Surprise: Seattle is Getting More Diverse, Not Less
Urbanists are accused of pushing an elitist white agenda. Maybe the critics should look at the facts.
File this under Isn't it Weird That...
Conventional wisdom has it that Seattle is becoming less racially diverse.
However, the data shows the exact opposite: According to city's Department of Planning and Development's numbers: In 1990, 26.3 percent of Seattle's population was non-white (a category that includes Latino residents as well as people of mixed race); in 2000, 32.1 percent of Seattle's population was non-white; and in 2010, 33.7 percent of Seattle's population was non-white.
That means that, in the last 20 years, there's been a 28.1 percent increase in the number of people of color in Seattle.
In the last 20 years, there's been a 28.1 percent increase in color in Seattle.
I bring this up not as a guilty white liberal patting myself on the back for living in such a sophisticated city, but as an urbanist who's tired of the anti-urbanist rhetoric—be it anti-density or anti-share economy (Uber, Lyft, Car2Go) —that casts urbanists as elitists whose agenda will make the city less diverse.
For example, listen to Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien run with the inaccurate meme that Seattle is less diverse than it used to be while making the case for stronger caps on Uber and Lyft in a recent Seattle Times op/ed: "As Seattle tackles issues of income inequality and a growing lack of diversity because of decreasing affordability, we must consider the economic importance of the existing taxi industry to low-wage workers, including Seattle's immigrant and refugee communities."
In addition to the sideline fight against alternative, urbanista business models, this rhetoric around affordability is the most instructive. And misleading.
Case in point: The urbanist push for more development and more multi-family units—probably the No. 1 agenda item of urbanists—is supposedly driving out people of color.
But no. Back to the Department of Planning and Development's own numbers: According to Census data, at the same time that Seattle has dramatically increased its non-white population, it has also increased its housing stock. We've built nearly 60,000 new housing units over the same 20-year period. What if we hadn't done that?
I'm not suggesting a causality (these are only two data points I looked at among many that I did not, including income, housing prices, and demographic data in the suburbs), but one thing is obvious: If we had built fewer units over that same time, yet the same additional 70,000 people of color still came to Seattle, there'd be less housing overall (there are also more white people in raw numbers than were here in 1990 and 2000). If we had built less housing, supply for all the new residents, including people of color and white people, would be lower, and economics 101 says what happens in that scenario: Prices go up.
Obviously, the majority of the new 60,000 units in town are not single-family homes, but multi-family, which means we're talking about plenty of rentals.
In fact, here's another statistic: 63.7 percent of non-whites in Seattle are renters, while just 47.5 percent of whites rent. In other words, the rental market serves non-white residents more than whites; people of color are the ones who are taking the most advantage of the new units.
Please consider that the next time you're at a neighborhood meeting about a new development proposal and opponents of the project talked in coded language about "safety" and "the potential demographics of the residents" and how "this type of development would be more appropriate near a light rail station."
As I've said, there are other data points to consider. But as we continue to debate growth and housing policy in this city, let's get our facts right. As we build more housing (and bike lanes), we are not becoming a less racially diverse city.