Put Westneat’s “Little Kabul” in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones

Photo by Lauri Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

How sweet: Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat supports ghettos. In a flawless example of peak Seattle—i.e., a middle-aged white guy explaining how great Seattle was back in the Dan Evans 1970s and ’80s—Westneat wrote: “Go ahead, Republican Governors Association. Send us your buses. Previous migrants started Little Saigon in Seattle; maybe these will start Little Caracas or Little Kabul. Both the question and the answer repeat through history: Do you want these people? Yes, we do.”

Do we? Maybe we should answer another question first: Where do we want “Little Kabul” or “Little Caracas” to be located? Can it be built in Seattle’s segregated single-family areas, which make up about 75% of the city?

This defining fact about our city—which studies show drive up housing prices, and which I’ve been grousing about since 2004—is what makes Westneat’s column so unconvincing. It’s the editorial embodiment of one of those “in this house” signs that claim to be all about inclusion, but dot yards in exclusive neighborhoods that don’t allow multi-family housing.

This petulant housing lockout is particularly problematic in a city like Seattle that’s facing a pressing housing shortage while still growing by tens of thousands annually; despite the pandemic, we added a stunning 20,100 residents between April 2021 and April 2022.

Westneat was writing about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent gross political stunt; DeSantis chartered two planes—from Texas, weirdly—to fly about fifty undocumented migrants to that metonym for liberal elitism, Martha’s Vineyard. Westneat makes the case that Seattle would proudly accept migrants. I guess, judging from the 1970s scenario he lovingly conjures, we’d show that evil Ron DeSantis by cordoning these migrants into tiny quadrants of Seattle that, among other things, lack parks and good schools. Confined to arterial streets, multi-family housing zones in Seattle also expose their residents to more pollution.

Tell you what. I’ll second Westneat’s idea, but on one condition: We upzone neighborhoods such as Blue Ridge, Madrona, and Laurelhurst for multifamily housing and build “Little Kabuls” throughout our leafy city. Seattle actually tried to upzone its single-family zones (now called “neighborhood residential” zones)—back in 2015, but we inelegantly backed off when Seattle’s core NIMBY values rose up, and, championed by the anti-upzone Seattle Times editorial board, stopped the idea in its tracks. It was, in fact, a Westneat column— alerting the public to the fact that a task force was poised to recommend upzoning Seattle’s residential zones—that unleashed public animosity against adding density to our sacred neighborhoods.

I’ll second Westneat’s “Little Kabul” idea, but on one condition: We upzone neighborhoods such as Blue Ridge, Madrona, and Laurelhurst for multifamily housing and build “Little Kabuls” throughout our leafy city.

Indeed, the problem with Westneat’s liberal posturing is that existing Seattle housing policy won’t back it up. In short, his “Little Kabul” column reads more like white virtue signaling than like a workable idea.

For the last two legislative sessions in Olympia, a promising new alliance of pro-development and social justice legislators and advocates have proposed reforms to land use police policy that would make Seattle actually embrace the mantra of inclusion. The YIMBY legislation would allow multifamily housing deep inside neighborhoods near transit stops, not just at the edges—a vision of transit-oriented development that goes beyond the timid status quo, which only allows density immediately next to transit hubs. Facing opposition from old-fashioned liberals like longtime local government committee chair, Seattle’s own Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle), and lacking a champion in the mayor’s office (former mayor Jenny Durkan and current Mayor Bruce Harrell are standard, Lesser-Seattle politicians), the legislation hasn’t been a priority for Seattle.

Thankfully, the diverse and progressive Seattle Planning Commission has an ambitious pro-housing blueprint cued up for the pending Seattle Comprehensive Plan update, coming in 2024. Their agenda, backed by progressive council members like at-large Council member Teresa Mosqueda, includes “expanding and adding more urban villages.” I say, put Blue Ridge and Madrona and Laurelhurst on the list. And add Magnolia and Phinney Ridge while we’re at it.

Hopefully, the Seattle Times won’t repeat the anti-housing crusade they waged against Seattle’s last attempt to upzone Seattle’s extensive single family zones. But given that Westneat, who likes to warn against “unfettered growth,”  owns a multi-family rental property that benefits from keeping the vast majority of the rest of the city off-limits to new multi-family housing (can you believe this conflict of interest at the Seattle Times?), I wouldn’t be surprised if my version of the “Little Kabul” idea doesn’t win his support.

josh@publicola.com

6 thoughts on “Put Westneat’s “Little Kabul” in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones”

  1. Josh – bravo, you nailed the obvious conflict hiding in in plain sight. I respect much of what Westneat writes – the pieces on public education have been terrific – but your deconstruction of the housing piece superb.

  2. Why does everyone overlook that SFH is excellent at…housing families? And much cheaper. You can find a 2bd apartment for up to $3500 in the 98115 zip code and a 3bd house for $4k. Cost per bedroom wins with the SFH and a 2bd unit is cramped for families. Good luck finding a 3bd apartment. Why was the assumption that immigrants belong in apartments anyway? In all likelihood they’re just like any other group of folk – some are singles, couples, but also multi gen families or families with children. Was the plight of immigrant families a vehicle to push another agenda? Feels icky.

  3. I am an old fashion liberal and I like single-family residential zoning, no matter what you call it. I also believe we can do both and absorb new immigrants into Seattle while maintaining that zoning

  4. Newsflash for Josh Feit: Laurelhurst already has multi family homes, plus a fast growing number of ADUs, that have increased housing units. The unholy alliance between so called urbanists and developers is the resurgence of the Monorail know nothings. Let’s ruin the city to save it! Bulldoze baby, bulldoze!

    1. Come on, be fair to Josh Feit here. He’s not ruining anything, nor are the “so called urbanists and developers”. It is thousands of folks with money moving to the Emerald City. Seattle has two long standing views on growth. The first group believes in their single family homes and keeping Seattle circa 1993… the NIMBYS. The second group believes in social housing and Seattle becoming someplace like Denmark, were everybody is taken care of with a cute little apartment. The reality is Capitalism… and that squashes both NIMBYism and socialism easy enough. The free market will remake Laurelhurst and I’m quite sure most of us will have no say in the matter.

  5. Nice try at a political pivot, Mr. Feit, but your argument just doesn’t add up. Look, Seattle is a highly desired city for college educated Liberals who are willing to pay $$$$$$ to live there. This is the reason housing is so crazy stupid expensive. The more housing Seattle builds, the more rich Liberals are going to show up. Affordable housing is never going to happen.

    I believe that over time, much of Seattle will be re-zoned and become higher density housing. At some point homeowners in ‘hoods like Queen Anne will take a couple of several trash bags full of money (and few diamonds maybe?) for their single family home and muti unit buildings go will up. But these buildings will be high end, classy and not affordable. The new residents? Highly educated, well heeled and most out of State. Cali folks dodging climate change? Young East Coasters pushed out by restrictive zoning rules? Seattle already is a Refugee City… for Yuppies. Seattle can’t re-zone (or build) to fix a national housing problem, can it?

    You’re the young urban planner here. Please share your numbers. 20,000 new residents move in. How many new housing units can the Greater Seattle construction industry crank out in a good year? Maybe 15,000? Rezoning doesn’t build any housing. Rent control doesn’t build any housing. Passing a social housing law like I-135 doesn’t build any housing. The USA is a nation of free market housing with a majority of home owners…. Seattle can’t fight the tide.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.