A Social Justice Urbanism

Sierra Club leaders outline affordable housing platform

By Bonnie Gail, Robert Cruickshank, and Jesse Piedfort June 25, 2015

As Seattle’s housing crisis worsens, two bitterly opposed approaches to addressing the situation have emerged, neither of which successfully deals with the problem. The first, an antidensity backlash coming from single-family homeowners, promises to “protect neighborhood character” by making it even harder to build new housing. Proposing ideas to that end, such as putting new density limits in single-family zones with neighborhood conservation districts, their arguments are often classist and exclusionary. And their solutions would make Seattle’s existing inequalities much worse.

The opposing view comes from market urbanists who correctly point out that limiting construction will exacerbate the housing crisis. Their solution is to relax or eliminate restrictions on the height, density, and location of new housing. That is an important part of the solution, but it isn’t sufficient for solving Seattle’s affordability crisis. New construction can’t be built fast enough to meet the needs of people facing immediate displacement, and rents in new buildings are often unaffordable to workers and families making below the median income. As a result, urbanists have struggled to mobilize support from Seattle’s diverse, progressive electorate.

Antidensity advocates suggest that their approach can stop displacement and stop rising rents. They’re wrong; we need only look south to San Francisco, where extreme limits on new housing construction have limited supply and caused the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment to rise to $3,500 per month, to see the impacts of limiting supply on affordability. Seattle has been able to avoid this fate in part because our city has built much more new housing than San Francisco has. However, unless urbanists and environmentalists can come up with policies that promote affordability across the entire spectrum, they will risk losing the political argument. In a year when all nine City Council seats are up for election, a new approach is required.

It’s time to develop an urbanism rooted in the principles of social and economic justice. A “Social Justice Urbanism” can mobilize public support to fight off the deeply regressive efforts to limit new development and overcome resistance from those who want to preserve the existing character of neighborhoods at all costs.

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Social justice urbanism provides the policy framework to solve the affordability crisis in a way that includes our whole city. It also provides a political path that can cut through regressive antidensity attitudes by building an inclusive movement that empowers working families, immigrants and refugees, people of color, and LGBTQ residents, among many others.

A diverse coalition of advocates, elected officials, and City Council candidates in Seattle are already building the foundations of social justice urbanism. They are considering several policy tools that can advance the cause of social justice urbanism. These include:

Affordable Housing Linkage Fee: Council member Mike O’Brien’s linkage fee proposal will require developers to pay into an affordable housing fund or include a certain number of affordable units in each of their projects. A properly implemented fee could add thousands of new affordable units in the city over the next decade, although policymakers should carefully evaluate the fee after a short period of implementation to ensure it doesn’t have the unintended consequence of limiting new construction. The presence of a linkage fee will neutralize many arguments touted by density opponents, because every new market-rate development will add to the city’s affordable housing fund.

Public Funding for Affordable Housing: Council member Kshama Sawant has proposed a $500 million bond that could be used to build and operate housing owned by the City of Seattle. This housing would be taken off the market and rented at rates affordable to working families. This approach will be less effective if current limits on where new density can be built and how high new housing are not addressed. Those restrictions limit the locations where new public housing can be built, driving up the construction cost limiting the city’s ability to address persistent residential segregation.

Protection from Displacement: Policies are also needed to protect renters from displacement, which occurs both when new construction replaces affordable supply and when new housing stock fails to keep up with demand, driving up rents. More debate and discussion is needed to determine whether the answer should take the form of rent stabilization to protect existing renters, strengthening protections for tenants in Seattle’s landlord-tenant statutes, dramatically increasing the availability of subsidies and subsidized housing, a new basic income payment for all Seattleites, or some combination of these approaches. However, it’s clear that we need to have this conversation in earnest.

 To these existing proposals, we’d also like to suggest two improvements to the forthcoming Seattle 2035 plan:

 •Add Density Near Transit While Mitigating Displacement: The Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan update process offers another opportunity to apply the principles of social justice urbanism. Of the four alternatives currently under consideration, Alternatives Three and Four smartly focus on transit-oriented development. However, as The Urbanist pointed out in calling for an “Alternative Five” those options were also accompanied by a high risk of displacement. The final plan should take into take this into account by including policies designed to mitigate possible displacement that may result from adding much-needed density around transit.

Include a Low-Carbon Alternative: Another shortcoming of the potential Seattle 2035 alternatives is that the assumed reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in each option appears to be relatively small. If Seattle is serious about its climate goals, the city should take the bold step of including a new alternative – Alternative Six– that would accommodate expected growth in ways that help dramatically reduce carbon emissions. This would likely include not just more density in all areas of the city, but a significant expansion of in-city rail and bus transit and full implementation of the bicycle and pedestrian master plans.

 The housing crisis and antidensity attitudes are based in a history of exclusion and injustice made worse by rising inequality. Those suffering the most from our current affordability crisis are those who have suffered the most from historic injustice. Together, these facts make it clear that the principles of social and economic justice are central to solving our housing and affordability woes. We cannot build a sustainable, inclusive city without them.

Social justice urbanism is not just about solving the housing crisis. It also requires a major expansion of mass transit throughout our neighborhoods and ensuring that it remains affordable for working people to use. It also emphasizes concerns that aren’t strictly related to land use, such as a higher minimum wage, paid sick days, gender pay equity, police reform, and reducing our carbon footprint. Urbanists and environmentalists need to be attentive all of these issues if we are to do our part in making Seattle more equal and more inclusive.

A social justice urbanism offers not only the best policy solutions to the housing crisis, it also offers the best chance to build a political movement that can overcome antidensity attitudes, especially in this crucial election year.

Jesse Piedfort is Chair of the Sierra Club Seattle Group. Robert Cruickshank and Bonnie Gail are both members of the Sierra Club Seattle Group Executive Committee.  

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