None Dare Call it Classism

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Last week’s overpacked meeting at the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard was supposed to be a more subdued, city-moderated followup to the raucous outdoor rally held by neighborhood residents opposed to a a temporary homeless encampment earlier this month, but the several hundred people who showed up to oppose dignity for homeless people in their neighborhood weren’t interested in civility.

After changing the law to allow temporary encampments on city-owned commercial and industrial land back in 2014 and narrowing down the number of potential sites to seven, then three, the city announced its preferred location in June:  A vacant lot on Market Street near the Ballard Locks.

Neighborhood reaction has been loud, shrill, and largely one-note: We don’t oppose homeless people, we just don’t want them here. (The guy in the photo above was especially committed to shouting down the few homeless advocates who managed to speak.) The arguments against the encampment include some variants too obvious to call nuance: If you really cared about the homeless, you’d build them all places to live; homeless people shouldn’t be around bars and liquor stores because they’ll get drunk and scare away the tourists (the preferred location is within one block of a liquor store, a convenience store, and a bar), and homeless people bring crime, filth, and disorder and use park Port-A-Potties that are supposed to be, as one speaker put it tearfully, “for us.”

The evening kicked off with a presentation and introductory remarks by Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland, and Facing Homelessness founder Rex Hohlbein, an architect who talked about his personal experience interacting with and discovering passion for the homeless. Audience members shouted Hohlbein down as he attempted to tell his story, yelling “there are people who want to speak!” and “we were limited to 90 seconds; why not this guy?”

Many of those who spoke delivered catchall commentaries like this one, from a Magnolia homeowner named Cindy Pierce:

I’m a Seattle taxpayer and I’m wondering where the logic has gone in city government. There is no logic. …  What we’ll see out here is tarps lining the streets of Ballard. We have a city full of people with some issues, and right next to the issues will be a fully stocked liquor store, a wonderful bar for them to go to, and a wonderful quick store stocked with fortified beer.

[We have] a city deciding that we need a tent city as soon as possible in a toxic dump that needs to be dug out at the end of a peak growing season and next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city.

So my question is, what does the city government have against Ballard? Who is building their resume on this?

If you build it, they will come. You say there are more homeless people than ever, that night counts have gone up drastically in the last year, and you don’t know why. I believe our mayor Murray needs to have a come to Jesus meeting with the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and have a conversation about how to clean this city up and not attract people like these. How many jobs do the tent city people have?

Another speaker, a mom who said she and her daughter were afraid to go to a nearby park because of all the “transients” who engage in “blatant use” of a Port-a-Potty in the park and exhibit “blatant intoxication,” suggested that city officials “go over there and look at reality” to understand why she is “fearful” for her family.

Other speakers’ comments that mixed naked concern trolling–one woman, Caroline Cooper, lamented, with a straight face, that the city had cut down a tree on the encampment site that used to be  “the one remaining shade tree that homeless people might want to sit under on a sunny day” –with outrage that anyone would dare label opponents, who were literally shouting, “Not in my backyard,” as NIMBYs.

Eli Fisher, a “proud Ballard resident” who came from “working class folks,” was outraged that “the city was almost labeling us as NIMBY people,” and concluded, “Shame on the city!” to uproarious applause. Another speaker, from the VFW hall adjacent to the proposed encampment, said he was “a homeowner, I live in a nice place. That does not make me a bad guy”–a rather defensive response to a charge nobody was making.

Meanwhile, Habitude salon owner Inez Gray, who was in Williamsburg learning “about how democracy works” when she heard the news, choked back tears as she testified about the threat the temporary encampment posed to her business–which, she was quick to note, she had built from nothing more than her own hard work and determination. Oh, and a line of credit on her house.

“I think we all agree that what makes Ballard cool is that we have so many small businesses,” Gray said. “Me and some of my peers took a chance to move down on Market Street to West Ballard. We left the core and moved down. We mortgaged our homes to do it. We’re not getting loans. We are putting our home equity on the line. I have 4,000 women come in every month. There are 100 girls working for me. … I put a lot of effort into creating this community. I don’t want a voice. I want a say.”


No one, including the few (mostly homeless, formerly homeless, or homeless advocates) who spoke in favor of the encampment, called the opposition “classist”–that, along with “racist,” is the third rail of Seattle’s white progressive politics–but whatever possible conclusion is there when a group of mostly upper-middle-class, mostly white, mostly homeowning residents gang up on a group of disenfranchised people sleeping on park benches or in their cars and say that they, as a class, are shiftless alcoholics and drug addicts (as if addiction was a choice) who contribute nothing to society and instigate crime and the loss of property values?

How else can we describe parents who say they don’t want their children exposed to a less-fortunate class of people, whose basic humanity is suspect because they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle-class existence so many of those wealthy homeowners received as their birthright? And what are we supposed to make of people who literally say they can’t be anti-homeless because they once took an individual homeless person into their home, just like your racist friend who says he can’t be racist because he gets along just great with the black people who serve him?

Let’s not end on a bummer, though. Instead, let’s give the last word to a Trinity United Methodist Church parishioner named Todd, who talked, over jeers from the crowd, about the crime problem in his North Ballard neighborhood.

“Three times in last few months we’ve had a lot of random problems with property crimes. We tried to show a lot of compassion.

“I don’t think we’re going to get to a point in this conversation that we’re going to satisfy everybody. I don’t think we’re going to come up with a location that’s far enough from resources, far enough from children, far enough from liquor stores, far enough from transportation, far enough from everything to do that.

“I would rather have a tent city in the park across the street from my house than not –sir, I appreciate how loudly all night you have applauded everyone that is against this–and I would offer up the park across the street from my house for consideration for a tent city. And I ask you to consider why that might be.

“It’s because I feel safe.”

Snapshots from Election Night

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Tim Ceis, David Meinert, Sandeep Kaushik

I was up until way past midnight hanging out with politicos (including Mayor Ed Murray) and tweeting my insta-thoughts about the primary election results last night, so my post on the results, and what they mean specifically for the Housing and Livability Agenda recommendations, will come later. For anyone curious about what I had to say last night, I’ve put together a Storify of my tweets from last night.

Roger Valdez, Mayor Ed Murray

The upcoming  general election promises some extreme contrasts (Jon Grant vs. Tim Burgess), some Sophie’s choices (Rob Johnson v. Michael Maddux) and some death-throe snoozers (Lorena Gonzalez v. Bill Bradburd). I’ll have more to say about all that as well, later today and in the coming months.


Density, Affordability, and Livability Are Compatible: The HALA Report

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I’ll be on KUOW’s live show from the District 4 this Friday at 10, countering the anti-development, pro-NIMBY narrative you may have caught on last week’s Week in Review. Listen in on 94.9FM or on KUOW’s website.

It’s a rule in Seattle that policies having to do with density, neighborhood “character,” and development tend to get hacked down to a nub by the blunt machete of consensus, even more so when that consensus is reached by a committee numbering in the dozens.

It’s even more of a rule that when committees like the 28-member Housing Affordability and Livability Committee announce multiple delays, that means they’re on the verge of imploding.

Throw in a disgruntled committee member who leaked a draft copy of the group’s long-anticipated report to the press, and there was every reason to believe that the HALA committee would come up short; the day the draft leaked to NIMBY apologist Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times, in fact, the committee frantically disavowed the draft, calling it “outdated and inaccurate.”

So it was a true jaw-dropper when Mayor Ed Murray’s HALA Committee recommendations emerged Monday largely intact. The plan (which replaces controversial linkage fees on residential development with inclusionary zoning, upzones multifamily areas across the city, eliminates many parking mandates for new development, and promises 20,000 new units of low-income housing) fully embraces the reality that it’s impossible to create an affordable city while simultaneously protecting the two-thirds of Seattle land that consists of unaffordable single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots. We live, essentially, on an island–an island where tens of thousands of new people want to live. The built environment must change to welcome (and “accommodate”) those new neighbors.

By acknowledging the fundamental incompatibility of protectionist NIMBYism and affordability, HALA spit in the eyes of the pitchfork-wielding old guard that really just wants to keep “outsiders” out, that resents new residents, that sees growth as numbers, not neighbors.

The city council will undoubtedly come under tremendous pressure from hardline neighborhood activists who think ceding 6 percent of their protected land area to slightly greater density will bring their homes and property values crashing around them. Those activists are organized, and they are loud. Their allies on the council, including the departing Tom Rasmussen, have amplified their voices and encouraged them to drown reality-based advocates for density out. And it will take all of urbanists’ effort to keep them from scuttling the plan, from preserving the old Seattle (which was, as HALA points out in its report, created and sustained by restrictive racial covenants) and keeping everyone new outside the walls protecting suburban-style city development patterns.

But Murray didn’t call this plan a “Grand Bargain” for nothing, and the HALA committee wouldn’t be making its plan public now if it didn’t have rock-solid support from the vast majority of the players. (One outspoken exception is committee member and council candidate Jon Grant, who not only abstained from the vote but held a press conference immediately after HALA’s announcement to roll out his own sour-grapes plan, flanked by supporters including Kshama Sawant, Position 9 candidate Bill Bradburd, and North Seattle neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, calling for rent control and the reinstatement of linkage fees.) Despite the volume of shouting from the old guard, I’m hopeful that the consensus and determination HALA has demonstrated will hold together despite the shouting, and despite the possibility, remote but real, that a renegade developer could sue the city and scuttle the whole deal.

It’s been a crazy few days. Between life and work and blogging, I haven’t had much time to sit down and process my thoughts about HALA in black and white. Instead, I’ve been talking to friends and fellow urbanists about what the plan will mean and how we can convince our friends in the world of affordable-housing advocacy that growth is not just inevitable but good and how we can help hold the plan together until the city council passes the goddamn thing over Tom Rasmussen’s dead body. (Sorry, Tom.)

So I can’t add much to the already rapturous (and detailed) coverage from the density proponents at Sightline, PubliCola, and, well, The C Is for Crank.  Nor can I thumb my nose more disdainfully at the hardline NIMBYs at Crosscut and the Seattle Times. I can, however, encourage you to cross your fingers, write your city council members and neighborhood representatives, and urge them to support the plan that represents the best shot we’ve had in decades to preserve what’s best about our city while making sure it’s livable for the tens of thousands of people who want to become our newest neighbors.