Are you a renter? Under 35? Have you applied to join one of the HALA focus groups, yet? No?
Stop reading now, download this form, fill it out, turn it in. Get your ass on one of these focus groups.
I know what you’re initial thought is: 5-10 hours per month is a lot. I promise, it isn’t that bad. There is a good chance that’s even an over-estimation, and a lot of it is reading emails and documents. They say reading before bed is better than watching NintendoCapriSun on YouTube – so there you go.
So why should you apply – particularly if your young, a renter, a person of color, LGBTQ, and especially if you’re of modest means? Because our voices matter, and otherwise will not be heard. Nearly a quarter of Seattle’s population is aged 18-34. Renters are actually the majority of residents – 51.9%. And while there are those that view us renters as “transients” moving in and out of neighborhoods, the actual data does not support that notion, with 77.4% of Seattle residents having lived in the same home for over a year.
Historically marginalized communities and people who know poverty first-hand have not traditionally been part of the power structure in Seattle. While the current city council is a step in the right direction, committees, commissions, and focus groups like the HALA focus groups can and will have a significant impact on the legislation that makes its way through council, particularly with respect to where we build more housing, and what tenant protections our all-homeowner council will fight for.
While I know we all want to believe that our elected officials will do the right thing, the reality is that squeaky wheels get the grease. If we do not participate and are not at the table for these types of groups, we won’t be heard, and worse, the concerns we have will be ignored. Re-election doesn’t just happen, and when council members have bases that are predominantly white homeowners who despise change in so-called “single family” zones, it is imperative for renters and folks living in multi-family and attached single-family residences to participate in the process.
There remains the human element, as well. It is a lot harder for many people to rail against young renters when they are seated at the same table. Granted, it still will happen, but the volume and harshness of attacks on young renters not only will be reduced when we are at the table, but we will be able to immediately counter with facts and anecdotes that disprove the notion perpetuated by some of the loudest voices in the room that we somehow do not matter, or should have little to no say in our city’s growth.
Looking at the broader picture, so often our city reacts to concerns from places like NextDoor (fun fact: I was booted from NextDoor for posting the tweet to the right there, but now I’m back on) and neighborhood associations that are overwhelmingly older and white. Anyone paying attention during the initial HALA roll-out back in July (Link) may recall that the outrage over potential changes to single-family areas was very loud. And the city relented very soon after, instead of trying to engage in constructive dialogue. Politics.
But the reality on the ground – at least from my perspective – was far from it. There were concerns, sure, but there was also a lot of misinformation (thanks to a very clumsy roll-out), and openness to new ways to provide affordable housing in Seattle. Notably, some neighborhoods in the north end were getting on board. Recognition that their children and grandchildren could not afford to live in the neighborhood because there just wasn't enough housing was one piece. Acknowledgement that detached single family and attached single family look, basically, the same was another. Folks knew that parking could be mitigated. While there were some that preferred to encase our city in amber, the majority of people I spoke with disagreed. I think it is also good to see the social justice element to changing zoning.
Something else that sparked debate in Seattle when the HALA recommendations were released were references in the report to redlining and racism that led to the segregation of our city. Of course many people currently living in north-end single family areas are not racist. But overt and inherent racism and classism are different things. Finding the line that connects current zoning to results that perpetuate institutional racism is wonky, but it is there. Redlining in Seattle was terrible - but African American families built a thriving community. After being told they were not welcome in many parts of our city, the Central District became the heart of this community. And now that is changing.
Much of the gentrification we are seeing in the Central District and Southeast Seattle is rooted in historical poverty and past racist zoning – wealthier, whiter neighborhoods can afford the time and expense to fight zoning changes, excluding new families from entering the north end. The historically black, historically neglected, and thus historically more affordable south end neighborhoods have not only become desirable (culturally awesome spots), but the only affordable option for younger, whiter individuals and families moving into and around in Seattle. And when we want to make changes that increase the cost of living or dramatically alter the feel of these communities to fit our white, heteronormative culture, families who have lived there for generations - forced there by racist zoning - do not have the same means to fight back, or even be offered a seat at the table to help craft the change in a mutually beneficial manner. This is where we can not only be allies, but accomplices in effectuating a change to the system that continues to perpetuate institutional racism and classism.
As Erica C. Barnett reported recently, most of the applicants for the HALA Focus Groups have been from a select few neighborhoods. I expect that the city will not just take the first applicants, but instead will focus on ensuring that there is an equitable balance of women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, low- and moderate-income residents, young people, and renters. But to ensure that equitable representation exists, we have to apply and be available.
I know that positive change can be made through these types of committees and groups. My years on the Parks Levy Oversight Committee included leading and supporting on directing funds to under-served parts of the city, and holding the Parks Department accountable to missteps. As a member of the Parks Legacy Committee, I was able to work with my fellow committee members on what I believe was the right prioritization for the six-year plan, as well as the right funding source to ensure that our parks and community centers have adequate funding for generations to come.
The direct impact from these focus groups is hard to ascertain. However, by showing up, we ensure not only our voices are heard, but also that groups currently ignored, or worse, rejected have a hand in shaping housing policy to bring more safe housing to our communities, as well as a hand in ensuring that tenants – the hardest hit group from the affordability crisis – are part of the solution, and not being told what is best for us, but leading on implementation of policies that protect our needs and rights to be part of this city.