If you are ever in Seattle and the mood takes you, consider going on a cruise of Lake Washington. When you are just south of the 520 bridge, go in as close as you dare to the east side of the lake. Just after rounding the curve towards Bellevue, there is a house—a private residence—with a three-story glass atrium. If you look closely enough, you can see the full-size Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton inside.
If there was any doubt about whether we live in a second Gilded Age, I hope that image helps clarify things.
That we live in an era of extremely high income inequality has been well-chronicled. The debate in liberal circles is now over what portion of the population is responsible for causing and propagating it.
In a society in which millions and millions of people wake up every day not knowing where their next meal will come from or how they will pay the next month’s rent, we should be understandably angered by the richest of the rich investing only in themselves and their pet projects (Exhibit A-Z, the following quote from Jeff Bezos: “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.”). There is more than enough money in this country to feed, house, and provide healthcare to every American, and we should work to ensure that a much larger share of that money goes to people who actually need it.
With that being said, the fact that it is so very tempting to cast aspersions at the very rich is the exact reason that it is unhelpful. It is easy to blame the very wealthy because it allows us to see others as the problem. But it is not just very wealthy who have locked the doors to opportunity and thrown away the key. It is us, the upper middle class. We are the problem.
Richard Reeves, a scholar for the Brookings Institute, makes this point in his book, “Dream Hoarders.” He discusses three primary ways in which we are hoarding opportunities: exclusionary zoning in residential areas, influencing college admissions, and internship allocation. I am only going to discuss one: exclusionary zoning.
Nowhere is the yawning hypocrisy of the upper middle-class “liberals” more prevalent than in Wallingford, a single-family zoned neighborhood just north of downtown Seattle. This picture is a perfect example of why.
First, some explanation: Black Lives Matter is the movement initially formed to protest violence against police. It has since grown into a movement against racial injustice in general (note the URL of the website). I didn’t need to tell you this; you probably knew it already.
The other sign is a Wallingford special. The bottom is part obscured by greenery, but it reads, “No HALA ‘Grand Bargain’ upzones.” Without going into too much detail, this refers to an agreement between the city and developers in which developers will give money to the city to build affordable homes in exchange for a slight increase in development capacity in certain areas of the city. Wallingford homeowners are unhappy about the increase in capacity, or “upzones,” going on near their homes.
The top part you can read easily. It says Keep Seattle Livable, but it might as well say Keep Seattle Unattainable. And whether the owners realize it or not, by fighting attempts by the city to rezone their neighborhoods, they are propagating the system they apparently are protesting against.
What their motivations are is hard to detect. Maybe Wallingford homeowners are worried about change. Maybe, as they claim, they really do think costs will go up (and they will, but not because of this law). Maybe the idea of just anyone traipsing into their precious little neighborhood and enjoying the benefits that they enjoy is too much to cope with. But the reasons ultimately don’t matter. What matters is that inequalities persist because of situations like this—well-off people wanting to protect their self-interest and fighting change which would help the lower-income.
These laws will likely pass in Seattle because the Council is highly motivated to do so. But scenarios like this play out all across the country—well-off residents and homeowners use their money and influence to stamp out attempts by cities to change the exclusionary zoning which has been in place for decades.
Zoning affects everything—it affects where people go to school, who their friends are, how close they live to transit, how close they live to amenities and health care options and more. By refusing to make room for others, Wallingford residents are sending a message to those who are less fortunate than them: we’d love you to succeed, as long as it’s not here. And as long as we, the upper middle class, continue to wall off opportunity at every turn, none of the real and systemic change that our society needs has a chance.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.