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9 words that shook Seattle: Are our zoning roots really racial?

Homes on Queen Anne (2002) Credit: Carl Alexander/Flickr

UPDATE, 6/20/15, 12:32 p.m.: Following publication of this article, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project posted a response to the HALA report’s citation of the project, noting that “essentializing all single family zoning as inherently racist is unhelpful for understanding the role of racism in housing markets, past or present.” More on this statement following the article. 

Sometimes a few words take on a life of their own, at once transcending and summing up the document that contains them, at least in the public’s mind. The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) presented last week by a city select committee, and promptly endorsed by Mayor Ed Murray, contains one such zinger: “Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the City’s goals for equity and affordability.”

That claim quickly flew around the local media and blogosphere. Seattle Globalist quoted it as authoritative. Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton cited it and a few more lines as “a useful jumping-off point” for discussion, and the Times’ Danny Westneat repeated it without comment. It got further play in a Times news story, SeattlePI.com, the Seattle Bubble real estate blog, the national Next City blog, development lobbyist Roger Valdez’s blog, and Publicola, which then rephrased it more baldly and pointedly in another piece: “The city’s traditional SFZs [single-family zones] had a racist and exclusionary past.”

This was the sort of carry-though a publicist would kill for. None of these outlets questioned the premise or conclusion. Crosscut’s David Kroman did note the combustible nature of the language, and Knute Berger (also of Crosscut) told SeattleMagazine.com readers the statement was “incomplete and inflammatory” — until the HALA editors fixed it by removing the words “single family” before “zoning” in an earlier draft. The point, he explained, was that “while racial and class inequality have been major factors in shaping the city, it is not a problem in single-family neighborhoods alone.”

That’s not the point. There are a few other problems with that resonant HALA statement, even post-edit. First, it’s still inflammatory, and may still serve as a preemptive silencer for anyone who questions any of the HALA report’s premises or conclusions: Do you want to be called “racist” as well as “NIMBY” and “entitled”? Second, it’s unsupported by the only evidence it cites. And third, judging by the historical evidence and the explanations I’ve received from the report’s authors, it’s not true — just truthy in a Colbert Report kinda way.

The HALA report conflates two trends that were concurrent but distinct in Seattle: public zoning – laws dictating what could be built where – and racially restrictive covenants. These were private conditions, typically written by developers or real estate agents and attached to property deeds, that dictated who could and couldn’t live where. Starting around 1924 and peaking around 1928, no fewer than 414 neighborhoods in and around Seattle instituted covenants excluding what were then called the “Ethiopian and Malay races,” and occasionally “Hebrew persons.” A subdivision in what’s now Clyde Hill allowed only “persons of the Aryan race.” These private covenants extended not just where you’d expect – Broadmoor and Windermere and tracts across the North End, West Seattle, and suburbs – but parts of Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill, Hillman City in the Rainier Valley, and Squire Park on the west side of the Central District.

A footnote to HALA’s “racial and class exclusion” phrase directs readers to a “discussion of racial restrictive covenants in Seattle.” This is a page on the Segregated Seattle site of the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, edited by UW historian James Gregory, a respected authority in the field. Gregory didn’t respond to email or phone messages, and reportedly has declined to discuss the HALA report on the record. But I did speak with Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, a professor in UW’s College of the Built Environment and scholar of Seattle’s urban-design history, and he affirmed my reading: “The footnote refers to something that does not say what the report says. You will not find on that website any place that says Seattle’s zoning is racially based.”

The Segregated Seattle report, written by a student, mentions zoning just once, in this somewhat garbled and tendentious passage: “The use of racial restrictive covenants removed the need for zoning ordinances. In that way, they served to segregate cities without any blame being placed on municipal leaders.”

Perhaps the HALA writers read that quickly and were misled. It actually references an account of residential segregation in St. Louis and its suburbs, Colin Gordon’s Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Decline of the American City. That book tells a story very different from Seattle’s.

St. Louis had tried to institute de jure residential racial segregation, as did many Southern cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But in 1916 the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws contrary to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. That spurred an explosion of private covenants in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, until the court finally found them unconstitutional as well.

Covenants didn’t make zoning obsolete. The Progressive Movement promoted zoning as a way to make cities safer, cleaner and healthier, and, yes, more democratic. Cities embraced it as a way to boost growth, property values and taxes. The U.S. Commerce Department put out model zoning ordinances.

Seattle didn’t enact racial zoning pre-1916. That didn’t necessarily reflect enlightened principles; its black population before the interwar Great Migration was too small to draw such attention. The city adopted its first, nonracial zoning code in 1923. The private covenants came afterward.

So where are the “roots in racial and class exclusion”? I called attorney Faith Li Pettis, the HALA committee’s co-chair. “That passage has been getting a lot of attention,” she said. “I want to be very clear about this – we are not calling single-family homeowners racists.” (My African American and East African neighbors, homeowners all, will no doubt be relieved to hear this.) “We’re saying that the zoning grew out of neighborhoods that the racial covenants defined.”

How could that be when the zoning preceded the covenants? I asked. She backtracked a bit: “We are not saying that zoning grew of racial covenants. Zoning followed the patterns that were established.” Then she redirected me: “I am not the zoning expert. Alan Durning [executive director of the Sightline Institute and a member of the HALA committee] is the person to talk to about this.”

When Durning called me back, he seemed surprised at being designated the zoning expert. “I have no idea who wrote the words, but I strongly support that language,” he explained. He said he was “shocked that you would think it wasn’t about race and class, that separating single-family from multifamily [housing] wasn’t about confining lower-income to certain areas. That’s such a widely held belief – idea in urban planning.”

If so, then as Ochsner and UW historian John Findlay (who does think there’s “some truth” to the race connection) both told me, “the situation’s more complicated” in Seattle. The Central District, where African Americans were consigned by covenants and subsequent redlining, was zoned largely single-family. Just like Wallingford, Hillman City, and Upper Queen Anne (which actually tends to have smaller lots).

The class factor plays a more obvious role in zoning. When Seattle set out to eliminate its old duplex zone in the 1970s, Queen Anne’s resident lawyers, architects, and activists squawked, and duplex lots became single-family lots. Ballard, much more blue-collar then, got rolled; its duplex zones became low-rise multifamily. The results are obvious today.

But again, it’s complicated. The same multifamily zoning governed elegant, exclusive First Hill apartments and humbler flats around the city, including those scattered among older single-family neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, Durning insisted, “the whole process of dividing the city was strongly colored by the existing racial divisions, covenants, redlining, zoning – that was all intermingled together.” When I again pressed the question of what came from what, he said, more broadly, that “it was soil that the plant grew out of – our zoning grew out of a climate of race and class exclusion.”

Well, yeah, but you might say that about just about anything in the early and mid-20th century. You could certainly say it about mass transit, which started as private streetcar lines that enabled commuters to escape the crowding, noise, and those people back in the city for Phinney Ridge, Laurelhurst and other new single-family developments.

But does all this matter? Durning didn’t seem to think so: “We’ve spent considerably more time discussing this sentence than it took to write it.”

“Some people will say it’s a distinction that doesn’t make a difference,” says Ochsner. “I think it does. It’s a very different argument [invoking “racial and class exclusion”] than if you say public-sector zoning had no explicit racial zoning.”

A few words can have an outsized impact. Think, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” Or “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

As Durning describes it, the wording emerged from a turbulent, messy process. “The HALA report should be read as a loose aggregation of intentions and mostly shared beliefs by 28 people who spent months disagreeing about a great many things.”

Cindi Barker, Delridge’s representative on the citywide Neighborhood Council, calls herself “the token neighborhood person” on the HALA committee. She says that the misleading footnote was “a placeholder” in earlier drafts. Then she noticed it was still in the final and followed the link. “I said, ‘Guys, go read the linked document. That’s not what it says.’” But it was too late to get it changed.

Now the meme is out there. I’d like to think it reflects kneejerk reaction and sloppy haste rather than a deliberate attempt to play the race card. But it can still work to chill debate and shade the city’s response to the very real and complex challenge of housing affordability. All the more reason to examine it now – and to consider the assumptions behind HALA’s “loose aggregation of intentions.”

UPDATE: As noted, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project has responded to the HALA report on their Facebook page.

The response begins: “Racially restrictive covenants placed in property deeds applied to housing rentals and home ownership alike. So did realtors’ racist practices. So did bankers’ redlining practices. They were not specific to single family zoned spaces– they covered nearly all residential housing in the region.” It notes that “some of the leading advocates for housing desegregation were people seeking to purchase homes,” and that “according to Quintard Taylor’s history, Forging of a Black Community, Seattle’s Central District had some of the highest black homeownership rates of any city in the in the country before the 1980s.” It concludes, “Essentializing all single family zoning as inherently racist is unhelpful for understanding the role of racism in housing markets, past or present.”

June 21: This story was changed to reflect the fact that just one subdivision in Clyde Hill, the 80-acre Lake Washington Tracts, was subject to a covenant restricting residence to “persons of the Aryan race.”

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