The founders of the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project chimed in Monday about a Mayor Ed Murray task force saying single-family zoning has roots in racism.
When Mayor Ed Murray last week unveiled a plan to make housing in Seattle more affordable, he connected the history of the city’s single-family zones with ongoing racial segregation.
“We’re dealing with a pretty horrific history of zoning based on race and economics,” the mayor said, echoing similar statements from a report by his housing-affordability task force, which cited a research paper published by the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
The project’s founders chimed in Monday, saying the link between single-family zones and segregation is complex.
“Essentializing all single-family zoning as inherently racist is unhelpful for understanding the role of racism in housing markets, past or present,” professors James Gregory and Trevor Griffey said in a statement.
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A Murray spokesman agreed that the city’s housing history is complicated.
But the spokesman, Viet Shelton, maintained that one consequence of Seattle’s zoning, “intentional or not,” has been an affordability problem “too often preventing low-income workers, immigrants, refugees and people of color from being able to live in the city where they work.”
Murray’s plan includes 65 strategies recommended by his Housing Livability and Affordability Advisory (HALA) Committee, including one that would allow denser housing in single-family zones, which cover much of the city’s buildable land.
The 28-member task force, in its report to the mayor, cited the Project’s research on racially restrictive neighborhood covenants when it said, “Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability.”
Murray hit a similar note, telling reporters at a news conference last week, “There’s a huge reason part of this city is zoned single-family. One reason is really good. We love our single-family neighborhoods. But if you get into the history of zoning in this city, the other reason isn’t particularly good. It’s who people wanted to live in those neighborhoods based on race and income.”
Gregory and Griffey, responding Monday to what they described as a resulting “public debate in Seattle about whether single-family zoning is inherently racist,” said restrictive covenants and racist practices by real estate agents and lenders that excluded racial minorities from many of the city’s neighborhoods “were not specific to single-family zoned spaces — they covered nearly all residential housing in the region.”
The professors said fair-housing advocates in past decades fought discrimination in both the selling and renting of property and they noted that the Central District had some of the highest black homeownership rates 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,” Gregory and Griffey said.
“Some defenses of single-family zoning and opposition to rental-property construction and public transit are racist in addition to classist,” the professors added. “At the same time … some developers of high-end rental properties praised as ‘transit-oriented development’ have been systematically engaging in racist practices in their rental application processes.”
Shelton, the mayor’s spokesman, acknowledged Monday that many factors have contributed to segregation in Seattle.
But Shelton stressed, “There is significant academic work that has made the case that zoning laws (in addition to covenants, redlining and discriminatory landlord practices) historically were used to support racial and class segregation throughout the country.”