Last week, the city's Department of Planning and Development provided a map of the current racial demographics of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods (which make up 65 percent of the city), confirming that they are overwhelmingly white. But what of mayor Ed Murray’s and the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee’s references to the racist and classist roots of zoning in the city?

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The mayor put the notion front and center during the release of the official HALA report. “We are dealing not just with the national crisis of income inequality in our city,” he told reporters at city hall last Monday. “In Seattle, we’re also dealing with a pretty horrific history of zoning based on race, and there’s residue of that still in place.” 

To back up their talk, the HALA committee points to a massive historical project put together by researchers at the University of Washington in 2006 called the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. In particular, the committee cites—on pages 5 and 25—Seattle’s grim history of racially discriminatory covenants: amendments to property deeds that forbid minorities from purchasing, renting, or occupying property in a given neighborhood. At the time (between the 1920s and ’60s), this was perfectly legal. Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1917 that declared segregationist city zoning unconstitutional, private sector covenants were still in the clear in the eyes of the law. Some covenants designated properties as white-only, while others explicitly barred certain races and ethnicities. Here’s a racial covenant from Capitol HillNo part of said premises shall ever be used or occupied by or sold, conveyed, leased, rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of negro blood.” And another from Green Lake“Said tract shall not be sold, leased, or rented to any person or persons other than of white race nor shall any person or persons other than of white race use or occupy said tract.” (All emphasis ours.)

According to Alan Durning, Executive Director of Sightline (a green city agenda think tank) and a member of HALA, members of the mayor's task force (from both social justice and urbanist backgrounds) experienced a break-through moment during a presentation given by a representative from the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative on redlining in Seattle. "The presenter throws a map up on the screen of the historic red lining in the city of Seattle. And then a map of current population by race and ethnicity. And it’s the same thing," says Durning. "[the committee was like] ‘oh, right. It’s [segregation] baked into the design of the city.’"

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A Seattle real estate map from 1936

Faith Pettis, a lawyer with Pacifica Law Group and co-chair of the Mayor’s HALA committee, contends that Seattle’s history of racial covenants and segregation was a “theme that was echoing through the [HALA] committee for a long time."

Developers and real estate companies from Seattle's past wrote the majority of Seattle’s racial covenants, segregating the city and helping cultivate the predominately white single-family neighborhoods Seattle has today (the link takes you to a map I asked DPD to put together overlaying zoning and demographic data.) There was high demand from whites for suburban-style single-family homes (in white neighborhoods), but the prospect of new non-white neighbors threatened property values and brought the risk of neighborhood redlining from banks. So developers filled the market niche by selling off land parcels and single-family homes with racially restrictive covenants attached.

“It was more profitable to [developers] to build housing that was segregated, so they focused on building these nice American dream’ homes that only one section of our population [whites] was able to live in,” says Catherine Silva, a former student researcher at UW with a master’s degree in urban planning and public administration who authored the racial covenants segment of the project. (She currently serves as campaign manager for Alon Bassok, candidate for at-large position 9 City Council seat).

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A pamphlet cover advertising property in the racially restricted Blue Ridge neighborhood (image courtesy of the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project)

In response to the HALA report’s references to racial covenants, city council candidate Bill Bradburd (Seattle Neighborhood Coalition activist who's running for the at-large city council Position Nine) denounced the racist zoning origins implication as a “myth,” noting that Seattle never had official segregationist zoning on the books. Other neighborhood activists have claimed that the HALA committee is calling single-family home owners racist.

Silva says that while Seattle never utilized segregationist zoning (unlike Southern cities), covenants had the same effect in dictating racial housing patterns. “It's not to say that the zoning in Seattle ever said single-family zones equals whites only. But it did. It was de facto segregation,” says Silva. “If you compare neighborhoods like Sodo—that did not have racially restrictive covenants—[with neighborhoods that did], you try and tell me that's the same kind of housing stock that was produced in Magnolia or Madison park.” (It should be noted that the Central District, Seattle's historic black neighborhood, created by redlining and covenants, was primarily composed of single-family homes.)

Pettis is quick to point out that this focus is not a condemnation of current single-family home owners. “We're not labeling people as racist because they live in a single-family neighborhood,” she say. “Instead what we're pointing out is that the foundations of our zoning were derived indirectly from these covenants.”

In UW Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project's segment on covenants, it states: "The use of racial restrictive covenants removed the need for [segregationist] zoning ordinances. In that way, they served to segregate cities without any blame being placed on municipal leaders."

“We've done a really good job in Seattle pretending like we didn't have this past,” says Silva. “We can't say that [the connection between housing patterns and racism] is a myth for example. It's something that happened. It had drastic impacts on large populations of our city, and we need to recognize it.”

Ubax Gardheere, Program Director at social justice group Puget Sound Sage and a member of the HALA committee, says Seattle’s entrenched single-family neighborhoods aren’t helping counteract the segregationist "residue" (as Mayor Murray put it) of racial covenants. She says current through-the-roof home values (Zillow puts the current median home value in Seattle at over $500,000) are preventing low-income demographics from buying houses and moving in.

“Normally less restrictive land use [code] allows a more diverse group of citizens to live in desirable areas,” Gardheere says. “But since 65 percent of Seattle is zoned for single family, it doesn't give low-income folks, immigrants [access]. It gives more affluent homeowners better access.”

“What we're trying to do in single-family neighborhoods is make them more affordable, which increases choice for everyone,” Pettis adds, referring to the HALA report's proposals such as expanding urban villages and up-zoning a sliver of single-family neighborhoods to increase density. “We're not trying to social engineer, we're trying to give people [more] choice of where they [can] live. We need to try to make these zones as affordable and accessible as possible. By providing the opportunity for smaller, more affordable homes in choice [single-family] neighborhoods, that should open up these neighborhoods and help with the ability to have a true diversity in our neighborhoods.”

Realtors weren’t the only perpetrators of housing discrimination in Seattle. Neighborhood segregationists banded together and gathered signatures and fees (paid to the City) from their neighbors to amend their property deeds to prevent minorities from buying, renting, and occupying their properties, effectively warding off whole neighborhoods.

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Neighborhood signatures on a racially restrictive covenant in Capitol Hill (image courtesy of the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project)

The results were striking and defined Seattle’s current segregated neighborhoods. Combing through files with the King County Recorder’s Office, the UW researchers unearthed a total of 416 racially discriminatory covenants in property deeds (though that is likely only a small sample of the all of the covenants that created Seattle’s neighborhood demographics.)

Even though racial covenants were deemed illegal in 1948 (by another Supreme Court ruling), they continued to govern housing patterns in Seattle until 1968, when the U.S. Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which made housing discrimination based on race illegal (i.e the sixties happened). But up until then, attempts by a civil rights activists to reform segregationist housing practices in Seattle had failed.

HALA committee member Durning was born in the thick of a contentious fight over discriminatory housing in Seattle. "In 1964, the year I was born, my mother was involved in a fair housing campaign in the city of Seattle," he says. "It [a anti-segregationist housing initiative] lost, two to one. It was to ban discrimination on the basis of race in rental and sale of real estate and it lost two to one. Four years later the council enacted a fair housing ordinance after MLK was assassinated."

Covenants still shape Seattle’s wealthier single-family neighborhoods and could come into play in the ongoing density and housing debate. Crosscut’s David Kroman reported on how neighborhoods such as Broadmoor, Blue Ridge, and Laurelhurst currently utilize covenants that dictate architecture, landscaping, and general appearance of homes in the area (e.g preventing the construction of duplexes).

James Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington and director of the UW Civil Rights & Labor History project, declined to comment on the HALA report. But earlier today, the project’s Facebook page released the following statement:

“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.

"Similarly, movements for fair housing in Seattle sought to criminalize racial discrimination in the selling or renting of property-- they did not attack single-family zoning per se. Often some of the leading advocates for housing desegregation were people seeking to purchase homes. Many hoped that desegregation of the housing market would reduce the gouging that people of color were subject to in rental housing in racially segregated neighborhoods. 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 country before the 1980s.

"Racism continues to be an issue in housing markets, but it is not restricted to neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. Some defenses of single-family zoning and opposition to rental property construction and public transit are classist in addition to racist. At the same time, as the Seattle Office of Civil Rights demonstrated, some developers of high-end rental properties praised as 'transit-oriented development' have been systematically engaging in racist practices in their rental application processes. Essentializing all single family zoning as inherently racist is unhelpful for understanding the role of racism in housing markets, past or present.”

Former UW researcher Silva concludes: “The connection [between zoning and racial segregation] isn’t one that is so direct, like we can say in Charleston and cities in the South where really, they actually had it [discriminatory zoning] on the books. We never did. But really, we really truly did.”


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