Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects.
SEATTLE — In May 2018, a public meeting in a wealthy enclave of one of America’s most progressive cities devolved into a two-hour temper tantrum as longtime residents incensed about a proposed tax to fund homeless services shouted down its proponents.
“Lies!” the crowd bellowed as an attendee explained that the tax would be levied on corporations, not citizens. “Shill!” “Plant!” “Phony!” they shouted as another supporter spoke. “Coward!” a man yelled at a homeless woman as she took the microphone.
Kirsten Harris-Talley, the co-chair of Seattle’s Homelessness Task Force, had to pause to ask the increasingly unruly crowdto calm down:“Can I finish what I’m saying?”
“No!” the audience chanted back.
Seattle is not the only city where locals are losing their minds over issues related to housing, zoning and transportation. Ugly public meetings are becoming increasingly common in cities across the country as residents frustrated by worsening traffic, dwindling parking and rising homelessness take up fierce opposition.
Last September, a community hearing over a proposed homeless shelter in Los Angeles had to be cut short after boos and jeering repeatedly interrupted speakers. Throughout 2018, public meetings in Minneapolis to discuss changing the city’s residential zoning code eruptedinto shouts and insults from audience members. At a public meeting last August on homelessness in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, audience members chanted, “Lock her up!” at a female representative of the mayor’s office.
These scenes are usually sparked by projects or policy changes intended to address America’s worsening housing crisis. More than 200 American cities now have median home values above $1 million. The construction of new dwellings has lagged behind the number of new households eight years in a row. Both congestion and climate change are prompting many cities to explore expanding their public transportation networks.
And yet, despite the urgency of the need and the expert consensus on solutions, individual efforts to increase density, improve transit or alleviate homelessness can spend years bogged down by local opposition. In March, neighborhood activists in Los Angeles threatened to sue the city over the installation of a 0.8-mile bike lane. Residents of Seattle’s wealthiest neighborhood demanded reserved seats on city buses and exemptions from road tolls in exchange for permitting a light-rail station. A crowd of more than 1,000 people booed a homeless man who got up to speak in support of a new shelter in Salt Lake City.
Rowdy public hearings are nothing new in city politics, of course. But campaigners and elected officials told HuffPost that the nature of local opposition has changed in recent years. Where protest movements and civil disobedience were once primarily the tools of the marginalized, they have now become a weapon of privilege — a way for older, wealthier, mostly white homeowners to drown out and intimidate anyone who challenges their hegemony.
“Most of the abuse I got came from older suburban or retired folks, and always from people who considered themselves progressive,” said Rob Johnson, a Seattle City Council member who retired in April after three years in office. During his tenure, he supported proposals to increase housing density, expand public transit and establish safe use sites for drug addicts.
Despite representing a constituency with bright-blue voting records on immigration, reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality, Johnson’s progressive positions on local issues provoked a large and organized backlash. In 2017, after supporting a plan to install bike lanes on a major thoroughfare, Johnson received a death threat on social media. Opponents posted his home address on Nextdoor. Eventually, he stopped visiting local businesses and even skipped events at his children’s school to avoid the increasingly frequent confrontations with other parents.
“Housing, homelessness and transit have always been controversial, but the kind of feedback and treatment we get has completely transformed in the last five years,” Johnson said.
Increasing Tensions Between Old And Young, Owners And Renters
While the extent and effect of homeowner advocacy are difficult to measure, tensions over density and growth in urban areas have been rising for years. Nearly every major city in America has seen skyrocketing housing costs push renters out into the exurbs while enriching longer-term residents who bought real estate before the boom.
Meanwhile, job growth in urban centers has worsened traffic, filled up parking spots and launched debates over cycling and scooters. Galloping inequality and a fraying safety net have made homelessness and poverty more visible.
According to Patrick Devine-Wright, a University of Exeter geographer who researches neighborhood activism, rapid growth can contribute to a sense of instability, a feeling among long-term residents that their cities are changing around them in ways they can’t control.