Is Your Single-Family Home Racist?

Creating a more equitable city is everyone’s challenge
| Updated: November 27, 2018
In our bi-monthly column, Knute Berger--who writes regularly for Seattle Magazine and and is a frequent pundit on KUOW--takes an in-depth look at some of the highly topical and sometimes polarizing issues in our city.

Is your single-family home racist?
Last week, a draft report from the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Living Agenda (HALA) created an uproar with the suggestion that single-family zoning be eliminated. In so doing, as Danny Westneat at The Seattle Times reported, it proposed to be addressing a fundamental problem of equity.

The draft said, “Seattle (single-family) zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability.”
There is no question that Seattle has experienced segregation, redlining and housing covenants that explicitly excluded blacks, Asians and Jews from many neighborhoods and developments. At one time, neighbors on Capitol Hill organized to put racial restrictions in their property deeds. That rationale was keeping out people who might lower property values. Seattle was also slow to support open housing, which wasn’t implemented until after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
But the statement in the report was incomplete and inflammatory. While racial and class inequality have been major factors in shaping the city, it is not a problem in single-family neighborhoods alone.
Racial and redlining restrictions also covered apartments, clubs and commercial areas. It factored in our response to handling massive growth. When the city boomed in the late 19th and early 20th century, Seattle turned to prison labor to help build the city. Chain gangs, notoriously heavy with the poor and minority prisoners, helped build and repair the city’s infrastructure. Prisoners cleared the land for the Jefferson park golf course, built drainage systems on Yesler Hill, prepped the streets for our first world’s fair, helped rebuild the city after the fire of 1889, and built roads in nearly every part of the city.
Even now, growth itself is racially charged: Amazon, largely responsible for the current jobs boom, has been criticized by Jesse Jackson and others for its employment of mostly white males. And even today renters of color are being discriminated against according to city inspectors who cited 13 apartment buildings from South Lake Union to Capitol Hill. “These test results are not isolated incidents —they demonstrate patterns of behavior that have profound impacts on people’s lives,” said Patricia Lally, director of the Office for Civil Rights.
Yes, race and its history is a problem, but it’s citywide and not the special preserve of the homeowner.
Someone at the city figured that out. In the final HALA report issued this week, the reference to “single-family” zoning was wisely removed, putting the focus back on the real issue. Creating a more equitable city is everyone’s challenge.