Has Seattle Become a City that Doesn’t Work?

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Image by MustangJoe from Pixabay

The yellow light on the traffic signal means “caution.” That yellow caution sign appears to be shining brightly, even blinking ominously, for Seattle. And, just to be clear, this has nothing to do with Russell Wilson.

It is all about whether Seattle, as a city, works. It is about whether Seattle can accurately diagnose its challenges and address them successfully. And it is about leadership and what appears to be a lack of it just when Seattle needs it most.

Two recent articles in the Seattle Times have pointed at the blinking yellow light. Danny Westneat writes that Seattle’s longtime growth has now reversed track. Seattle is shrinking. Of course, fewer people and less rapid growth are not necessarily bad. It might be good. The question is, why are people leaving?

“Seattle may not be dying,” writes Westneat. “But it could be doing something we haven’t seen in decades around here: shrinking. Whether it was the pandemic, the protests and riots, the urban decay, the high costs, the work-from-home trend or pick your reason, people appear to have ditched the Emerald City last year in unusually large numbers, new data shows.” Westneat notes that many haven’t gone far. Bellevue, Kirkland, Shoreline, Edmonds, Renton, Kent, and Redmond are the destinations of choice.

Gene Balk, the Times data guy, also took a look at the way Seattle has changed over the past decade. One of the biggest shifts? Seattle has become a majority renter city. That would suggest that people’s period of overall residence in Seattle is shorter and their investment in the city lower. Balk writes: “In 2019, for the first time in about 100 years, Seattle became a renter-majority city — that is, there were more people living in rentals than in owner-occupied homes. Over the 2010s, there was a tremendous boom in apartment construction, mainly in central Seattle and other neighborhoods zoned for greater density.”

It could be that Seattle is just taking a break after a period of fast growth. A time for digesting the big meal of the 2010’s decade. But I’m not sure that’s it. While the pandemic and housing costs are a backdrop, I would cite three factors that may be contributing to our civic dis-ease and driving an exodus. These are safety, loss, and political dysfunction.

First, safety and the perception of safety. The “Next Door” site for our neighborhood is rife with reports of property crimes, mostly theft. Of late, catalytic converters are being pried off people’s energy efficient cars at an alarming rate. The Neighborhood Scout site rates Seattle at 4% out of a possible 100% on safety, meaning Seattle is safer than just 4% of American cities. Your odds of being a victim of crime in Seattle are almost twice as high as in the rest of Washington State. Whether the many homeless encampments contribute to crime can be debated. But it does seem likely that the encampments have an effect on the public perception of safety.

Second, loss. Seattle has changed. Yes, I know, “Change is the only constant. Get over it.” But it feels as if something essential has been lost in the surge of apartment building, millennial influx, and gentrification. Neighborhoods that once had a particular character, don’t any longer. A certain Seattle quirkiness and romance seem to have vanished in the craze of building boxy things and the growth of tech giants. Admittedly, this is hard to put one’s finger on and may be vulnerable to the charge of nostalgia, but somehow it’s harder to feel “at home” in Seattle.

Third, political dysfunction. Our City Council has become the poster-child. Deservedly so? It does appear that the Council is more a staging ground for the nation’s culture and ideological wars than for civic leadership on local problems. There’s a certain irony here. Seattle touts its environmental and ecological awareness. But we are a political mono-culture, which every ecologist will tell you is unhealthy. The lack of a healthy Republican Party, or even just non-ideological problem-solvers, makes Seattle a bit of an echo chamber.

Many, perhaps you, will respond to these observations by saying, “Okay, great, but what’s to be done? Don’t just tell us what’s wrong. How do we fix it?”

I get that, and I have a response. Before you answer the “what is to be done” question, you need an accurate picture of your current reality. This is my brief attempt to contribute my two cents to such a framing. But we have a ways to go before Seattle has a better and more accurate picture of the state of the city.

An accurate picture needs to factor in Seattle’s strengths to which recent articles on our response to the pandemic point. Here Seattle has leveraged those strengths — medical and health research facilities, businesses the moved quickly, and a united front by state, county and city officials. There are strengths here upon which we need to build.

As another mayoral race looms, and that’s the work that needs doing now. The candidates we need will help us get a clearer and more accurate picture of our present situation and its challenges.

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

8 COMMENTS

  1. “Neighborhoods that once had a particular character,” and all the all-too-common variations on the phrase, need to be banned from our language. Anyone who invokes such a phrase needs to both name the neighborhoods, and define the “particular character.” While the people making such comments are almost never racist, most of the time the “character” they praise was created through overt zoning, financial, and design policies that kept out people of color and lower-income people — in some cases through explicit redlining, and in others simply by keeping housing so large and expensive that people without means could simply never afford to live there.

    I am constantly amazed at the resistance in Seattle to expanding residential zoning to include duplexes, triplexes, backyard cottages, and rowhouses. If adding those kills the “unique character” of your neighborhood, then you really need to ask yourself some tough questions about whether the uniqueness of that character is something you want to be a part of. I like my neighborhood a lot, not because of the buildings, but because of the neighbors. I’d like to be able to share the neighborhood with some more people, including those who aren’t as fortunate as I have been. And, oh by the way, if we created more more opportunities for people to stay here in Seattle, I suspect the “exodus” would subside.

      • After a good email chat with Kevin Schofield, I retract my use of the words “neighborhood character.” I wasn’t aware this was a favorite vagueism of the NIMBY crowd. I think I’m really talking about affordability. Seattle was once a middle class town, my present neighborhood, Ballard, a working class neighborhood. Increasingly, Seattle is only affordable for the wealthy — which has changed both neighborhoods and the whole city.

    • Kevin,
      I think the resistance to increasing density in single-family neighbors is not as much as as we had in the past.
      Seattle now allows a triplex of sorts on every single family lot….certainly more to do by way of accommodating more housing — the “missing middle ” — but we are on the way to it. The DADU law enacted about three years ago was probably one of the best piece of legislation we’ve seen in Seattle in many years.
      But it’s not going to be “affordable” housing, alas.
      If you really want affordable housing, get rid of labor unions, environmental laws, OSHA, child labor laws, consumer protection, wide-open immigration, etc….That’s how our initial housing stock came to be.
      Getting rid of design review and bike parking spaces is not going to do very much. (That’s not saying we don’t need substantial reform of design review.)

  2. Didn’t New York Times have above-fold, front page piece this a.m. singing praises of Seattle’s COVID-19 pandemic response, pointing to city having lowest death rate among major metropolitan areas?

  3. An underlying question is whether Seattle has ever “worked.” It’s a colony city with a lot of the control being outside the city. It’s politically fragmented, thanks to the anti-concentrated-power legacy of the Progressive Era. It’s been a culture dominated by powerful outside interests: Boeing, timber, Pentagon, Amazon. Prosperity has kept things afloat, but we’ve never really needed to get our political house in order. We resemble, instead, a petro-nation with a golden goose or a Southern state with funds flowing from Congress.

  4. ^^^ Facts David! Totally in agreement.
    Anthony, no disagreement with most of what you said, even though as others have pointed out it comes across as a bit of a North Seattle NIMBY puff piece. I have a couple questions:
    Who is leaving Seattle? Is it the working-class, the fishermen, black and brown folks being priced out of South Seattle? If so, I believe that’s a problem because of what you mentioned, creating a monoculture.

    Or is it rich NIMBYs/tech transplants moving to the nice suburbs? If that’s the case, good riddance but that leaves us with two avenues forward. 1) Ensure that the places they’re moving to are amenable to responsible urbanism rather than sprawl, to ensure we are creating a healthy, connected metropolis. 2) Get to work building the Seattle we want to see because rent and property prices are down, and a lot of the mfers blocking progress are gone.

    Finally, I do definitely disagree with your point on city council. I don’t think we need more “republicanism” here. In my view, Seattle, a liberal city, already has its political factions, broadly the liberals vs the progressives. My personal thought is to start listening to the progressives and building appropriate housing, completely reorienting what this city is about through initiatives like the Green New Deal (which provides TONS of good blue-collar jobs in the city and surrounding areas), and improving our relationship with our neighboring counties by supporting them financially, for example, investing in more farmers markets etc etc etc.

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