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.