|Eastside Olympia in the midst of large downzone.|
As the legislature discusses zoning reform that would allow for modest density increases in exclusionary singe family neighborhoods, it is important to focus on the history of so-called “local control.”
The ability for local governments to determine their own zoning fate has become the primary argument against statewide zoning reform. But the history of neighborhood and city-scale decision-making (aka “local control) puts a sharp focus on housing discrimination and how we’ve excluded people from our communities.
When we discuss racist housing discrimination in the Northwest, we talk about racially restrictive covenants that flourished through the 50s and redlining during the 30s. We skip past the successful whisper campaign that sunk Seattle’s first attempt at an open housing ordinance in the mid-1960s, and head straight towards the Fair Housing Act and the state and local versions of the same law.
After that, our history tells us, housing discrimination has been against the law, and we’ve been slowly bending towards justice. Leftovers like exclusionary single family zoning are artifacts of time before the 1960s civil rights campaigns and are the high hanging fruit after years of struggle.
But when I think about housing discrimination in the Pacific Northwest, I usually start with the 1970s. That is when you see the term “downzone” show up in our regional press. Before that time, there was no single word for taking a neighborhood that was zoned for a mix of densities and only allowing single family zoning.
In response to the outlawing of outright housing discrimination, local governments turned to tools like downzoning to restrict growth and prevent the continued construction of housing that would be affordable across incomes. Exclusive single-family zoning began replacing higher density zoning across the region.
This era of downzoning after the Fair Housing Act begs for more historic understanding. As a community historian, I am most familiar with downzoning efforts in Olympia from the late 1970s to the 1990s. But in a cursory look at other western Washington communities, you can see the same pattern. I can trace stories of Individual neighborhoods starting in the 1970s lobbying for downzones from high density to middle density and any middle density options being chased out of neighborhoods in exchange for single family zoning.
I have done a fairly deep dive into the Olympia history of downzoning, which I’ve written about here. But with the debate over local control in the legislature, there is a need for a deeper understanding of how our communities reacted to the passing of strict housing discrimination laws and why so many decided to push to decrease densities.
There is a classic example on Queen Anne Hill where neighbors fought to downzone in the early 70s. Throughout the 1950s, the City of Seattle planned higher and higher densities in neighborhoods around downtown, including Queen Anne Hill. Just months after Seattle’s open housing ordinance went into effect, Queen Ann neighbors were at city hall, fighting for fewer neighbors to come to their streets.
In Olympia, the downzoning battle began on the Eastside in what is now one of the most exclusive single family neighborhoods. A developer proposed a series of fourplexes, but ended up igniting years of struggle, which resulted in a citywide reassessment of high and middle density housing. A few years later, neighbors of another inner, Eastside neighborhood, fought to further downzone their part of town to “stabilize” the neighborhood.
You can see similar examples across the country of communities picking up downzoning as a tool to implicitly preserve racial divisions when other methods became illegal. Arlington, MA (a Boston suburb) wrote its own history of downzoning, pointing out that before the 1960s, they zoned for plenty of apartments. But, according to a city-written FAQ: “…as segregation in greater Boston was challenged and integration became a real prospect across the region, Arlington’s attitude toward development shifted. Concerted opposition to development projects began in the 1960s and became more organized in the early 1970s. Activists used both explicit and coded anti-integration language to rally opposition to apartment development and the related effort to downzone portions of the town.”
Unlike earlier efforts in the Pacific Northwest, other than coded references to “ghettos,” our downzoning efforts are largely absent of on the surface racial animus. I’m not saying that these neighborhood activists weren’t trying to keep their neighborhoods white. In fact, I think you can draw a pretty clear conclusion to what many of them were up to. I’m just saying there isn’t anything clear in the historical record.
What I am saying is that you don’t have to look very far to see downzoning in the Pacific Northwest tied directly to the broader civil rights struggle. When you pull back out from these small-scale, downzoning efforts to a nationwide view, you see single family zoning being discussed in a much different way. When Pacific Northwest communities were downzoning, the NAACP was struggling to find inroads in the courtrooms to fight against exclusionary single family zoning.
HUD Secretary George Romney (and former Michigan governor) went to Warren, Michigan in 1970 to attempt to force the Detroit suburb to strike single family zoning and allow smaller, more affordable (and therefore affordable to racial minorities). His effort failed, his political career ended, and the civil rights organizations retrenched and fought unheralded courtroom battles over single family zoning in the Midwest, the South and the East Coast.
According to the NAACP, in the early 70s: the suburbs are “the new civil rights battleground” and we should do battle out in the townships and villages to lower zoning barriers and thereby create opportunities for Negroes seeking housing closer to today’s jobs at prices they can afford and pay.”
National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing (also in the early 1970s): segregation won’t stop until “local governments have been deprived of the power… to manipulate zoning and other controls to screen out families on the basis of income and, implicitly, of race.”
What we can say for sure, that our decreasing densities through downzones had very real impacts on the racial makeup of our neighborhoods.
In Seattle, the end result of five decades of downzoning is white-majority neighborhoods expanding across the city. One collection of blocks in the Leschi neighborhood went from over 90 percent black in the 1970s to 11 percent black today. The black population of King County was pushed south and out of Seattle as the white residents in downzoned neighborhoods looked for housing further and further south.
In Olympia (that never had a substantial racially diverse neighborhood like Seattle) neighborhoods that downzoned saw a smaller increase in racial diversity over the last 10 years. Not only did these neighborhoods stay whiter, in the middle of a historic housing crisis, these neighborhoods actually had fewer people living in them in 2020 than they did in 2010.
There are few open racists left. That is obviously an advancement in my lifetime.
You don’t have to be racist to benefit from racist outcomes and a racist system. There is a huge layer of people who will tell you they are not racist but participate in racist systems before you get to people working to dismantle racist systems.
We know the current landscape of dominant, exclusionary single family zoning in our region happened at the same time the last tools to legally and openly discriminate in housing were taken away. We also know the nation’s leading civil rights organization has actively worked against exclusionary single family zoning.
Our history is not at all unique, but we should keep in mind as the legislature takes another attempt at creating a minimum zoning standard for Washington State. Local control is the tool that low density neighborhoods used for five decades to sustain racially discriminatory impacts of city-scale zoning.