Dec 2, 2021
Today Crystal is joined by Laura Loe, Founder and Executive Director of Share The Cities, which both educates around and advocates for affordable housing and reasonable housing policies that serve the communities they're in. Discussions include the continued legacy of racially motivated redlining, the controversy of golf courses, and how LEGO and The Sims have formed a new generation of city planners.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Share The Cities Community Education: https://sharethecities.org/about
“Acronyms for Action: ADU DADU EIS” by Chrystine Kim, Matt Hutchens, and Laura Loe from The South Seattle Emerald: https://southseattleemerald.com/2018/06/21/op-ed-acronyms-for-action-adu-dadu-eis/
“Segregated Seattle” from the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project from the University of Washington: https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/segregated.htm
“Are golf courses the solution to affordable housing?” by Bill Radke from KUOW: https://www.kuow.org/stories/are-golf-courses-the-solution-to-affordable-housing
“Five Steps to Prevent Displacement” from the Sightline Institute: https://www.sightline.org/2020/08/03/five-steps-to-prevent-displacement/
“Post-election Seattle has housing density on the agenda” by David Kroman from Crossut: https://crosscut.com/news/2021/11/post-election-seattle-has-housing-density-agenda
“Must Reads: From video game to day job: How ‘SimCIty’ inspired a generation of city planner” by Jessica Roy from The Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-simcity-inspired-urban-planners-20190305-story.html
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I am thrilled to have Laura Loe on the program, who is the Executive Director of Share the Cities Community Education and Action Fund. Thank you for joining us, Laura.
[00:00:48] Laura Loe: Thank you. I'm so thrilled to be here also.
[00:00:51] Crystal Fincher: I'm thrilled to be here. Before today, we've only known each other on Twitter, but I have long admired how much work you've done and how much of a difference you've made - being really instrumental in mobilizing to pass legislation, both on the local and legislative level. And just being a fierce advocate for housing justice - just so many good things. So I guess I just want to start off by asking - what are the two organizations, Share the Cities Community Education and Action Fund, and how'd you get started and what do you do?
[00:01:32] Laura Loe: So the Action Fund side of Share the Cities is the kind of meaner, not safe for work side - can curse on our social media accounts and hold people accountable, whether it's people that we organize alongside - elected officials, decision makers, corporations, other folks that we want to shine a light on if they're up to no good, or they're not living up to our ideals. And the Community Education side is our kinder, gentler side where we want to talk about public broadband and digital equity and housing and land use wonkery, like come into the schools and talk about the history of redlining or stand on a corner next to a farmer's market and tell community members how they can get broadband and kind of like the friendly, neighborhood version of ourselves. So that's how I've been thinking about it. And part of it has to do with funding sources and what you can do with what buckets of money -
[00:02:43] Crystal Fincher: So Community Education is a 501(c)(3) -
[00:02:47] Laura Loe: Exactly.
[00:02:48] Crystal Fincher: - focused on education and information. And then the Action Fund is the 501(c)(4) -
[00:02:54] Laura Loe: correct.
[00:02:55] Crystal Fincher: - which has a different tax classification, but is focused on action and advocacy work.
[00:03:02] Laura Loe: Yes. So we get people to show up to things, whether it's signing in at the state level for a broadband bill or showing up for the Solidarity Budget at Seattle City Council. Getting people to do super, super wonky land use things like the Puget Sound Regional Council, which nobody even knows what that is. Or a comprehensive plan. Or one of our wonkiest successes was partnering with another organization called MOAR around Seattle's backyard cottages. And there was something called a scoping phase of the EIS, which has to do with an environmental review. And about a thousand folks weighed in, and sometimes planning departments laugh - They're like, we're used to getting about 10 comments - like we're not used to getting 1,000 people commenting on this stuff.
And so that's always really exciting. And usually we're working with a lot of other organizations to advocate in a big group, whether it's 100 folks for Solidarity Budget, or House Our Neighbors, or Stay Home, Stay Healthy - like all these different coalition pieces. We're just one loud piece of it. But because of our Twitter - the Action Fund's Twitter following is about 7,000 people - it's a pretty nice megaphone and it is pretty fun to see those impacts. And also just so many people saying, "This is the first time I've ever written my legislator." Or "This is the first time I ever was in a meeting with my Councilmember." Or - just seeing people get over that fear and seeing them realize how easy it is to access government. Because people think it's just this far away thing. So I think that's part - I was a middle school teacher so I like that education aspect even while I'm doing the advocacy part.
[00:05:05] Crystal Fincher: And I appreciate that and how accessible you make those things that seem so - just wonky and complicated and inaccessible to the masses and looking to see how that has translated into action, mobilization, and legislative successes. And I kind of want to back up a little bit. I'm sitting over here as super wonky, former land use and planning board member and really see how impactful zoning decisions, land use decisions are - just to fundamental ways we are able to live our lives every day. What motivated you to start this? And why is, particularly on the land use and housing side to start off with, why is that work so important for people to engage with?
[00:05:58] Laura Loe: Well, I moved to Seattle in 2009 and I started getting involved in volunteering in my community through urban farming and some food justice things, and then volunteered at Treehouse with foster youth. Had usually about five hours a month where I was volunteering in different things. And all of a sudden I fell into volunteering at the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association. I lived in the U District at the time and they needed help with their newsletter. And so I started editing their newsletter and it ended up being a giant free job - I wasn't getting paid, but it was fantastic for understanding who was who and what was up in the municipal level. And I had never paid attention to municipal politics before.
And before I knew it, I was - the current Councilmember in D4 in Seattle, Alex Pedersen, had kind of reached out to me and said, "My buddy's going to run for City Council. I think you'd be a great campaign manager." And I'd never been a campaign manager before, I didn't know what that meant. And I was like, "Sure, why not? That sounds like a challenge." And it was great. And it felt like summer camp - because at that time, it was the first time Seattle had district elections. And so I got to know all of the other campaign managers and the consultants and all of the journalists and go to all the forums. And over the course of that time, working for the candidate, I sat in the forums and I filled out the questionnaires and I realized that I didn't agree with the candidate that I was working for.
And over that time - it's like spring and summer of 2015 - land use in Seattle became the election issue because this report came out that the Seattle Times and others - the bulldozers are coming, we're going to tear down all the single family homes, and rezone the City. I had no idea what zoning was before that moment, and all of a sudden I was being asked to help weigh in on that through the candidate - whether it was at the doors, knocking on doors, or talking to journalists, or whatever. And I realized that I didn't agree - he had a slow growth mindset and didn't want changes in the neighborhoods. And I did.
And so that was kind of a real awakening - I realized how it impacted school segregation, and food security, and immigration, and all of these things that I had been advocating for on kind of a national level - and how it kind of played out in land use locally. I was going to grad school, and I quit to start my Twitter account and, I don't know - take that time and energy that I was planning to devote to grad school and devoted it to this instead. That grew slowly over time into these two organizations. But the point of it is - if only I had known what I know now, and how can I get more people to know that stuff - to understand that zoning and land use are foundational for all these other things that we advocate for that are more interest based or values based.
I really think things have changed. You see everybody talking about it in the elections. You see it at every candidate forum now. There's just been a big shift in Seattle and across King County and across the country on zoning - it was a national presidential election issue. And so there's just much more awareness of how we've built our cities to exclude people and that's not fair.
[00:09:56] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. It is certainly - there certainly is increased awareness. It is much more part of the conversation. People in large cities can't run a campaign without talking about it. I am happy that you are active in the space and helping to mobilize people, because I think that although there is an awareness of it, there certainly are people who disagree about whether or not more just zoning is a good thing or not. We're seeing in - we're having local elections coming up right now, ballots are about to hit mailboxes as we are recording this and the election ends on November 2nd. We have candidates certainly talking about this, but how that translates to action within each theoretical administration looks like it can end up being very different and you see supporters and donors lining up behind candidates.
Usually on one side there are people who are excited about making changes to make our land use policy and codes more just and less exclusive. And other interests lining up behind other candidates who are very opposed to that. And some of them extremely vocally opposed to it, but happy to let the candidates say whatever, pay lip service, with the hope and belief that if they take office, then actions won't follow their words. And candidates being exact - like a little bit squishy on the answers that they're giving.
[00:11:43] Laura Loe: Definitely.
[00:11:44] Crystal Fincher: So they can't be held accountable for any actual promises.
[00:11:49] Laura Loe: It's hard in the Seattle mayoral race to see exactly what is going to happen. You're not getting any strong commitments from both candidates. You're hearing from Bruce Harrell that, I don't want it in every neighborhood and I don't want it to be a rushed conversation. And I don't want - the framing that we use for Share the Cities is ending apartment bans. So right now apartments are banned in 75% of Seattle, and really 75% of most cities in the West Coast and all across the United States. And that zoning wasn't an accident.
I think that this thing that I see with Nikkita Oliver and in the City Attorney's race - they're talking about that part. That this wasn't an accident, that this was on purpose. This was purposely done - that 75% of Seattle where apartments are banned was an act of exclusion historically on purpose - to exclude certain communities. There was already racial covenants. There was banks and redlining, but this zoning piece was historically, and continues to be a way to keep some people along busy arterials with bad air quality and other folks kind of in the leafier, greener parts of the community with 6,000 square feet lots and all of that kind of stuff.
At the mayoral level, the rhetoric is a little toned down in both directions. You don't hear Bruce Harrell coming out against some changes and you don't hear Lorena González going all the way to being very clear when she talks about citywide changes. Is that on every block? Is that on every street? Is that starting with communities that had been most exclusionary? You don't hear a lot of details either. So I think that there's fear, at that level, of being too extreme in either direction.
And the words for folks that are new to this are often - NIMBY, Not In My BackYard, and YIMBY, Yes In My BackYard. And there's a third category that I like to talk about - PHIMBY, which is Public Housing In My BackYard. And those are kind of the three organizing spaces that exist in most cities around housing, and where housing should go, where affordable housing should go, where new apartment buildings should go in your city. So this is not a Seattle specific issue, but you do see it still being an area where candidates are scared to take too strong of a position.
[00:14:36] Crystal Fincher: A lot of wealth and power is really being hoarded in those NIMBY spaces where people are saying, "I bought into this exclusive area," and viewing that exclusivity as a bonus or something that they paid for and are owed. And it manifests in people getting mad that people who they aren't familiar with are parking near their home on a public street that is collectively paid for by tax dollars. Or people are looking to use community parks in their neighborhood and they feel like they are owed exclusivity of public spaces and public investments and are exempted from-
[00:15:31] Laura Loe: Sharing.
[00:15:32] Crystal Fincher: Participating and sharing resources and growth with others in the City. And feeling like there's a point at which you can realistically purchase exclusivity. And we see that manifesting in schools - public, private, and quasi. We see that in parks conversations. And looking at if golf courses are really green space - if they're exclusive and can't be used by everyone.
[00:16:01] Laura Loe: You're trying to get me in trouble - bringing up golf courses. Golf courses are - the golf course lobby is powerful. The public golf course lobby is powerful. We were talking about the golf course up at the top of near 145th, the border of Seattle and Shoreline. It has an 18 hole course and a 9 hole course. And we were talking about building some housing around the outside of it. Or maybe in one corner of it. And immediately the golf course folks were putting up their signs. You went to any of the courses and there was like lots of organizing. They got a big spokesperson, Aaron Levine from local sports news person, to be their figurehead pushing back. Yeah, golf courses are a dangerous subject.
[00:17:00] Crystal Fincher: Well, I do want to talk a bit about, because you - we talk about these NIMBY spaces, but we also hear sometimes people from within displaced communities and people using rhetoric from those within displaced communities who may not be coming from a place of concern about actual displacement. But looking at conversations around gentrification and exclusion, people being priced out and pushed out of their areas - and saying if we're talking about up zoning and new development, that to me sounds like it's a bunch of new people coming in, and a bunch of people being pushed out. And when we look at what has happened in the Central District and hearing, sometimes concerns from those areas on - how do you balance issues like maintaining the character of a neighborhood, which you hear from people like in the CD to say, "Hey, this has a heritage and a culture and a history that is worth preserving." And you hear that from people, like in Broadmoor to be like, "Hey, I paid to have three McMansions on this street and nothing more." And no one who looks unfamiliar or feels unfamiliar to them.
[00:18:26] Laura Loe: Yes. So I early on, I was watching what was happening in the Bay Area around these tensions - what I call the YIMBY-PHIMBY tension, which is the Public Housing In My BackYard folks who want affordable options, want land trusts, community ownership models, and other anti-displacement tools ahead of zoning changes. So they want to know that these anti-displacement things will be funded and robust before we start doing any big zoning changes - where market rate developers can come in and build new condos, new townhomes, new towers, or six story buildings that are catering towards, stereotypically the tech worker kind of folks, in people's minds, and not to their communities or not making sure that the communities that are there right now have housing. That first we need to shore up large amounts of state and federal funding that will be in place ahead of time to prevent the displacement. And what ends up happening is you'll see communities opposing new market rate buildings. And so nothing's getting built because there isn't the state and federal dollars to do the deep anti-displacement community development projects that absolutely need to happen.
There's kind of a standoff in the Bay Area, in some cases, around anything getting built. I guess the argument that was made by many of us in Seattle in 2016-2017, when there was big zoning changes happening is - if nothing gets built, the same people are going to get displaced anyway. So we might as well build something and the hated tech bro symbol of who's doing the displacement and the gentrification, but they'll at least have some places to go and they won't be taking up all of the more affordable market rate units. But it's not a solution and it's not a comfortable place to organize in.
I think there wasn't enough listening to those communities. I don't think I did enough listening. I don't think other folks in the Seattle YIMBY movement back then did enough listening. And I think that things are a lot healthier now. And that when we go to make the next big changes in 2024, there's going to be a comprehensive planning process going forward. There's a lot more trust and a lot better listening amongst the different folks that do want more neighbors, do want more housing, that aren't being NIMBYs, that when they say no to market rate development - it's not saying they don't want new neighbors. They're just like, What are the consequences and have we adequately prepared for them? And of course the answer is no, we haven't - because we haven't taxed the rich, we don't have income tax, we don't have the pots of money we need, we're underfunding all of the things that we say are anti-displacement solutions. In Seattle, it's the Equitable Development Initiative, which has 100 shovel-ready projects and no money to put into them.
So yes, I have gotten much better and my organization has gotten much better at listening to most impacted communities in terms of gentrification and displacement, but it's definitely a work in progress. Because I saw the toxic, both on Twitter and the daily Twitter fights, as well as in person - very toxic organizing spaces in San Francisco and I didn't want that to happen here. So that's been a core mission of the organization is to bridge the YIMBY-PHIMBY organizing divide that happens all across the United States in every city. I think that people forget when they're fighting for their block, whether it's the Broadmoor person or even folks in Seattle on their particular block, that this is happening over and over and over and over again across not just the U.S., but Vancouver, BC, Toronto. This is actually - Australia - this is a global issue. And so it's really important for folks to understand the global forces at play here. That's something - it's very hard because housing is so emotional and so personal towards our deep feelings of security and safety. And when they're under attack, it's hard to zoom out to the global level and the forces that are at play. Nobody even wants to hear that. But I think that we'll get much better planning - what we're talking about here is long range planning. Not helping people survive right now, but how do we prevent the next housing crisis in 20 years?
[00:24:09] Crystal Fincher: So how do you bridge that divide here, whether it's Seattle and Washington state - but here locally, how do you bridge that divide? Because there are people concerned about survival right now, which doesn't mean that you can't overlook long term planning. But with some of the tension that has existed within those spaces, how has that informed what you've pushed for and how you've pushed for it? And I guess - what's on your short, medium and long term agenda to accomplish that?
[00:24:48] Laura Loe: I think that while it's super fun, I mean, I grew up loving to play with Legos and all of that kind of city building stuff that I think someone that's not GenX, that's younger than me, maybe they grew up playing Sims or whatever it is that made people turn into urbanists which are people that dream about -
[00:25:07] Crystal Fincher: Yes, I played the Sims. Yes I did.
[00:25:09] Laura Loe: Yes. All the things that created - I was, again, I was a middle school teacher - all the things that create the urbanist brain, right? All of the playing and daydreaming about cities, that then turns into adults that daydream about cities. I think it's important for those folks that exist in a very imaginative, playful space about the city, cities - are as committed to the painful parts of our cities and don't look away and don't get lost in that 20, 30 year, 40 year planning space, whether it's about building subways, or even some of the kind of longer range climate solutions. When people are thinking about those, but they're not actually doing climate justice.
And so for me, what we've done to bridge those divides is we make sure that we're showing up just as hard for the House Our Neighbors fight against Compassion Seattle. That we're showing up just as hard - we show up in Olympia for rent control rally, or anti eviction, or make sure to yell at Inslee's mansion because he's passed this terrible bridge moratorium that's not actually protecting everyone. For example, people that live in hotels lost some of their protections under that bridge moratorium. So, making sure that the energy and that the mobilization of those people that I talked about earlier on wonky things like environmental impact statements - that we are constantly recentering our focus, not in just the joyful, playful, daydreaming aspect of city building, but the kind of harder, immediate needs of people that have been failed by the planning that happened 20 years ago. If we had a time machine - there was no time machine.
I think you just keep showing up. You just keep showing up. You show up and you listen and you try not to take up a lot of space. You listen to people and they give you advice. Someone from Got Green gave me advice early on, which is, You don't need to organize in the CD. Go talk to the white people in Laurelhurst. I'm white-presenting Latin X. I experience Seattle as a white person and I lived on the North End. And so go there - there's a lot of conversations that we don't want to have there. Go have them for us. Go talk to those communities about how they failed. That was really good advice.
And it wasn't just like a stay in your lane conversation - which I think I've had many of those - where it's what you do after someone says that to you, right? There's a lot of organizations that someone says that to them and they keep doing the same thing they were doing. And I think that all those moments where people have taken the time to hold our organization accountable for being too YIMBY, or too overly enthusiastic about kind of magic wand solutions - like everything's going to be great if we just rezone Seattle. That's not true. And we shouldn't pretend that it's true just to get people excited about organizing around it.
I think it's about listening and being, I don't know if the word is humble, but being responsive, and taking the feedback, and hiring consultants if you need to, and restructuring your year. Like maybe you were moving in one direction and it's time to go in this other direction. I didn't know when 2021 started that I would be helping out with House Our Neighbors, for example. But was very happy to work in coalition with people with lived experience, currently or recently with housing insecurity, to fight against that basically disinformation campaign.
[00:29:23] Crystal Fincher: I sincerely appreciate that. Especially in urbanist spaces, in just environmental spaces here in Washington State. Oh my goodness, could that advice that you just gave and how you practice there - I wish more people would take that to heart. Because there is so much tension in communities around that. I appreciate the way that you show up and build equitable, reciprocal coalitions. And showing up just as hard for other people as you want them to show up for you - does an excellent job of really demonstrating that you're not just there to use someone and exploit them for whatever your interest is at the moment. And it's more than just getting someone to show up for a hearing, but you're really trying to move forward and not leave anyone behind. And showing that it's unacceptable to just chase a win without acknowledging that it may be happening at different speeds and we need to help others achieve the equity and wins that are necessary for us all to participate in the world that we're trying to build. So I just appreciate that. I appreciate you.
[00:30:45] Laura Loe: Oh, that's so sweet of you - thank you. I want to say the last thing is mutual aid - I've learned so much from different people in mutual aid spaces and from Black folks in Seattle around what is mutual aid and what isn't. And what is white saviorism and what is - I think I've gotten to a place where I don't believe that there's altruism and that every time I show up in a space, there is an expected transaction that I'm hoping for. And acknowledging that upfront that - pretending that I wasn't transactional certainly didn't work. I think it's better for me to show up in digital equity spaces, for example, and say, I want public broadband. I'm here to advocate for public broadband, but I know that that's not going to be the magic solution for digital equity. Or I want zoning changes, I want to rezone Seattle, but I know that that's not all community needs. Instead of - I don't think that I can truly show up to some of the organizing spaces I'm in and not pretend that there's not another agenda there. And I think that that's okay and I think that's something people get wrong too - is that you can work towards being less transactional, but pretending that organizing isn't transactional is false humility. Does that make sense?
[00:32:09] Crystal Fincher: It makes total sense.
[00:32:11] Laura Loe: So I think that that's a really hard thing for people to practice, especially I think in the Pacific Northwest. I lived in Los Angeles and Chicago and New York. And especially in Los Angeles, everyone's hustling something. You go to lunch with someone and it's not just to catch up, and it's okay. Like it's not - it's in the water there. Everyone's got their script, everyone's got their day job and their night job and their other job. And they're -
[00:32:40] Crystal Fincher: And they're in the studio and it's in production -
[00:32:43] Laura Loe: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
[00:32:43] Crystal Fincher: And as someone who's lived in Los Angeles - absolute fact. Yes.
[00:32:47] Laura Loe: And so that's the energy that I bring to the work too - is that it's not shameful to admit that you're moving in a direction and that you have these goals and you don't have to wait a year to bring them up. I think that that's part of what's gotten me in trouble and also what's helped me in the work and in creating the space. I have about 150 volunteers in the Slack channel. And before we end this, I just want to shout out all of them - there's working groups where they're creating things that I had nothing to do with, there's work happening that I had very little to do with. There's a lot of folks behind me at this point. It's not just me quitting grad school and jumping on Twitter.
It's fascinating - the organizing space that's kind of grown up around me. And the kind of people that I've attracted and selected for are people that are dual thinkers - that do want to think of short and long term solutions, just as hard at the same time. And that aren't scared. I had some individual donors early on - they're like, You're not focused enough. And you keep changing your mind about what you're working on. And it's so confusing to me. And I'm like, Fine, then stop donating to me and like, okay. So I think some people don't understand it. It's too messy for them. So I've attracted people that can handle the messiness of it.
[00:34:21] Crystal Fincher: Which is important in organizing spaces. And people who are resilient in understanding that we are pursuing goals that are bigger than the short term, that what we do is bigger than just elections and getting people elected - there's accountability and advocacy that has to happen around and beside that. And I just appreciate your work and thank you for taking the time to share with us today.
[00:34:46] Laura Loe: Awesome. It was great talking to you.
[00:34:49] Crystal Fincher: All right. And everyone can find all of the resources that we've talked about, of course, in the show notes. And we will talk to you next time.
I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in. We'll talk to you next time.