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NIMBY, YIMBY, or just plain classism in Seattle?

An older Craftsman house in Seattle sits next to a more modern addition to the street. (Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)

Seattle neighborhoods are at risk of changing over from 100-year-old single-family homes to giant box-style condos and apartments. The aesthetics alone have native Seattleites cringing. But they might be the same people irate over an increasing homeless population that’s demanding affordable housing.

Laura Loe Bernstein is a self-described international advocate for zoning changes in urban environments. You could also call her a YIMBY — Yes In My Backyard — a title that welcomes redevelopment of older city blocks to accommodate modern demands like affordable housing. It stands in opposition of NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — which protests new development in older neighborhoods, often with single-family homes.

She told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross that people living in older neighborhoods often consider themselves protectors of the area. They’ve lived in the neighborhood for 20-40 years, they pay their property taxes, they planted rose bushes, and raised their kids.

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“And they want future generations to have the exact same experience that they had with their families and their children,” Bernstein said. “They want the same exact amount of parking on the street, the same amount of traffic to the grocery store, the same amount of people in the public schools. They want to preserve this very specific lifestyle that they’ve had and they feel like they’re the self-appointed protector of that lifestyle.”

They’re not bad people and they’re likely also concerned about rising rents for people living in apartments, so how does someone like Bernstein reconcile?

“I think that they’re fighting a symbolic, misguided battle,” Bernstein said. “Their hearts, many of them, are in the right place, but they’re not zooming out and seeing that the same thing is happening in Seattle as every growing city.”

Bernstein points to a group of neighbors in Seattle’s Roosevelt-Ravenna neighborhood as an example. They want to create a historic district to help preserve an area of Craftsman homes. But she wants to know what makes that group of 50 homes any more historically significant than others like them in Seattle.

“Are we going to start preserving all of the Craftsman homes?” Bernstein asked. “A lot of them are 100 years old. There’s faulty wiring, there’s asbestos, there’s lead.”


So what do you do to create space in a growing city that’s mostly zoned for single-family homes? The question has created a NIMBY versus YIMBY debate in Seattle. Something has to bend and Bernstein believes it’s the 30-year Seattleite with the rose bushes.

Fort Lawton is a very pivotal moment in Seattle’s history … for NIMBY, YIMBY, PHIMBY (Public Housing In My Backyard),” Bernstein explained. “Fort Lawton is this distilling moment for many of us because you could see that some of these people that had long said ‘I don’t want luxury condos or luxury townhouses in my community, I only want affordable housing,’ (but) when it was time to place the affordable housing, all sort of people came together to fight it.”

“Elizabeth Campbell, the Laurelhurst Community Club way across town joined the lawsuit because their little plot of land that they consider their private park — the Talaris site/the conference center by Children’s Hospital — was used as an alternative site in the environmental study,” she said.

Bernstein explained that the study showed 238 low- and middle-income families could live on the grounds at Fort Lawton.

“And that just really scared them,” she said. “They don’t want poor people in their neighborhood. They would consider middle class people to be acceptable.”

It’s not about character of the neighborhood, parking or trees, but rather they’re excluding people based on income, Bernstein said.

“That’s when you get to a really defining, distilling moment where people’s bluff gets called,” Bernstein said. “I think that that was so powerful for Fort Lawton. We hadn’t had a moment like that … When you have these really clear moments of classism, it kind of discounts all of the other stuff that these people are saying.”

The Office of Housing released the Final Environmental Impact Statement for Fort Lawton on March 29, 2018. The city will take public comment on a proposed Redevelopment Plan that it’ll forward to the Seattle City Council for review and adoption.

But Fort Lawton is just one small battle of an ongoing War of the Rose Bushes, fighting for space in Seattle.

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