remain inhabited, a rare source of deeply affordable (albeit unsafe and poorly maintained) housing in a part of Seattle often associated with the city's rapid gentrification. Its very existence in the state it's in in 2019 is evidence of the boom-and-bust history of the neighborhood: the neglect and disrepair that Belltown was allowed to fall into, before being reinvented in steel and glass in recent years by a torrent of what Jane Jacobs called cataclysmic money.

Compton has been involved with efforts to find a happy ending for Funky Studios residents. Those residents and nearby businesses have been heavily involved in the design process for a replacement, meeting with the developers, and advocates are currently pushing the developer of the site to embrace Seattle's affordability incentives (such as the Mutifamily Tax Exemption) and to offer preferential treatment for those who used to live in the funky studios so that they can remain in the neighborhood.

This is the kind of hard, grinding work—a few apartments a time, a few households at a time—often involved in making room in the new Seattle for those who aren't the beneficiaries of the city's dazzling tech-industry boom. Compton works as a program manager at Housing Connector, an organization that finds homes for people exiting homelessness by working with private-sector landlords and property managers to reduce barriers related to screening criteria and ensure that tenants are supported with case management once they have a place to live.

This kind of work is important, but it's hard to scale. Seattle needs to become a city where every affordable home isn't a battle, one where the market meets much of the housing need for a broad range of Seattlites without so much heavy lifting. Outside of her current day job, Compton has worked for years in several capacities with a huge, diverse coalition of advocates—many of them part of the Seattle For Everyone coalition—pushing for a more inclusive vision of Seattle's neighborhoods and who they are built for. To understand this vision of Seattle's future, it's necessary to understand how Seattle got here. 

A 3-unit converted house in Wallingford, Seattle—a historic housing type that is illegal in most of the city today. (Image via Sightline Institute on Flickr)

A City Under Glass

There was a time, prior to the mid-20th century, when Seattle (or any major U.S. city) would have had a much larger range of options when it came to places to live: new buildings, old buildings, large spaces, tiny spaces, SROs, rooming houses, buildings in questionable condition but available and affordable. A lot of this kind of stuff became the target—here and everywhere—of a postwar push toward order, regularity, and suburban-style zoning associated with a much narrower conception of what an acceptable place to live is.

According to a New York Times project on single-family residential zoning, 81% of Seattle's residential land is now zoned for detached single-family homes. This includes neighborhoods like Wallingford which grew up in the early 20th century with a much broader range of missing middle housing, including small apartment buildings that still stand today (but would be illegal to build new).

Seattle, during the postwar years, became largely a city under glass. This worked when growth was slow in the 1970s and 1980s. It's not working anymore. Home prices and rents are at historic highs, and many longtime Seattlites who don't enjoy the stability that comes with homeownership are at risk of losing their homes—and, if they do, finding themselves shut out of the city they feel is home.

Who Gets to Stay? Who Has to Leave? Who Can't Come Back?

Compton's work isn't just a job; it's personal. Compton has experienced housing instability and homelessness four times in her life. A Seattle native, Compton was a child when she and her mother had to leave home due to a family situation. (An important reminder that homelessness is a complex issue that affects many more people than the stereotypical unemployed, chronically-homeless people you might see on a street corner.) After staying with various relatives, they ended up living a 2.5 hour drive away on the Key Peninsula, from which her mother commuted to a job in Seattle.

By the time the family was in a position to move back, Seattle had become increasingly unaffordable and returning to the city was not an option. Says Compton: 

"My mom loves Seattle. She lived there most of her life; it's her home. It's crazy to think about having lived somewhere almost your whole life, and now you can't go back there."

Compton's mom has a home in South Tacoma and has gone back to school, but Compton worries about what will happen when her mom and stepdad retire. 

“When you talk to people who’ve been pushed out of Seattle, the ones who used to live in our single-family neighborhoods, they want to come back. They want to see our neighborhoods change, and to accommodate different lifestyles and life changes.

For my own parents, if I could afford a house and build a mother-in-law, it’d be amazing. We’re glad some changes are happening, but we’re not seeing enough."

Seattle's economic boom is in many ways a good problem to have. But it is also home to thousands of stories like that of Angela Compton's mother, of people who find themselves displaced or excluded from their hometown's boom times. 

The Resident Action Project, a project of the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, helps tell the stories of Seattle residents who have experienced housing instability. The broader housing activist movement in Seattle, too, has focused much of its work on bringing a broad range of voices to the table, including those historically shut out of the public conversation about what a strong neighborhood looks like and who its residents and stakeholders are.

Organizing Around Common Ground

Calvin Jones is conscious of the "evil tech bro" stereotype—the notion that tech industry workers are the problem with affordability in Seattle and can't be part of the solution. Jones is a member of the Seattle Renters' Commission and an organizer with Tech4Housing, a group of tech workers who advocate for abundant and affordable housing. He sees the role of tech workers like him as to "Constructively engage in the conversation, but also lift up other voices. Use our privilege, and take a supportive role."

Jones attributes the success of pro-housing activism in Seattle to a strong consensus between various activist groups, ranging from anti-displacement and anti-racist groups to YIMBY to transit to environmental advocates and more. A big-tent approach means people who might not, instinctively, be drawn to housing policy have inroads to understanding how it affects them. Says Jones:

"We're mobilizing people that might not have been interested in housing policy issues, because they’re opaque and hard to get into. But we're also doing so in a way that is super conscious of race and social justice issues that are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We don’t want to make people who might disagree with us on policy issues feel left out or insulted or not respected. We take a constructive approach, really focus on where we have common ground, and emphasize how many values we all share. 

The tenor of the conversation needs to go high, so we're not screaming at each other. Change requires consensus."

What has this consensus, thus far, produced? Two flagship victories in the first half of 2019, for one thing. Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) standards that took effect in April 2019 require that developers in a handful of "urban villages"—neighborhood commercial districts scattered throughout the city, often on major transit lines—either provide a percentage of income-restricted affordable units or pay into a fund that will be used to build such housing.

In June, the city also passed sweeping Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) reforms. As I wrote in July, 

Seattle categorically allowed ADUs on single-family lots citywide. What's better, the Seattle legislation does this without any of the onerous restrictions—owner-occupancy requirements, unreasonable parking minimums, strange size and design restrictions—that make ADUs practically infeasible even in many places they're nominally allowed. You can even build two ADUs on the same property. Now, in Seattle, you can essentially have up to 3 modest homes on a normal residential lot

We've written about efforts like this in other cities where they have faltered, such as the implosion of Austin, Texas's zoning overhaul, CodeNEXT, in 2018.  It does seem that Seattle activists' inclusive, common-ground approach, and perhaps the city's unique political culture—the symbolic power of equity and social-justice issues in a place that prides itself on its progressivism—have led to a different result.

But are the policy victories won so far enough—either to make Seattle broadly affordable, or to make its neighborhoods broadly strong and resilient?

Seattle is a Trickle vs. Fire Hose city. It’s a city where a small handful of neighborhoods are subject to rapid change, while many more are insulated from any substantial change. And in areas like the historically African-American and redlined Central District (which we published a piece about in 2018 by Seattle journalist Erica Barnett), rapid change—cataclysmic money—still risks the displacement and disruption of deeply-rooted communities.

In Part 2 of this story (link to be added when it’s published), I'll examine what needs to come next for Seattle, and why 2019's round of housing policy victories should be celebrated but aren't—yet—enough to fundamentally fix what ails Seattle, a city whose fabric economic forces are stretching to the breaking point.