The economic boom affecting the Emerald City is ruining Seattle as we know it. Here’s how we can change that.
In May, Dan Savage wrote, “Demanding a halt to the macroeconomic forces that are reshaping/destroying the city isn’t realistic or achievable.” It sure looks like he’s right.
Savage had said, “We are powerless to ‘save’ Capitol Hill” and that folks being driven from the city by rising housing costs should just stop complaining, move to more distant neighborhoods and lobby for public transportation which could arrive in a decade.
In the meantime, they can just commute ninety minutes each way to their low paying jobs.
The truth is that Seattle’s dramatic transformation is radically affecting the quality, affordability and style of life here for nearly everyone. We’re amidst a huge boom, largely driven by Amazon but expanding as more Silicon Valley companies join the San Francisco-ization of our Emerald City.
According to The Seattle Times, “In 2014, King County smashed a 24-year-old record for the number of newcomers – and we’re on pace to set a record again in 2015…off to the fastest start of any year yet.”
Traffic’s evolved into a huge mess – into, out of and across the city. Housing and rental costs are rapidly increasing, forcing many people away and making moving difficult. Homelessness is up 21 percent from last year. Amazon’s hiring of white males is raising the city’s 2010 ranking from the fifth whitest nationally; The Seattle Times just reported, “King County is the whitest of the nation’s 20 most-populous counties.” As many of these men move into the new, pricier developments on Capitol Hill, they’re driving out the gay community and contributing to an increase in hate crimes. It’s also making straight dating more and more difficult and growing the prostitution industry.
The Biggest Problem
The biggest problem here is that neither construction companies nor the corporations driving them are being asked to invest in public transit or significantly fund programs that support lower income folks struggling against rising costs. Nor is there any realistic vision or framework for implementing rent control or requiring effective development of affordable housing.
The City Council itself is politically divided and somewhat restricted legally in addressing these problems to sustain the quality of life here. Worse yet, the Washington State Legislature is nearly completely broken politically. Its Democratic leaders remain more representative of corporations, such as Microsoft and Boeing, than of citizens; while the Republicans remain shifted deeply, dysfunctionally to the right. The recent state Supreme Court’s requirements to reform the education system have been met by a scrapped together, last-minute budget without any reform to our tax system which remains the most regressive nationwide. State schools chief Randy Dorn called the Legislature’s budget “unconstitutional” and asked the Court to act against it.
Community conversation around these issues is scarce. Local public radio station KUOW mostly streams national shows, incessant ads and funding requests, and bizarre BBC newscasts for England. Management of Westlake Park, where many public gatherings and marches begin, has been assigned to a private company which plans to regulate activist speakers into a tiny corner.
Many of the technologists Amazon has hired reflect Jeff Bezos’ libertarianism. The Seattle Weekly recently reported, “The little f*ckers don’t vote.” This is true of Bezos as well, who chooses mostly to make annual PAC donations. And, Amazon PR almost never comments on anything publicly, staying quiet as government remains aimless, ineffective, and out of the way of the company and its real estate developers.
Savage‘s points are largely true. The quality of life in Seattle has already declined drastically the past few years and will get significantly worse by 2020. However, I disagree with him saying “bitching, moaning, and slapping up…posters…is a waste of time.” Let’s review the most significant problems and discuss what we need to do to restore the city’s greatness and prepare it for the future.
Traffic and Gridlock
Seattle’s status as a world-class city now extends to its traffic. Studies rate the city fourth worst nationally. From 2011 to 2013, average I-5 commutes from Federal Way to Seattle have increased from 57 to 69 minutes, and from Everett to Seattle from 62 to 80 minutes. The Seattle Times reports the average commuter is delayed 23 minutes daily, or 89 hours a year.
Furthermore, Amazon’s massive growth and construction in South Lake Union has created huge congestion in the heart of the city. Amazon’s now on track to occupy roughly 10 million square feet – that’s 25% – of the city’s premium office space. Cheezburgr President Scott Moore told GeekWire, “Traffic has become intolerable over the past year in the Mercer corridor.” Columnist Danny Westneat writes, “It’s terrible…if you have to pass through Amazonia,” and GeekWire’s John Cook adds it’s “…as difficult these days as bushwhacking jungle in Brazil…it’s getting to the point where you can’t really move around this city.”
If you think the problems in the city today are bad now, Amazon’s local headcount will likely be two to three times larger within five years; it’s acquired office space here for up to 71,500 employees. And the company’s made no comments about investing in public transit or supporting the regulation of housing costs.
Currently, Seattle ranks twelfth nationally for public transportation, providing less than half of San Francisco’s trips per capita. Last year, Seattle dropped to 13th place in our most bikeable cities.
As Bertha, our failed multi-billion dollar tunnel digger for cars, sits idly above ground, the only positive transit change coming is the light rail extension from Westlake to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington. Sadly, the streetcar that will run above ground on Capitol Hill is pathetically built to sit in traffic with cars.
Housing Costs and Demand
Grist recently counted 75 construction cranes in downtown Seattle, many of which belong to developers building beyond basic zoning rules by paying the city small fees to avoid having to integrate any affordable housing units.
Given all the corporate job growth and new residents, rents are rising faster than anywhere in the country except Denver. The Capitol Hill Blog reports that Seattle rents increased 8.3 percent last year and 12 percent on Capitol Hill. Zillow says Seattle rents are up 5.8 percent already in 2015, to an average of $1,850 per month. In a number of cases, landlords have pushed out tenants by increasing rents from 50 to 150 percent. Median home prices have reached $500,000 in King County, up 19% since March 2014.
Not surprisingly, finding an apartment within the city is extremely competitive. One friend whose sister found her a mother-in-law apartment had to compete with fifty other applicants.
Many people have had to flee to distant neighborhoods further from their jobs, which is what Dan Savage encouraged. The Seattle Times reports others are moving even further: to Pierce County, Shoreline, and Everett.
Housing costs may also have driven the dramatic increase in homelessness found recently: “At least 3,772 men, women, and children were without shelter during the three hour street count,” 21 percent more than last year. Some of these people sleep on the sidewalks near Bill Gates’ foundation while he remains more interested in eradicating polio far away.
Diversity, Wealth Gap and Culture
As I wrote in “You’ve Got Male,” Amazon is predominantly hiring men. As a result, Seattle is increasingly male, impacting city culture and making the straight dating scene (and the lesbian dating scene I’m told) increasingly challenging. My reporting spawned a number of follow-ups, the most popular being, “Amazon is Killing My Sex Life” by Tricia Romano. Later she tweeted, “Further proving @reifman’s thesis about too many men in Seattle — Waiting for bus to Amazonia: 7 dudes and me,” which reflects the time I found myself in a coffee shop with 18 men and just one woman.
Recently, an Amazon employee tweeted a photo of her group playing its annual kickball game; almost all were men.
In “Broverwhelmed: Gender Disparity in Seattle,” Kathryn Robinson wrote that the culture within the company and around South Lake Union can be pretty negative. Crosscut’s Knute Berger recently suggested Amazon’s dominant male employee base might be what’s driving “Seattle’s sex industry[‘s] … explosive period of growth.”
In their diversity disclosures, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook report about 85 percent men in their technology divisions. I heard a rumor that Amazon’s is closer to 95 percent but the company refuses to disclose this or its racial makeup. In “‘Amageddon’: How Amazon’s culture is taking a toll on Seattle’s future,” I quoted the Rainbow PUSH Coalition calling the company’s reports, “…intentionally deceptive.” Last month, founder Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized the company for having an all-white board of directors.
Generally, growth in a city leads to diversity in culture and the arts, but Seattle is becoming more homogenous, filling with white male technologists as artists, minorities and those with lower incomes are pushed out. Both The Seattle Times and The Stranger have criticized Amazon for failing to participate philanthropically in the community and the arts. Columnist Danny Westneat asked, “Once you can’t get on the bus anymore because it’s filled with badges, you do start to wonder: Are we a city or an office park?”
To Amazon’s credit, it pays its new employees significantly more than the average Seattle resident. As Capitol Hill’s buildings are quickly torn down and rebuilt, rents increase, and Amazonians can afford to move in while many in the established gay community there have had to move out.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is part of a growing culture clash which The Seattle Times’ Romano wrote about in detail. There’s been a rise in hate crimes against the LGBT community which Bloomberg recently attributed to the growing technology scene. Artist John Criscitello began running an activist campaign against these changes which is what garnered both applause and critique from Savage.
While I agree with Savage that these changes appear unstoppable, his criticism of the enthusiasm behind Criscitello’s efforts dismayed me and others. Ultimately, he came around, “Pointing to the harm being done by those forces and demanding policies to mitigate those harms is realistic and achievable.”
In addition to Criscitello’s art, there’s been a couple of satirized versions of Amazon’s recruiting video about life in Seattle:
Said Romano of Capitol Hill: “Luxury apartment buildings … with one-bedrooms that rent for more than $4,500, seem to open weekly, filling up with more affluent residents, many of them tech workers. Once the province of the starving artist, a fifth of the neighborhood’s households now make more than $100,000 a year. In 2000, only one in 17 crossed that six-figure threshold…”
Growing affluence has filled city traffic with BMWs, Audis, Teslas and Porsches, but has not been equally distributed. The wealthy are getting wealthier and the lowest 20 percent of earners have seen their incomes decline during our economic “recovery”. We see these class divisions in stark relief in the almost weekly gun violence and killings in the Central District, just minutes from the remodeled Ferrari dealership. Burglary has grown too, reaching a record number of robberies last summer on Capitol Hill (my house was robbed as well.)
The Emerald City’s Environment and Climate
Amidst all these changes, we’re not taking much action to preserve our beautiful environment or join the fight against climate change. In February, Reuters reported Puget Sound’s orca population was at 80, “down from 98 in 1995 and well over 200 in the 19th century.” The state’s Department of Ecology reports they are “… among the most PCB-contaminated mammals on earth. Puget Sound harbor seals are seven times more contaminated.” This may be related to our poorly regulated development.
There were near historically low levels of snowfall in the mountains this winter as skiing and snowboarding in the region barely happened. The month of June set city heat records. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wrote about these changes, “For starters, brown does not fit an emerald city,” calling “…every homeowner’s lawn…the color of a baked potato.”
How to Lead the City Into a Brighter Future
All of us as residents need to force a change in conversation and dialogue. It’s time to speak out against the outrageousness of corporate passivity and government ineffectiveness on these issues. I encourage you to raise conversations about these issues with your acquaintances, friends and employers — not just those that agree with you but everyone.
One of the most positive developments I’ve seen is the diversity and energy of candidates in the new City Council races organized primarily by district. Kshama Sawant’s leadership on wages and housing costs has been powerful and we need more candidates like her willing to lead on reforming the focus and operation of government.
Here are the three most important issues that we need to act on:
1) First, we need to invest deeply in public transit across the city including light rail, bicycle networks and ride sharing. The Legislature just funded $15 billion in highway projects with our regressive tax system while leaving $16 billion for public transit to be approved or rejected by voters. The City similarly plans a minor $930 million transit levy for later this year. It’s time to challenge both bodies to restore the quality of life in Seattle by reforming our tax system and aggressively funding massive public transit. The state has allowed our tax system to languish for years as what Rep. Ross Hunter called, “…one of the worst tax codes in America” and it’s time to demand it be redesigned, now. Within the city, aggressive development fees (also called linkage fees) must be assessed on all recent, current and future development to fund appropriate expansion of transit systems. I’d also support retroactive assessments on developers and corporate beneficiaries who’ve managed to avoid significant fees over the past five years of massive construction.
2) Second, the City needs to regulate the rapid increase in rental costs and require ongoing development of affordable housing as part of new residential developments. Linkage fees should support the city’s low-income housing programs but developers should also be required to include a portion of low-income units within every new building. Such a plan would support diversity and integration across the city. Furthermore, landlords should be required to comply with restricted rental increases for a portion of their apartments. This will maintain affordable rental capacity for more tenants.
3) Third, we need to encourage Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, Google and Facebook to collaborate on bringing more women and minorities into their expanding businesses. The City can establish fees on real estate developers and more profitable corporations to fund programs and scholarships that give underserved groups technology experience as kids. As the State reforms the tax system, it can fund scholarships at the university level.
In January, Intel announced it would apply $300 million internally to encourage diversification and in March, Apple said it donated $50 million for diversity programs and scholarships. It’s time for us to push our Puget Sound technology companies to take bold actions together.
Conversely, it’s time to condemn Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ lack of concern for the well-being of local residents and its passive exploitation of the city and state governments’ ineffectiveness. It’s also time for us to encourage our own employers to step forward and direct reforms. Just because Amazon is silent doesn’t mean that smaller business leaders can’t lead conversations for change. Keep in mind, Bezos’ company is wrecking our city for employees who he typically burns out in one to two years before they leave for replacements. Amazon’s using Seattle as a vessel for profit — unconcerned about the health and diversity of our city.
In his transit piece, Westneat appropriately asked, “Will government leaders get their acts together and figure out how to provide services with all this growth?” Not unless we begin demanding that they do. It’s time to reject the dysfunctional leadership in the Legislature and inaction of the City Council. It’s time they shift their focus from the desires of corporations and their lobbyists and begin focusing on sustainability and quality of life for Seattle residents.
Savage was right to highlight the ongoing drastic negative impacts on our city but he was wrong to overlook the need for empathy over the harm to existing residents and their demand it stop now. While he did acknowledge he plans to remain in his Capitol Hill mansion advocating for future reform, he made sure to mention that, “Gold’s Gym is so overrun with straight boys these days that [he’s] pretty sure we’re going to get pushed out of Seattle’s ‘gay gym’ pretty soon.” Instead, perhaps it’s time for him to interrupt the workouts of all those Amazon men to ask them to tell Jeff Bezos to start leading investments in restoring the health, diversity and mobility within our city.