Seattle Transit Blog Post: Single Family Backlash

Home sweet home?

Over at Seattle Transit Blog, what started out as a rallying cry for supporters of smart growth, density, and transit to consider whether reforming elections and government rapidly became a discussion about the sacred form, single family.

Seattle is a town that is full of people who are progressives and environmentalists who think nothing of calling a developer “greedy” for turning a parking lot into a mixed use building. But when someone dares to call out the financial interests of single family homeowners, then lots of people show up to cry foul.

There are two examples of the hew and the cry. First, is the “apartment dwellers can be NIMBYs too” and the worry about “demonizing” single family residents.

As others have noted, this “single family homeowners are the enemy” approach is absurd, pointless, and ultimately self-defeating. The enemy are NIMBYs. Some apartment dwellers are NIMBYs and many single-family homeowners are supporters of greater density.

The thing is I have never said, anywhere, that “single family homeowners are the enemy.” I’ve simply stated that there are financial interests the lie behind opposition to growth and new development. That’s important, because too often opponents of new projects are cast as honest citizens with no financial axe to grind. That isn’t the case typically.

I really appreciated commenter Same who chose to ask the question rather than flailing his arms about wildly.

Is a pro-TOD individual who chooses to live in a single family suburban neighborhood that isn’t, and never will be, zoned for TOD, and he frequently lectures others about the value of TOD and density, an us or a them?

Yes, Sam, you’re in. You are us.

That’s the hew, now here’s the cry.

As long as you urbanists keep pushing this “density uber alles” idea where life elbow-to-elbow; no cars; no kids etc. is the morally superior way to live – you’re going to get blowback. And deservedly so.

The problem with this comment is that my post and my effort to stir up dialogue about reform never assumed a juggernaut of finger wagging density nannies descending like the plague on Seattle’s neighborhoods, singing hymns and waving copies of the Growth Management Act.

Single family people are very sensitive about the choice of where they live. That’s fine. I would love to live in single family too. Many people would. But we have to start shifting our norms away from that form and toward courtyards, cottages, and multifamily. That doesn’t mean a person is evil for living in a bungalow and owning a car.

Rod N commented with concern and a question:

I love the Seattle Transit Blog. I love choo-choo transportation. I love good bus service. I always vote for the aforementioned.

But, GASP. I love my smallish 1949 rambler on a 5000 square foot lot. I love my annual vegetable garden. I hate kids running around a condo/townhouse, shaking the floor. I am an old mo-fo. What’s a mother to do?

Yes, mother, you can keep your house. Just keep voting for transit and people on your city council that will take bold votes on land use, even if your own financial interest and comfort get pinched.

My point in debriefing my post is to remind that this is a fight, but its mostly an internal fight. Nobody wants to face the brunt of anger or misunderstanding. The truth is that it isn’t people living in bungalows that are the enemy, it is our own reticence to tackle tough problems when it means challenging people’s comfort in having right ideas, but bad practices.

Everyone is afraid of change. People have worked hard to get what they have, and change often seems like it puts that work and investment at risk. Sometimes it does. But this fight is about the future, not about whether you live in a walk up or on a farm. It means we have to work together so we can change the way we live so that it is more sustainable.

Lastly, I have heard people repeat something I heard a lot from my days as Tabacco Tsar: you can’t tell people how they should live!

Really? Think about that for awhile. What argument for social and political policy worth listening to doesn’t call for a change in lifestyle? It’s precisely the fear of asking for change or diminishing the importance of that change that has us where we are: believing that transit and density is for those people over there, not for me. Until we recognize that we’re in this together, we’re not going to make the big changes we need.

Oddly, sometimes, that requires calling out our differences and, yes, even disagreeing with each other. I’ll give the last word here to the appropriate eponym Lack Thereof who was arguing with (yes, Seattle that’s OK) Joanna :

Your restrictive zoning is pricing me out of the damn city. Our shortage of affordable rental units is EXTREME. I make 22,000/yr. last year 10,200 of that went to rent, in what is (from what I can tell) the absolute cheapest 2 bedroom apartment in the city. And my rent went up on January 1st.

I don’t care if I have to share a wall, or a roof, or whatever. I want a garden, but I’ll give it up because I NEED HOUSING. With our shortage, any new units that get built in city limits are renting for 2-3x what I pay in my old triplex.

I LIVE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD, JOANNA. I am a real person, and I am suffering at the hands of people with your mindset.


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2 Responses to Seattle Transit Blog Post: Single Family Backlash

  1. Pingback: More thoughts on density, procedure, and neighborhood opposition « City Block

  2. Pingback: They Call it Democracy | Seattle's Land Use Code

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