Two versions of Seattle collided earlier this year when the City Council approved denser zoning and housing requirements for neighborhood hubs.
There were “old Seattle” stalwarts at City Hall, with at least one warning the changes supported by “tech trash” transplants would lead to bulldozing bungalows, trees and memories. There were “new Seattle” urbanists, impatient with Not In My Backyard opposition to a policy meant to make room for sustainable development and more neighbors.
The tension in the room underscored real divides between older and younger people, longtime residents and newcomers — divides that matter politically.
But discussions based on stereotypes about old and new Seattle overlook other perspectives that will be brought to bear in the Nov. 5 council elections.
Voters whose backgrounds and ideas complicate the picture include elderly transplants who lean socialist, young rebels against big-government culture, tech workers with student debt and longtime locals welcoming Amazon’s growth. They also include activists working across generations to protect communities hardly ever prioritized by policymakers.
“Binaries that create an us-versus-them dynamic get used to shut down discourse,” said Cynthia Brothers, who runs the social media project Vanishing Seattle. “Anyone who questions development is labeled a NIMBY. … But what about grassroots groups in the South End and immigrant communities” that oppose community spaces being replaced by luxury projects?
Members of Generation X, including many who have lived in Seattle for a decade or so, may not check old or new boxes.
Everyone is new to Seattle, compared to Native people, noted James Rasmussen, a Duwamish Tribe member. The city’s latest boom has helped in that more people are paying “real rent” reparations to compensate the Duwamish for their land, he said.
Yet history is repeating in a negative way, because many low-income people and people of color are being priced out of a city once taken from Native people, Rasmussen said. “The biggest thing that always accompanies change is displacement,” he said.
Talking to politically active voters of varying backgrounds about old and new Seattle didn’t yield answers about which candidates will win in November. But the next council will need to deal with the complex views those voters hold.
Seattle, new and old
Seattle has a lot of new voters: 37% of the city’s November ballots will be sent to people who registered in Washington state in the past four years. Their median age is 32 and they dominate the electorate in neighborhoods that tend to vote for more progressive candidates, such as Belltown, South Lake Union and Capitol Hill.
But many old and new Seattle residents live in separate worlds, sticking to their micro apartments or bucolic blocks and spending little time together.
Calvin Jones is a 27-year-old tech worker and New Jersey transplant who lobbies for housing, while Donn Cave is a 64-year-old retired homeowner who worries about too much development and believes the average millennial has “no idea what’s going on.” They don’t know each other.
Some older people who bought homes long ago don’t comprehend how much tougher the market has become for young renters hoping to buy, Jones said. Home prices have climbed 50% here since 2014, and Seattle is now the most expensive city for renters outside California, according to census data.
“Every now and then I see someone comment, ‘Just wait until you grow up and want to buy a home and you’ll see how much you like single-family zoning,’ ” he said. “There’s this disconnect.”
The Madison Valley renter acknowledges that well-paid tech workers like him have contributed to Seattle’s housing crisis by driving up costs. That’s why Jones volunteers with Tech for Housing, which lobbies for more housing options and low-income apartments. “People who work in tech have a responsibility,” he said.
Though Cave agrees with that point and acknowledges the challenges some younger people deal with (he recalls making rent in the University District during his 20s with a part-time mailroom job), he argues urbanists like Jones are being duped by developers.
Stressed millennials are “easy targets for that kind of line,” said the Wallingford homeowner, who doesn’t want to see his neighborhood become “all new and all bland,” like Ballard.
“There’s a desire to make established residents the culprits,” he added. “But you can rezone us all you want and you’re not going to see those rents go down … It’s all about how long the hiring list at Amazon is.”
Rents actually did drop slightly last year, as huge numbers of new apartments opened and demand seemed to taper. Rents rose again this year.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce represents developers, among other businesses. But its support doesn’t track the divide between Jones and Cave. Jones plans to vote against Chamber-endorsed Egan Orion in District 3, and Cave plans to vote for Chamber-backed Alex Pedersen in District 4.
Jones believes people and companies with money should be taxed much more to address homelessness, while Cave wants a council member who supports “neighborhood pushback” against projects like certain bike lanes.
“People in my generation have less deference to the status quo,” Jones said. “We grew up in a housing market where everything costs more every year and we’re going to have to live with climate change. We see the system is broken.”
Stereotypes break down
Not all “new Seattle” voters are white 20-somethings like Jones and not all “old Seattle” voters are white baby boomers like Cave, of course, even in one of the country’s whitest major cities. Not all tech workers love Amazon and not all homeowners are NIMBYs.
Indeed, transplanted tech workers are more diverse and less wealthy than sometimes assumed, and class is the divide that means more, said Walé Ogundipé, who co-chairs Seattle’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter.
“There’s this notion that people come to a place where there are opportunities and automatically become better off,” said the 35-year-old software developer, who moved here in 2015 and whose parents have African-American and Nigerian backgrounds. “But who knows how much student debt people have, what visa status they have.
“It’s not like most are twirling their mustaches,” he added. “It’s the dudes at the top with the private jets, the billionaires, who are really making a killing.”
More than 80% of respondents to a recent tech-worker survey by the nonprofit sea-citi said they planned to vote in November, and 61% said they’d volunteered or made donations to address issues such as homelessness, climate change and housing.
On the other hand, some tech workers lack political voice altogether, said Siva Vasanth, an Amazon employee on a work visa from India. Though the 33-year-old is rooted in Seattle, raising his daughter here, “I can’t vote, so my opinion doesn’t really matter,” he said.
Seattle residents across industries and ages who can vote, Ogundipé said, should unite and push for a tax on large businesses like Amazon to pay for public housing along with denser zoning. His group is backing DSA member Shaun Scott against Pedersen in District 4.
An independent analysis last year said annual homelessness spending in King County must double, with more than 11,000 people sleeping outside on a given night.
Ogundipé and Delaney Wysingle don’t know each other. But taxing Amazon more would be the wrong idea, said Wysingle, whose grandmother moved to Seattle from Texas during the Great Migration of African-American families.
The Beacon Hill homeowner loves nothing more than schooling newcomers about old icons like Ivar’s and the Bush Hotel. He values how the city used to be and has seen neighbors and relatives move away. But he also welcomes change.
“I’m a city guy. I’m cool with density,” said the 54-year-old, who owns a rental house and wants to build a backyard cottage. “Seattle isn’t a blue-collar town anymore. My uncles worked at Boeing, but that era is over.”
Wysingle holds City Hall responsible for Seattle’s homelessness crisis, claiming the council is “addicted to taxation.” He sued last year when Seattle banned a rent-bidding service called RentBerry and intends to vote for Mark Solomon in District 2 over Tammy Morales, whom he calls a “baby Sawant.”
“These politicians try to blame Amazon for our problems but Amazon is providing jobs,” said Wysingle, who works at a casino.
His views aren’t particularly representative of the South End, considering Morales dominated August’s primary election.
Pat Palagi and grandson Asa Palagi are unconventional in multiple ways.
Pat is 81, moved to Seattle in retirement, lives on Capitol Hill and loves busing downtown. Asa is 25, grew up in Seattle, recently moved to North Bend and owns a company that provides security guards at downtown businesses. Though he can’t vote in his hometown, suburban voices like his still influence Seattle political conversations.
“I’ve been here 22 years but I still feel like a transplant,” Pat said. “I’m the opposite of Grandma,” added Asa, a U.S. Army Reserve commander.
Not only do the two-time Sawant voter and the proponent of small government disagree about politics, they actually enjoy talking about issues.
They’re not sure how much stock to place in tropes about old and new Seattle, and wonder whether toxic social-media interactions can pit people against each other. “Tech plays into it,” said Asa, who despite that view thinks the council undervalues the magic of private-sector innovation.
Pat worries most about people barely scraping by. They were on her mind in August when she voted for a new library levy with trepidation, excited about the services promised but anxious about taxpayers with modest incomes.
She worries less about the crime that Asa’s guards are hired to protect against and the concerns some voters have about drug-addled attackers.
Downtown police calls by the public increased 41% from 2010 to 2018, slightly outpacing population and job growth there. But during trips to Seattle Art Museum, “I walk with purpose, straight ahead,” without problems, Pat said.
Asa believes Seattle needs to improve downtown policing, noting the demand among businesses for private guards, and he thinks the council needs more “diversity of thought.”
There are less than 82,000 voters in Pat’s age bracket and more than 107,000 in Asa’s, but Seattle seniors cast more ballots in the primary — because 61% turned out.
Sue Kay and Vanishing Seattle’s Brothers are also bridging generational divides, working together against gentrification. At age 75, Kay is an exception in their Chinatown International District (CID) Coalition activist group, which is mostly youngsters.
Though she lives on Capitol Hill, Kay spent time as a child up and down Canton Alley, where her mother grew up, and she thinks development is putting the neighborhood’s special Asian American character in danger.
The retired state government worker has taken part in demonstrations to stop high-rise condo and hotel construction in the Chinatown International District and to preserve Bush Garden, a beloved restaurant and karaoke bar slated for the wrecking ball.
Many residents of the neighborhood have low incomes, but market-rate housing developers have in recent years been outbidding nonprofit developers for crucial properties.
Though Kay remembers the old neighborhood better than its young activists might (she once took martial arts lessons from Bruce Lee and recalls when pollution-spewing Interstate 5 was built), the kids have taken the lead with their “Humbows Not Hotels” protests because some others her age lack interest or disapprove, she said.
“These young people have introduced me to the problems with the model minority myth,” Kay said about the idea that Asian Americans tend to succeed and don’t need to agitate politically. “I’ve learned a lot from their organizing.”
At the same time, Vanishing Seattle is popular along the age spectrum, said Brothers, whose grandmother lives in the CID and whose project mourns lost treasures, warns about demolitions and celebrates mom-and-pop standbys. Even many newcomers appreciate the project because they care about culture and authenticity, she said.
When conversations about old and new overlook plummeting black homeownership, LGBTQ history and displacement, the city misses out, she said. In 1970, 49% percent of households headed by a black person owned. Now 28% do.
“Stereotypes that prevent people from actually listening to each other are where a lot of the tension comes from,” Brothers said. “A lot of people are experiencing very real pain and they’re not being heard.”