For a city well versed in the language of equity and inclusion, the residents of Seattle are once again failing to consider how those values translate into decisions. This is apparent, as it has often been in our history, in where we make space for people to live.
Today’s conversations about zoning often circle around “neighborhood character” and “preservation,” without ever mentioning that the “character” we’re protecting is tied directly to maintaining wealth and Whiteness. This is not new; the King County Recorder’s Office has hundreds of files that detail the racially restrictive covenants that kept and continue to keep Seattle segregated.
The consequences are also not new. In clinging to our regressive zoning, for whatever reason, we’re directly harming our Seattle Public Schools students. Though kids are rarely the focus of think-pieces and op-eds on this subject, we cannot separate where people can live from where kids go to school.
In clinging to our regressive zoning, for whatever reason, we’re directly harming our Seattle Public Schools students.
These are the facts:
● The majority of the city of Seattle is zoned for single-family housing and the public benefits captured within, such as parks.
● Most Seattle public schools are located within those single-family housing areas.
● Most Seattle families cannot afford a house in one of the city’s single-family zones.
These facts result in a difficult truth — one that is often lost in the theoretical debates over zoning laws — which is that, for parents of school-age students, renting, couch-surfing, homelessness or living outside of the district are the norm. The root cause isn’t a mystery — it’s a math problem.
The median home price hovers around $800,000 and is predicted to hit $1 million or more in two years. To afford that kind of home, a family must earn around $140,000 per year. The annual median income in Seattle is about $96,000 — and the actual regional household income is closer to $80,000.
Families are falling through that gap. During the 2016-2017 school year, we identified 4,280 students experiencing homelessness — 125 of whom were fully unsheltered. Unstable housing means unstable classroom time and massive burdens of transportation and scheduling. Students and families travel hours to get to schools, switch to other schools or districts mid-year and even rely on taxpayer-funded cabs to get to class.
During the 2016-2017 school year, we identified 4,280 students experiencing homelessness — 125 of whom were fully unsheltered.
Sightline, a progressive Seattle-based thinktank, identifies zoning as one of the leading indicators of segregation in our school districts. In a report, author Margaret Morales illustrates the point:
“Housing prices average over 20 percent more in neighborhoods surrounding the city’s top elementary schools...than in the city as a whole. In addition, these neighborhoods offer a lower proportion of rental units than the city average.”
This means that we’re creating a city — and a public school system — that is paid for by everyone, but serves only a few.
Single-family zoning also perpetuates racism and segregation. Seattle’s well-documented racial income gap is rooted in redlining and discrimination and in practices that gutted the historical wealth of the city’s Black and Brown families. Our wealthiest neighborhoods — the ones with the best schools — aren’t mostly White by accident. They are mostly White because we have used the law to keep them that way.
Single-family zoning also perpetuates racism and segregation.
The resentment toward multifamily housing is part of a storied tradition of exclusion. Using the borrowed ideals of a bygone time, today’s homeowners, who say they want a solution to homelessness so long as it’s not apartments and it’s not in their neighborhood, often inadvertently (or perhaps not) echo a 1926 Supreme Court decision wherein the complainants determined apartment homes to be a “parasite” and “nuisance” to the neighborhood.
Many homeowners never use those words, but they’ll still shake their heads at the idea of construction in their neighborhood. They’ll reject upzoning and dig in their heels at the mention of duplexes and triplexes. They’ll ask if there isn’t some other way — or some other place — to solve this.
But for the sake of Seattle’s kids, it’s time to ask a new question: Are the laws working for all of the city’s families? For the students sleeping in cars to be closer to school in the morning, the answer is “no.”
Zachary DeWolf sits on the Seattle Public School Board.
Check out the full Aug. 1 - Aug. 7 issue.
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