Upzoning and Displacement in Seattle

Seattle is a prosperous city with a robust job market. But it also has a long history of racial segregation and discrimination whose legacy still restricts Black residents from sharing fully in its opportunities.
Mar 3, 2022
Andre Perry
Andre Perry
Senior Fellow
Brookings Metro
Stuart Yasgur
Stuart Yasgur
Economic Architecture

Racist policies long excluded Black workers from good jobs in Seattle. For example, Boeing and the union that represented its workers long maintained white-only hiring policies, even when labor was in high demand, relaxing them only under intense pressure from the federal government during World War II.

Schools remained segregated through the civil rights era, prompting organized school boycotts in 1966. Restrictive covenants preventing prospective Black homeowners from buying homes in certain areas of Seattle were on the books until 1968. Starting with Seattle’s first zoning laws in 1923, zoning was designed to keep large areas of Seattle priced beyond the reach of Black homebuyers. A 1964 ballot measure would have outlawed racial discrimination in selling or renting housing, but it was rejected by voters.

These policies erected a formidable set of obstacles that prevented Seattle’s Black residents getting a quality education, earning a good living, or living where they chose. The effects continue to reverberate today. One of them is the continued overwhelming prevalence of detached single-family homes in Seattle, and a dearth of multi-family housing. Today, 75% of Seattle’s land is zoned for single-family homes, which comprise 81% of the city’s housing.

That makes Seattle inherently resistant to recent City policies designed to encourage more diverse neighborhoods. “Given its racist origins, [Seattle’s] single-family zoning makes it impossible to achieve equitable outcomes within a system specifically designed to exclude low-income people and people of color,” the research institute PolicyLink wrote.

On the other hand, phasing out single-family zoning in Seattle is a politically fraught proposition. One 2015 commission report that toyed with the idea was leaked to the press and caused a firestorm of opposition. But in 2019, in an attempt to mitigate the zoning problem, the City went ahead and upzoned certain single-family areas to multi-family.

This had unintended consequences, however. It made the rezoned land more valuable, which attracted more speculation, fueled gentrification, and raised property taxes. This happened despite the City imposing Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements on upzoned areas. MHA mandates that new development must include affordable housing units or contribute to an affordable housing fund. But it doesn’t change the basic structural impetus upzoning gives to gentrification, or the negative side-effects of making land more valuable and taxes higher.

Since relatively few Black residents are in a position to benefit from higher land values by redeveloping their properties as multi-family residences, upzoning ironically threatens to force them out of the very areas where the City sought to redress discrimination. That’s why the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE) is fighting it, despite upzoning’s good intentions. As SCALE’s Toby Thaler said, “If you goose gentrification, you’re not going to get homeownership for poor people in the city.”

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