We’re settling into spring. As the sun stays out longer, our evenings are getting busier. I took the above photo on my cell phone while I was walking alone in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood on the south side of the city Thursday after I got off work. The area has become tony and predominantly white with homes listing at the million-dollar and multi-million-dollar mark. But, that’s the story of so much of Seattle’s housing market these days—even for the most average-looking homes, sometimes with just two bedrooms and one bathroom.
I had ridden the bus south to the Mount Baker neighborhood from City Council Candidate Jon Grant’s campaign office in the International District. I was carrying a clipboard with a list of 50 addresses and the names of the folks who live there. My volunteer assignment was to walk to those doors and try to engage folks to talk about housing affordability and Jon Grant’s campaign (Here’s more about why I’m doing this). If I was lucky, I’d also convince folks to hand over their democracy vouchers for Grant on the spot.
I find this volunteer work so interesting—getting to see people in their homes, the way they live and learning what they care about and why. Nick is the complete opposite, he thinks it’s hilarious that I find this fun. To understand why he feels that way, you need to know Nick grew up Mormon in Utah, and from 2007 to 2009 he served on a two-year Mormon mission in eastern Ukraine (which is today riddled with violence and occupied by Russia). There, he spent every day walking door-to-door trying to convert people to Mormanism. He later left all religion, as we both have. Nick still carries trauma from being gay in a religion (like so many religions) that preached hatred and un-acceptance, even leading some gay folks to suicide.
(To clarify: I am using the phrase “Mount Baker neighborhood” instead of just saying “Mount Baker” because I don’t want you to confuse where I was. The actual Mount Baker is a mountain/volcano 134 miles northeast of Seattle and the Mount Baker neighborhood. The mountain can be seen from Seattle on a clear day–it’s huge.)
The Mount Baker neighborhood lives up to its mountain name in certain ways, as some of the homes can’t be reached from the front because the front yard is nearly vertical. All of Seattle really is just a series of hills! I was confused about how to even get to a door to talk to someone at some homes because I clearly couldn’t climb their front yard. Then I saw this sign (I removed the addresses from the photo):
The first door I could get to, a white woman in her 30s with arm tattoos and wearing exercise clothes, had to shout over her two large, barking dogs. Her shouting was friendly. She saw I was carrying a Jon Grant flyer and said, “Oh, Jon Grant?! Yeah, we’re 100% on board, my husband is working on the campaign!”
That was a good way to start the evening because not everyone would be so friendly. I spent about five minutes walking back down the street and around the corner to get to another ally to access another home with a vertical front yard.
“Hi!,” A middle-aged white woman said, smiling as she came out of her mother-in-law suite behind her house.
I was squinting because it was an unusually sunny evening. I had to hold my clipboard up to shade my face so I could even see her.
“Hi! My name’s Travis and I’m volunteering with a city council campaign. Have you heard of Jon Grant? He’s been fighting years for housing affordability and for folks who are being displaced by the rising cost of living. Do you know anyone impacted by this?”
She replied, “Oh yeah. We moved into this house 12 years ago and can’t even think about moving now, the market is way too expensive for us. We’re stuck here.”
I found that story over and over again as I moved through the neighborhood–folks who’ve lived in their houses for a decade or two, or five. They bought their home back when Seattle was a bit more liveable for the average person and now say they can’t consider moving because you have to have a different kind of wealth to do that. This is a very privileged dilemma, I’ll say. These folks have beautiful homes and beautiful lives, at least from the surface. About a mile away, there is a homeless camp next to the Interstate 90 onramp that is overflowing with more than 50 folks living in tents, or just outside in a sleeping bag, in the elements.
Out of 25 or so doors that I knocked on, I only met one black person. The rest were white. However, something that seems more prevalent in Mount Baker than other neighborhoods to the north are “Black Lives Matter” signs. I saw them in the front yards or in the front windows of more than 50% of the homes I walked past. Here’s one, with my shadow at the bottom:
I also saw houses with signs like these in the yard and on the front door:
I feel weird seeing these signs in such posh neighborhoods. I’m still trying to sort it out in my head. I like the sentiment, it’s important for the privileged to be vocal right now in support of marginalized folks. At the same time, the cost of living in this neighborhood, and most others in this city, is prohibitive to the most marginalized who these signs claim to support. That makes me feel even more passionately about forcing developers to cough up more money to create affordable housing in every neighborhood. I want to live to see a day where our communities have a chance to be less segregated, and more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, income, and profession.
The one black woman I talked with answered the door, but stayed behind the screen door. She was elderly and using an oxygen machine to breathe. She said a sweet, “Hello”, and listened to me talk about the campaign. When I asked her if she’d been affected by the skyrocketing cost of living, she said, “Oh yeah, and it’s too late to do anything to help. Just look at the way things are, just look. It’s way too late to do anything about it.”
She said she bought her house in the 1950s for $24,500. Today this same house would be listed at nearly $1,000,000, if not more. I didn’t pry too much, but I knew this woman had lived through hard times, if only because she lived through years when Seattle had laws that aimed explicitly to keep black folks from living in many areas of the city. It’s a practice referred to as “red-lining” and our city’s neighborhoods today are still very much defined by those laws, even though the laws were changed around 1960.
The website Curbed Seattle describes it this way:
“Back then, neighborhoods were color-coded based on potential credit risks they posed to homeowners. Green “best” and blue “still desirable” neighborhoods were the kinds of places white buyers would look to live. Red “hazardous” neighborhoods were noted because of high densities of African-American and other minority demographics and would therefore be considered discouraging at the time.”
Curbed Seattle continues by explaining how people of color were denied home loans—and this is important because it probably happened where you live too:
“Home Ownders’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) recruited mortgage lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers in nearly 250 cities to create maps that color-coded credit worthiness and risk on neighborhood and metropolitan levels. These maps and their accompanying documentation helped set the rules for nearly a century of real estate practice. They have also served as critical evidence in countless urban studies in the fields of history, sociology, economics, and law. Indeed, more than a half-century of research has shown housing to be for the twentieth century what slavery was to the antebellum period, namely the broad foundation of both American prosperity and racial inequality.“
This is what one of those maps looked like for Seattle in 1936. The area of the Mount Baker neighborhood I was walking in is in the red, near the bottom of D.5.:
Here’s a map from 1960 that shows where I was walking was close to the center of Seattle’s African American population:
A quick summary of where I stood: I was surrounded by multi-million dollar homes owned mostly by white folks. I was walking on land that in the 1800s belonged to the Duwamish people before white folks pushed them out in 1855. The pocket of the neighborhood I was in had been rated as “hazardous” in the 1930s, which at the time meant the area was predominantly African American.
By the 1960s and 1970s most of Mount Baker had become a neighborhood that was considered wealthy and increasingly “open” to both wealthy white folks who hung out in the nearby “Community Club” and all other folks, including African Americans. During that time, the Club’s board asked for the popular “dance club” to become open for all residents. Some people of color used this path to become activists, voicing their opposition to red-lining, among other issues. One of those activists from Mount Baker was Norm Rice who would go on to become Seattle’s first African American mayor in 1989.
I rounded out my evening, meeting a few more folks. At one house, a white man about my age offered me a glass of water and told me that he rents his home with four other young professionals in their early 30s. He told me he works at Seattle Children’s Hospital and that he’s been in Seattle for about five years. He says that even for him, the city is starting to feel unliveable. He’s looking to leave within the next year.
A few doors down, a couple in their late 70s invited me in because it was getting chilly outside and they wanted to sign the petition to get Jon Grant on the ballot for free. They told me they were both career public school teachers. In their retirement they live in a home they rent in Mount Baker because, I can only assume, they can’t afford to buy here.
There was one man who slammed the door in my face, not bothering to hear anything more out of my mouth than, “I’m a volunteer.”
There was a woman in her 60s whose friends were arriving for a book club in her living room. She didn’t give me more than two seconds, making it clear she didn’t see me as human but as an annoyance, like some sort of pop-up add on a website.
Still, the night ended on a high note as the last person I talked with gave me all four of his $25 democracy vouchers for Jon Grant.
Let me switch topics now and tell you that my parents are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary which is today April 23, 2017. They are in Jamaica today, as I type this. They only take a vacation this big, outside the country, once every couple of decades, so this is a special time for them. They still live in Norman, Oklahoma, where I grew up.
And, here are some of the headlines I’m seeing come across my phone on The Washington Post: