Discovering Other People: How Do We Grow the Seattle Way?

Last week I was quoted in the New York Times in a story headlined, “Seattle, in Midst of Tech Boom, Tried to Keep it’s Soul.” I got the last word in the article,

Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, a group that advocates high-density housing and is supported by developers, has been disappointed at the resistance to more development in the city.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he said. “One path leads to San Francisco, where you have an incredibly regulated and stagnant housing economy that can’t keep up with demand. The other path is something different, the Seattle way.”

A subsequent post about the story at Curbed re-quoted my quote and asked this question:

The question is, do we know what The Seattle Way looks like?

Finding the Seattle Way is going to require a reset of some stubborn local tendencies, adoption of some new and challenging social and cultural norms, and, finally, an embrace of a new set of intellectual principles against which we can measure our progress on growing together, not further apart, as neighbors and people living in this city. I’m sorry to say that today, we’re off track and we have taken steps toward what I’ve called the San Francisco Death Spiral, a resistance to applying basic economics to the housing market and trying to crush rising housing prices with more rules, regulations, and inflationary measures that feel good because they seem to punish developers and landlords but really just raise prices further, resulting in more inflationary measures. What follows is my effort to put together my view, developed over years, of what the Seattle Way is and how we find it.

Stubborn Local Tendencies: Guilt, Process, and Consensus

We are a city of polite line waiters. I wrote about this strange local proclivity in Crosscut a few years back.

Seattle’s liturgy of lines is analogous to the way we deal with civic issues. Making simple questions complex makes those of us who talk about them seem important. Saying a civic issue is complicated is a way of getting in line, dragging it out, and luxuriating in it.

Tunnels, taxes, land use, and transit all seem so complicated don’t they? We can’t fix these things. It’s just too hard. So let’s talk about them — forever.

We know how to solve the housing problem: build more housing. And no, nobody is arguing that the “market will solve all the problems.” Nobody. But Seattlites think of themselves as being enormously smart, compassionate, and always looking out for the social justice handle on every single issue. When it comes to growth and housing, we don’t need to waste time trying to be magnanimous or fashionably socialist; we need to allow the market to produce all the housing it can, and once we’ve done that, solve the remaining issues with smart, fair, subsidy programs that address the basic problem for people with less money for housing, poverty that is passed down from one generation to the next.

Feeling bad about poor people, angry about rich people, and trying to raid the coffers of the latter to solve the problems of the former won’t solve anything. We all need to be part of the solution to housing prices, to the extent that they are a problem and we should have a smarter way of measuring that instead of relying to anecdotes and headlines.

Let’s Try Something New: The Long, Uncomfortable Civic Hug

A few years ago in The Stranger I wrote this in a post called Seattle Needs to Get Over Itself and Embrace Growth:

More supply and choice in the housing market will make our city accessible and affordable to more and different kinds of people. We are an open-minded people, aren’t we? Didn’t we get all excited at the hope and change offered by Obama? What happened to that? We are going to be fine. We need to relax and welcome change. It won’t hurt a bit. I promise.

We are an odd bunch in Seattle. We think nothing of taking huge risks on tunnel digging, sports teams, and schemes to control wages and prices. But some four story buildings in a low-rise zone can provoke a civic meltdown, just like we were building a dump for radioactive waste in the middle of Ballard. The simple things seem to be the hardest and the resistance stems from a fear of new, different people. So much so, that in our groovy diverse, everyone-is-welcome city, we’ve chosen to vilify a group of people because of where they work.

In a long, unpublished article for a book that never happened, I wrote about Seattle’s strange aggressive passivity, the way we act like an old couple hanging a picture when it comes to dealing with issues. How we constantly have to have process and “hear from the community” just to change the radio station.

Let’s scrap the meetings and process and start measuring our success toward becoming a sustainable city by how uncomfortable we can make ourselves.

Urban intimacy is hard to measure. At what level of density do we achieve just the right level of discomfort? Everyone in Seattle should give someone they don’t know a big hug. Everyone should hold the hug just a little bit too long. Ok, a little longer. That discomfort, and that squirm, followed by that sudden urge to just lean into it; that’s what it feels like to live in a great city.

We need to establish a radically welcoming norm for what is new different, a welcome that isn’t reserved just for people who are different the way we are different. We need to develop a norm of real welcome, not just one we post on Facebook or on a bumper sticker. We need to welcome the intimacy and discomfort of city life, a way of living that can truly help us learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Finding Our Way: Principles, Measures, and Accountability 

Right now in Seattle, our housing policy isn’t very smart. City planners aren’t using market data to help them figure out supply and demand and the forces influencing price, they are using old Census data and an affordability standard that has very little value as a tool to define housing problems. The Mayor’s proposal of 50,000 units of housing in 10 years was essentially pulled out of a hat: there isn’t any connection between that number and the market forces that will likely see us enter a real estate down turn then another up tick in demand in that same period.

Seattle has a stubborn resistance to listening to the people that make housing when making housing policy. Those professionals will tell you that when they get financing (borrow money) to build a project, that rents are set by the transactional math of costs, rent potential, and the rate of pay back for borrowed money. There is no greed involved, it’s just projections and math. Recent data show that rents are cooling off and it could be that job creation is slowing as well. But City planners are pushing for housing production numbers as if today’s market will stay the same over a decade. It won’t.

We need to stop relying on Census data and the Housing Cost Ratio (the idea that you should pay exactly 30 percent for your housing) to make decisions about housing and land use and start listening to the people that invest real money in and those who build housing in our city. What do they think would positively impact price? More supply, fewer rules and fees, and a more positive regulatory environment. If we did this would people that finance and build housing make more money — more profit? Who cares, especially if we create a more stable housing economy that provides housing choice and opportunity for people of all levels of income in our city. We need to stop trying to measure profits and start effectively measuring the problem and holding ourselves accountable to what we know is true: high prices mean scarcity, and the solution to scarcity is more supply.

The Big Adventure: Other People 

When Lewis and Clark set out from Missouri to find the Northwest Passage, a waterway between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean, they really had no idea what they’d find. They their trip across what was a blank space on their map, making, sometimes, 70 or 80 miles a day in canoes, on foot, or on horseback. They had to rely on the stars, common sense, endurance, and each other and strangers they meet all along the way. The story of how the Corp of Discovery managed to buy fresh horses from the Shoshone Indians is instructive: the group knew what they needed and why, they collaborated and cooperated patiently, but they got what they needed.

If we are to find our way across the frontier of new growth in the years ahead, we must see all the new people moving here, coming to us, as a great exploration of human potential and capacity. Whether they arrive on their last tank of gas hoping for a new future and a minimum wage job, or fresh off a million dollar deal, growth is people. And enclosed within each and every new person who finds their way to us, is the potential to solve a great problem, create transformative art, become a great parent or teacher, or simply become a neighbor that we learn from. Jobs, houses, buildings, plans, code changes, all of these things are truly beside the point: people are how we grow, evolve, and build the future.

The idea of crossing 8,000 miles of uncharted territory with no map, GPS, and no promise of success would be a terrifying proposition. But we are, arguably, having our housing argument in the drizzly Northwest corner of this vast continent because some people were brave or crazy enough to stop wondering and speculating and put one foot front of the other to find out what was out here. And, ironically, there was no Northwest Passage. The easy route to more trade with China didn’t exist. The party didn’t find what it set out to look for in the first place.

Charles Dickens wrote of cities and people in A Tale of Two Cities,

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! . . . In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

Our great adventure, our great journey, lies there in each others beating hearts, and with the hopes, dreams, and potential they enclose. Lewis and Clark walked out to a great unknown wilderness; in Seattle we are welcoming in the great unknown of more people. There will be good days and bad ahead. There will be times when the adventure may seem more like a nightmare. Traffic will get worse, before it gets better. We’ll see prices rise and fall. We’ll struggle to house the homeless. We’ll argue. We’ll bicker. But if we resolve to take this great journey of making ourselves vulnerable to the unknown, we will have found the Seattle Way, the passage from the status quo to a brighter future for everyone here and all those people to come.

Note: I know that there might be some irony or controversy associated with using the expedition of Lewis and Clark as a historical paradigm for the adventure of embracing change. Two white men crossing lands lived on by people who were entirely disregarded in the purchase of their land by the United States might strike some as a bad example. But, I think, the story makes the point I am trying to make about our reliance on each other. We must welcome more people; we get to decide how our adventure ends.


Comments are closed.