Racist in Seattle: What the Country Can Learn From the Region's Shifts

Ten years ago this spring, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) making it easier for historically white enclaves to remove the racial covenant language out of their property deeds.

The victory was achieved thanks to the efforts of active homeowners and the uncovering of the biased history of zoning by University of Washington professors' and students' Civil Rights and Labor History Project. Unfortunately, a decade later, the racial covenant legacy of segregation and economic opportunity gaps are not so easily erased from the city and region, as seen in the recent report "Growth & Equity."

What can the rest of the country learn from this region's move to shift its racist legacy? Cities all over the country are facing challenges of homelessness and housing affordability at the same time they are wrestling with what compliance with HUD's affirmatively furthering fair housing means. The case of Seattle illustrates what is at stake.

The exclusion of African-American residents from certain economic opportunities and neighborhoods in Seattle was comprehensive, systemic and institutional from the federal government's post-war home loan program down to the restrictive codes written into the Shoreline neighborhood of Innis Arden.

Consider this portion of a deed for a Broadmoor property from 1928:

No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race, and the party of the second part his heirs, personal representatives or assigns, shall never place any such person in the possession or occupancy of said property...excepting only employeees(sic) in the domestic service on the premises of persons qualified hereunder as occupants and users and residing on the premises.

Of the 416 catalogued racially restrictive covenants, covering thousands of homes, most were written by real estate developers and larger landowners. This is land that had originally been held in the care of Duwamish, and other first nations.

Just as historically exclusive policies and culture shaped the city today, there is also the necessity to institute policies and cultural norms that can shape the future. Seattle has an opportunity to address how the city will grow over the next 20 years with the update of the Comprehensive Plan. But for the plan to be successful, it is critical to incorporate a clear assessment of today's current conditions, and the historically excluded must be part of shaping the plan.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013 Seattle's non-Hispanic white population increased slightly from 62.5 percent to 67 percent in on year. Puget Sound Sage's 2012 report, "Transit Oriented Development That is Healthy, Green & Just", shows that while the city's overall white population increased nearly 6 percent, in the Rainier Valley the white population increased by 17 percent.

During the same period, Martin Luther King, Jr. County's white population decreased by 13,500-- a drop of nearly 2 percent. At the same time, the population of people of color increased by 47 percent. By 2025 the aging population will double, and those living in poverty will more than double.

Some may argue that building more high-end apartments designed for retirees or upscale singles can contribute to increasing affordability in the city through a trickle down. Yet, recent fair housing testing shows there are many barriers still in play that prevent luxury apartments to be any solution to addressing affordability and inclusive growth in our city.

However, there are ways that could make Seattle a fair and affordable city for many. Ensure that local and regional Comprehensive Plan is centered on racial equity can leverage transportation, housing, and economic development investments and remove the lingering marks of the systemic and institutional racism that marred the city, state and nation.

A recent regional survey by the branding company, Heart & Mind Strategies, revealed that 8 out of 10 respondents say growth is inevitable, should be planned and prepared for, and are concerned that regional planning is falling short in addressing transportation, affordability, and inequality.

As Seattle moves closer to adopting the 20-year Comprehensive Plan, we must include several elements. First, there needs to be a strong race and social justice framework with clear implementation and evaluation strategies.

Next, the city needs to set measurable goals and policies that improve outcomes and narrow disparities for all Seattle residents. Lastly, city officials need to name concrete short-term mitigation strategies to prevent displacement of residents and businesses and partner with communities of color, low-income households, immigrant and refugee communities, youth and elders to ensure everyone benefits from growth.

To that end, leaders from historically redlined communities have identified six catalyst projects that should be included in the comprehensive plan for investment and action in the first 10 years of the 2035 plan, and are highlighted in Got Green and Puget Sound Sage's recent report, "Our People, Our Planet, Our Power".

Seattle is already advancing anti-displacement and sustainable growth strategies. Seattle for Everyone is a growing coalition of affordable housing developers and advocates, for-profit developers and businesses, labor and social justice advocates, environmentalists and urbanists supporting growth with inclusion as part of the Mayor's comprehensive housing affordability and livability agenda.

Moving deeply into the 21st century, Seattle has the opportunity to shed its shameful, racist housing history. Looking to the future, with specific and deliberate action, this is a city and region that can move from all white to all one and be an example for the rest of the nation.

Rebecca Saldaña is Executive Director of Puget Sound Sage and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.