Context Matters: Accessing Opportunity in Seattle’s Eastside Suburbs By Emily Lieb

Photo credit: By Matthew Rutledge (rutlo) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Emily Lieb

A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH), a partnership that pools funds from 15 cities in east King County in order to increase the supply of affordable housing in the region, is not like any other housing-advocacy organization in the United States. There’s a great deal we can learn from its efforts to bring affordable housing to affluent suburbs—but first, we need to understand their context.

As my students can attest, “context” is one of my favorite words. I’m an historian who writes and teaches about American cities in the 20th and 21st centuries, so I often look to past places in order to make sense of the present. In fact, that’s one reason why I was so eager to join this project: historians don’t often get to use what they know about the policy choices we’ve already made to help shape the policies we’ll make in the future.

Another reason is more personal. Before World War II, my grandparents were part of a wave of white migrants from Appalachian coal-mining towns to Rust Belt manufacturing cities. They worked hard for everything they had, of course—but, in large part because they were white, they also had access to a great deal of opportunity, like jobs with union-scale wages and low-interest federally-insured mortgage loans they could use to buy houses in safe neighborhoods with good schools. What this means is that for generations, my family has had plenty of thumbs on our side of the scale.

And so I’ve learned the easy way that access to opportunity isn’t organic. It can be a consequence of policy choices that give some people a boost at the expense of others; it can also be a consequence of more inclusive and equitable policy choices, ones that seek to share that boost more broadly. That, in many ways, is what ARCH is trying to achieve here in King County.

ARCH’s “sphere of influence” sits across Lake Washington from Seattle, one of the fastest growing  (and most expensive) cities in the country. In many ways, its member cities are stereotypical American suburbs: they’ve got quiet streets lined with single-family homes; well-funded, highly regarded schools; and commuter-clogged interstate highways.

But in other ways, Seattle’s Eastside suburbs are pretty unusual. For one thing, they are comparatively new. Since the 1910s, ferries have crisscrossed the lake from Seattle to the Eastside, but before 1940 people who wanted to make the trip by car could only do it by looping, inconveniently, all the way around the water. This deterred would-be commuters from settling there. Instead, Kirkland had a wool mill and a shipyard; Issaquah had loggers, dairy farmers, and coal miners; Redmond had lumber and shingle mills; and the communities that would become Bellevue had truck farms and summer and weekend “cottages” along the water for Seattle’s wealthiest residents.

Of the Eastside municipalities, Bellevue’s trajectory is most like the typical American suburb’s. In 1940, a new bridge across Lake Washington connected Seattle to Mercer Island and the communities that would soon become Bellevue—a golden opportunity to postwar developers who wanted to build Levittown-style housing developments and shopping centers there. Thanks mostly to Bellevue’s mushrooming growth, between 1950 and 1960 the population of Seattle’s Eastside suburbs increased by nearly 90 percent.[1]

 

Source: Opening Program, Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, 1963
Washington State Highway Commission and Washington Toll Bridge Authority
Washington State Department of Transportation Library

 

 

A second bridge across Lake Washington opened in August 1963, and construction on the north-south expressway that serves as the region’s spine began that same year. And just as high-tech jobs, easier commutes, and new development pulled Seattleites to the booming Eastside, increasing racial diversity in the city—along with a civil-rights movement that won the passage of an open-housing ordinance in 1968 and a mandatory school-integration plan a decade later—pushed others across the lake. These are not the only reasons for the population jump each of the Eastside suburbs saw between 1960 and 1970, but they are an important part of its context. Even though only a few Eastside developments were ever explicitly segregated, “white flight” shaped them just as surely as it shaped their older counterparts across the country.

Source: United States Bureau of the Census

While these were white-flight suburbs once, they are not all-white suburbs today. In fact, their relatively late development made a big difference in this regard: most were never restricted by covenant, for example, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed many of the other real-estate practices that had preserved neighborhood segregation for most of the 20th century  Also, in 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated the quotas that previously reserved most immigrant visas for people from Northern and Western Europe and eventually changed the face of Seattle and its Eastside suburbs. According to census data, there were just 700 Indian-born people in King County in 1970, compared to some 60,000 today (including one in 10 Redmonders). Similarly, today nearly 40% of Bellevue’s population was born outside the United States, and some 35% identify as Asian or Asian–American. Consequently, our study asks: in the context of affordable housing and inclusive communities, how much—and why?—does this racial and ethnic diversity matter? Would ARCH’s approach work in a more homogeneous place?

There’s one more piece of essential context. In 1990, the state of Washington adopted a Growth Management Act whose goals include concentrating urban growth, preserving open space, and protecting natural resources. Restricting development in this way is great for the farms, forests, and wetlands that would otherwise be lost to unbounded sprawl, but it can also limit the supply of housing, raising its cost. This challenge is a big part of the reason why county leaders and housing activists created ARCH in the early 1990s. They didn’t just want to manage the conflict between growth management and housing affordability—they wanted to try and use smart-growth policies to increase the region’s supply of affordable housing. This study explains whether, and how, they did.

On Seattle’s Eastside, just like in suburbs across the country, affluent people haven’t always seen the region’s lack of affordable housing as their problem; on the contrary, to some, exclusion is the point of living in an exclusive suburb. But affordability is everyone’s problem. For one thing, according to the most recent King County Comprehensive Plan, around one-third of the households on the Eastside are cost-burdened, which means they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. They’re teachers and middle managers, retail workers and health-care providers—not to mention aging parents and young-adult children of the people who already live there.

And so ARCH asks: How can we build inclusive communities and productive coalitions that ensure every Eastsider feels seen, heard, and respected? How can we preserve the affordable housing we already have, and build high-quality housing that low- and middle-income people can afford to live in? In sum: how do we keep high-opportunity places accessible to everyone? Seattle’s Eastside suburbs are unique in many ways, but these questions apply to every suburb, everywhere. ARCH has begun to answer them. This study seeks to learn from that experience.

 

 


[1] National Park Service/Historic American Engineering Record, “Evergreen Point Floating Bridge” (HAER No. WA–201, 2011), 6.