Seattle’s Closing Progressive Window

The new progressive coalitions helping pass Seattle’s pioneering bills, addressing urgent social ills, are already being jeopardized by demographic change

Bob Santos, the “Mayor of the International District,” passed away last month after a long illness. His death got lots of attention in the local media organs that still think it’s 1970 in Seattle, but for most current residents, his name meant nothing. Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas, and a whole generation of civil rights leaders that challenged the complacency of a bizarrely white and fiercely segregated major US city are now lost to time. Larry Gossett, winding down a long career on King County Council, is the last reminder of an era that fundamentally changed Seattle. Now, it’s changing again.

Santos’ passing raises the question: who will be the private citizens who are viewed, decades from now, as seattle’s iconic civic activists? With every passing year it becomes increasingly likely the answer will be, “Nobody.”

The Seattle of a half-century ago resembles Tacoma more than Seattle itself in 2016. Seattle in the ’60s was the whitest major city in the US. Boeing was the dominant employer, with the port and forestry companies like Weyerhaeuser supplementing it. The North Pacific fishing fleet was a significant employer, Amazon was a river in South America, and “Microsoft” and “Starbucks” were compound words meaning nothing. Labor unions still ran much of this city.

Slowly, in fits and starts, Seattle’s local economy has diversified. Boeing is on its way out, outsourcing and shipping jobs to low-wage countries like China, India, and South Carolina as fast as it can. Weyerhaeuser is just another company, albeit one with a lot of real estate holdings. To walk on any given weekday through the Seattle Labor Temple in Belltown is to walk through a silent, entombed time capsule. Seattle no longer makes or ships very much, but it programs a lot – so much that the Seattle memorialized by civic relics like Seafair bears no more relevance to modern daily life here than a smaller town’s “Pioneer Days.” And as with the rest of the US, selling other peoples’ things and passing around other peoples’ money have come to dominate our local economy.

Despite the economic changes, until recently Seattle remained a largely middle class city, with vast tracts of single family homes supported by decently paying jobs. In similar fits and starts, the city has seen the kinds of progressive policy advances that come with a maturing city. Today, Kshama Sawant has galvanized what is easily the most progressive city council in Seattle’s modern history. But the cultural and economic inclusiveness she champions is already starting to slip away.

The Demographic Earthquake

Seattle, like most other American cities, has always been run by a relatively small cohort of privileged elites. But about a decade ago, that ruling coalition changed. Climate change provided the opening, as environmentalists rightly pointed out that to mitigate the threat of climate change, Seattle had to change.

“Density” became the crown jewel of urban planning policy, but what voters had unwittingly set in motion wasn’t just any density. It was a particular kind of density, fueled by a coalition of real estate interests and environmentalists, that envisioned a new, energy-efficient cityscape bursting with white-collar jobs and stripped of any carbon-emitting nuisances like character, charm, or cultural diversity. Above all, the new coalition embraced with an almost religious fervor the notion that if Seattle built thousands of expensive new buildings, the magic of the marketplace would ensure that at least some of them would be affordable. The impact was sudden and overwhelming. Years of carefully crafted neighborhood plans were simply ignored, and the inevitable outcome has already fundamentally changed who can afford to live in Seattle. Very few people consciously voted for class warfare, but now everyone has been affected by it.

Seattle is in Year Four now of an unprecedented building boom, in which new construction is literally going up on every other block in much of the city. In most cases, the new buildings are replacing office and retail space and housing that was far more affordable. Seattle has had the biggest annual increases in median rents of any large US city for four years in a row. Commercial real estate is similarly booming. Housing prices have more than doubled in the last decade. Where 20 years ago, hundreds risked sleeping outdoors in King County each night for lack of affordable housing, that number is now well over 10,000, and still growing exponentially.

The homeless are the most visible edge of a vast cohort of working and middle class Seattleites who have fled to outer suburbs, or other states, in search of more affordable housing. As new tech jobs blossom and the well-paid workers filling them pour in from around the country (and beyond), Seattle’s former residents are hardly being missed.

Who will be he next Santos, the next community leader who demands and wins seats at the table for people being systematically excluded from power? The cohort most obviously being shut out is the working and middle class residents who are still here, but struggling to get by. Sawant won a citywide city council seat in 2013, and then was re-elected in her new district in 2015, explicitly championing them. Lisa Herbold, a protege of longtime city council progressive leader Nick Licata, narrowly won election in 2015, along with several other new members with varying degrees of economic populism.

But the cold reality is that the people who voted for Sawant even three years ago are no longer a majority of the city’s voters – and her new district is centered in Capitol Hill, a once-funky neighborhood where million-dollar homes and high-priced condos are now the norm. According to the Census Bureau, not only was the annual median household income in Seattle over $80,000 in 2015 – a staggering $10,000 more than in 2014, easily the biggest jump among major US cities and far outpacing #2 San Francisco – but in 98112, one of the Capitol Hill zip codes Sawant’s district centers on, that median income is now $285,000. Are they going to vote for a working class champion by the time her seat comes up for election again in 2019?

Such changes aren’t confined to Sawant’s district or a handful of neighborhoods; they’re throughout the city, and impacting the entire region. Between 1960 and 2000, Seattle’s net population growth was a remarkably stable 7,005 people. Over only the next decade, through 2010, the city added another 46,215 people. Seattle added a staggering 16,409 new residents in 2015 alone, or more than double what it added in the entire final 40 years of the 20th Century. Since the 2010 Census the city’s population grown by 75,792, or 12.5 percent in only five years.

The other end of the bell curve is equally telling. While Seattle’s overall 2015 median income broke $80,000, the number for Latinos was $49,000, and for African-Americans, $37,000. Seattle’s utter lack of housing that is affordable for working class incomes has hit communities of color the hardest. Seattle is literally swapping out those residents, primarily in favor of new tech sector employees. The inevitable result is that Seattle is not only becoming much, much richer, but also more male, younger, and whiter. And as the population has shifted, hate crimes against women and minorities of all kinds have grown steadily.

The Political Implications

The window for a progressive majority on Seattle City Council faces the same problem Republicans face in national elections: changing demographics. For candidates like Mitt Romney and Donald Trump, winning a majority, even a sizable majority, among white voters, especially older white men, cannot over time counteract the growing numbers of younger, non-white voters in a number of formerly swing or conservative states who oppose their explicit appeals to white supremacy with near-unanimity. In the case of the Republican Party, their remaining viability is largely based on the two-party system and on having geographic bases in parts of the country where conservative whites still dominate.

Something similar to the dying off of the Republican is happening in Seattle, only with the reverse political effect – and there are no enclaves, really, where the Seattle of even a decade ago still holds sway.

Seattle is not about to elect any Republicans, but it’s also less and less likely to have much patience for elected officials or candidates who, like Sawant or Herbold, champion the needs of a shrinking minority of Seattle’s residents. More likely, the pendulum will swing back toward the type of politicians that ran Seattle like a small town until fairly recently: socially progressive, but only when there is no conflict between liberalism and somebody’s maximized profits.

What has defined the progressivism of council actions since Sawant’s arrival is the passage of laws objected to by the sorts of business interests that historically have run this city behind closed doors. The $15 minimum wage, secure scheduling, and assorted new checks on abusive rental practices would not have been possible had the city’s past laissez-faire approach to density and growth not led to an urgent crisis in affordable housing and widespread workplace issues for lower-wage employees. But as those renters and workers are forced out of our city, they’re being replaced by people who simply don’t care about such issues. They don’t need to – and they won’t be as inclined to vote for candidates who prioritize them.

The politics of Seattle’s homelessness crisis are an early case study of what this can look like. As housing costs have soared, the region’s homeless population has exploded, and the backlash in many neighborhoods has been ferocious. The mayor’s approach has been to issue reports and sound bites designed to make it look like he’s doing something humanitarian – but his plans won’t help most homeless people, and do little to slow down the private market affordable housing crisis that is putting more people on the streets each year. Politically, he is being challenged by more progressive approaches being considered by the city council. But business and neighborhood groups seem interested primarily in keeping the homeless out of sight (if not out of town), and with each year the percentage of Seattle voters that can imagine themselves forced by a medical or other life crisis into such desperate straits is shrinking further. Property values are trumping empathy.

When grass roots advocates were shut out of elected office in past decades, civic leaders like Santos emerged not by seeking office, but by leading constituencies who didn’t have the numbers, money, or influence to aim that high. But they were representing people who were shut out of power but still living in Seattle. It’s hard even to galvanize a movement supported by people struggling to makes ends meet, many of whom already have one foot out the door.

Much as the effects of climate change are already irreversible and talk is now of mitigation, Seattle’s class war has already been decided. The rich people won. The fight now is to determine whether anyone else can stay here at all.

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