Are “Progressive” Homeowners Really Progressive?

by on October 1, 2019

Shaun Scott, Seattle Council District 4

Seattle Election Tests Homeowner Priorities

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have all called for an end to exclusionary single-family home zoning.  People’s Action did the same in its “A National Homes Guarantee.” Momentum is building to end these elitist and often racist apartment bans, a key step toward increasing urban affordability.

When my book—- Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America— came out last November it challenged exclusionary zoning. At the time I got little positive reaction from progressives. Today, few can dispute urbanist Henry Kraemer’s recent assessment that ending exclusionary zoning is an essential “cornerstone” of a progressive consensus on housing.

But one major hurdle remains: electing opponents of exclusionary housing in local district races. This is where politicians fear that backing the legalizing of new apartments in single-family home neighborhoods will cost them homeowner support. These are also the races that decide whether exclusionary zoning survives and other land use changes are made.

In the dozen blue cities discussed in Generation Priced Out,  “progressive” homeowners often oppose building apartments in or anywhere near their neighborhoods. These “progressives” may love AOC, Medicare for All, and a tax on billionaires but locally they favor candidates committed to keeping the non-wealthy and tenants out of their single-family home neighborhoods.

Minneapolis was able to end exclusionary zoning in December 2018 because it elected Lisa Bender and other council members committed to that goal. Austin’s 2018 district races is the only other recent example I can think of where zoning reform was a major issue and the pro-density slate won (it could also happen in Boulder and Cambridge this November). Culver City obtained a pro-density council majority in November 2018 via citywide voting.  Candidates opposing exclusionary zoning have won  district races but typically not in major homeowner areas where zoning reform was a top issue.

Overall, voters in citywide and state elections are rallying to back housing. It’s the district races where “progressive” homeowners put preserving exclusionary zoning first.

Seattle’s November 2019 District 4 Council race illustrates this dynamic. This election, which could swing the city’s politics in a more urbanist, pro-housing direction,  offers a powerful example of  how “progressive” homeowners prioritize issues in local races. Many are backing  a more conservative candidate because they back exclusionary zoning, notwithstanding opposition to this policy from the national left.

Shaun Scott’s D4 Campaign

Seattle’s District 4 features renters and homeowners, the University of Washington, and has seen some the city’s biggest fights over bike lanes and transit. Homelessness is also a major issue in the race. (Disclosure: I donated $50 to Scott’s primary campaign)

Shaun Scott is an African-American democratic socialist who has been a union member for most of his adult life. He is running against Alex Pedersen, a former legislative aide and housing consultant.

Scott is an outspoken opponent of exclusionary zoning. He connects it to the Green New Deal. Scott’s platform states: “Working people who can’t find affordable housing near their jobs drive long distances to work and back, pumping carbon emissions into the air. Seattleites of color who live near freeways and major arterials inhale most of the exhaust…. The Seattle City Council could correct our current zoning code, which makes apartment buildings illegal in 75 percent of the city, and build public housing developments that comply with green LEED certifications.”

In a December 2018 interview Scott emphasized, “At this point if somebody doesn’t believe in the hard data around the negative impacts of single-family zoning, it’s tantamount to denying that racism exists and it’s tantamount to being a climate denier.”

In contrast, Pederson prefers keeping the exclusionary zoning status quo. Petersons states, “Before making additional dramatic changes to zoning, I believe it would be prudent for our city government to collect and assess the ‘before and after’ data on the impacts of the new Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) legislation. This could include the quantity and location of new affordable housing production, the displacement / movement of existing residents and businesses, crime statistics, traffic / transit impacts, protection of historical structures, school capacity, tree canopy quantity/quality, impacts on workers, etc.”

Pedersen wants to study a lot of data before ending elitist and racist exclusionary zoning. It’s a process that will take years and may even be never ending.

Pedersen is also critical of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) and its Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) programs, both of which I tout in Generation Priced Out.  He described HALA as “former Mayor Ed Murray’s backroom deal for real estate developer upzones,” showing his opposition to programs using neighborhood upzoning to increase affordability.The MHA is expected to add 6000 affordable units.

Pedersen was enthusiastically endorsed by the Seattle Times, the nation’s most anti-housing, aggressively pro-exclusionary zoning big city newspaper. According to Crosscut, Pedersen was the “most conservative” of the ten candidates in the August primary.

The Seattle Transit Blog candidate ratings deemed Scott “excellent” and Pedersen “poor.” Pedersen opposed the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure (which passed and funds major mass transit improvements) and another transit proposal on the grounds that it spent too much on bike lanes.

Alex Pedersen is to the right of every member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Yet he has won the endorsement of some prominent “progressives” in the district, including some big backers of Sanders, Warren and AOC.

Pedersen secured that “progressive” support by vowing to keep new apartments  out of their neighborhoods. And not just new market rate housing; neighborhoods in cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles with large homeless numbers use exclusionary zoning to keep shelters and any affordable housing out as well.

National progressive leaders have attacked such elitist and racist exclusionary zoning but Pederson’s support for such policies could bring him victory in Seattle.

Pedersen the Frontrunner

Pederson finished first in the August primary, beating Scott by roughly a 40% to 23% margin. But third place finisher Emily Myers is a solid progressive who got 13%; her votes will overwhelmingly go to Scott.

So Scott has a chance. It would be better if Seattle did not have off-year local elections, as that would boost student turnout in D4.  Generation Priced Out urges cities to align local races with state and national to prevent the low-turnout off year races that empower older white homeowners and disempower students, renters and voters of color. Boston again proved the folly of these off-year elections when the city has an 11% turnout last week.

Seattle’s August turnout was 43%, far below its November 2018 70%. If Scott can get a high enough student turnout to offset the high turnout “progressive” homeowners siding with his opponent, he could win.

A Scott victory would be a major breakthrough for Seattle’s efforts to end exclusionary zoning. And hopefully help end homeowner’s belief that they can be political “progressives” while supporting racist and elitist land use policies. I

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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