2021 Workshop

The Discomforts of Home: Seattle’s Legacy of Restrictive Covenants

Rendering of six varieties of tract home.
Schematic render of typical tract homes in North Seattle built between 1950 and 2010, based on data from King County Department of Assessments. [Zach Braaten]

As a student in architecture school, I’ve been asked on a few occasions to describe the house in which I was raised. “Milquetoast” is the word that comes to mind — 2,040 square feet of engineered wood products from the 1990s with a quarter of the facade dedicated to a two-car garage. My childhood house reappears with uncanny frequency in the neighborhood. Canvassing a half-mile radius reveals at least seven nearly identical homes, all featuring the same three decorative gables, eight-foot ceilings and, presumably, four bedrooms. Property records place my childhood home in Division 7 of H.E. Orr Park, a subdivision in the Haller Lake neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.

The founding covenants for the subdivision where I grew up state that I can’t live there. Clauses like this are common across the city.

The founding covenants for H.E. Orr Park state that I can’t live there. A rider in the property deed decrees that “no persons of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building or any lot.” (There is an exception for “occupancy by domestic servants.”)1James N. Gregory, “Racial Restrictive Covenants: Neighborhood by Neighborhood Restrictions across King County,” The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington. Clauses like this are common on properties across Seattle, especially towards the city’s northern fringe. Legally they are unenforceable, as the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 in Shelley v. Kraemer.2Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948). But Shelley v. Kraemer did not remove the covenant language from existing deeds, nor did it prevent developers from including it in future deeds.3Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2017), 85-91. Segregation remained the de facto rule long after 1948.4Catherine Silva, “Racial Restrictive Covenants History: Enforcing Neighborhood Segregation in Seattle,” The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington. And, of course, Shelley v. Kraemer did nothing to undo the pernicious effects of the 23 years in which Seattle’s racial covenants were fully operative.5See Janelle Jones, “The Racial Wealth Gap: How African-Americans have been Shortchanged out of the Materials to Build Wealth,” Working Economics Blog, Economic Policy Institute, February 13, 2017. 

Most Seattle residents consider racial covenants a thing in the past, but the city remains distinctly segregated. Six out of seven city council districts have a White population between 67 and 72 percent, whereas the remaining district is 70 percent not-White.6See Office of Planning and Community Development, City of Seattle, “About Seattle’s Neighborhoods,” 2015, for demographic data on Seattle’s 7 City Council districts. H.E. Orr Park, and most of the covenanted properties mentioned, are in District 5. Restrictive covenants are not the only reason for Seattle’s segregation — people’s decisions about where settle are too complex to ascribe to a single issue — but contemporary housing patterns continue to reflect the regressive policies of the past.

Collage of North Seattle subdivision plot maps and racial restrictive covenants. Plot maps include (clockwise from upper left) Overland Park, 1923; Golfcrest, 1929; and H.E. Orr Park, 1909; all sourced from King County Department of Assessments. Race-restrictive covenants include (clockwise from upper left) Overland Park, 1928; Alderbrook Park, 1948; Golfcrest, c. 1929; North Seattle Heights, 1929; and Huntoon’s Haller Lake, 1911; all sourced from Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project at the University of Washington. [Zach Braaten]

Between 1940 and 2020, Seattle grew from 368,000 residents to 761,000 — a 206 percent increase in 80 years.7See Forecasting and Research Division of the Office of Financial Management, State of Washington, “2020 Population Trends,” August 2020 and “Document 46: Factors in Recent Growth of Population,” Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington. In that same time frame, Seattle’s land policies became more restrictive. In 1957, for instance, the city vastly expanded the amount of land zoned for single-family homes, a rule that still covers about 75 percent of Seattle’s residential land. Minimum lot sizes were also introduced, such that currently at least 5,000 square feet, and sometimes as much as 9,600 square feet, are required to carve out a new residence.8Connie Combs, Katie Haima, and Vanessa Murdock, “Neighborhoods for All,” Seattle Planning Commission, Fall 2018; City of Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections Permit Data Warehouse, “Urban Center / Village Housing Unit Growth Report,” July 15, 2021. Given population growth, it would be logical to harness some of the land currently designated for single-family homes on large lots for something that would accommodate more residents. This has yet to happen.

Consider, again, the house in which I was raised. Over the years, there have been some cosmetic changes. The siding was upgraded from Louisiana Pacific to cedar, and the countertops from Formica to slab granite. None of the changes, however, impacted the structure. Fundamentally, it remains the same house. Seattle similarly persists in using housing policy to preserve the wealth of those lucky enough to become homeowners, effectively upholding the segregation perpetrated by H.E. Orr’s 1923 restrictive covenants. 9Michael C. Lens and Paavo Monkkonen, “Do Strict Land Use Regulations Make Metropolitan Areas More Segregated by Income?,” Journal of the American Planning Association vol. 82, no. 1 (January 2016): 11. The City recognizes as much; in 2018, the Planning Commission produced a report that acknowledged the urgency of increasing access to homeownership and of building better-integrated neighborhoods through density. The report even acknowledged how current policy perpetuates the discrimination of the past.10See Combs, et al., 11. The policies of the future, however, remain unresolved.

Restrictive covenants are not the only reason for Seattle’s segregation. But housing patterns continue to reflect regressive policies of the past.

I’ve read many Seattle racial covenants, and the most succinct I’ve found is comprised of the nineteen words included in the legal documents for North Seattle Heights Divisions 1-2: “Said property shall never be sold to or occupied by a person who is not of the Caucasian race.”11See, for instance, transfer of sale signed by George A. Purdy, Eugenia Purdy, and Ethel Mae Gardner, “Warranty Deed for North Seattle Heights, Div. 1,” April 2, 1929. This example and others are archived online by the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington. It goes without saying that far more than nineteen words are required to undo Seattle’s legacy of property-based racial exclusion.

Upzoning alone does not seem effective. Recently, the City of Shoreline, which shares a border with Seattle, approved areas of high density along a pending transit corridor.12Editors, “Welcoming Community,” Currents: News from the City of Shoreline, vol. 20, no. 1 (February 2018). The results are clusters of $900,000 townhouses: more housing, but not accessible housing.13Diane Hettrick, “81 Unit Townhome Development Under Construction on N 145th,” Shoreline Area News, November 14, 2019. Individual homeowners in Seattle now have more latitude to construct accessory units on their property, but these do not add to owner-occupied stock, and the rate of implementation is piecemeal. City of Seattle initiatives like the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which exchanges increased density for affordable housing, has effectively increased housing stock, but has been criticized for its limited geographic scope.14Doug Trumm, “Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability is On Course So Far,” The Urbanist, April 28, 2021.

What these policies have in common is preserving the primacy of the single-family home. Upzoning in Seattle has been severely constrained. Rather than increase density citywide, new units are limited to specific areas. From 2006-2021, more than 80 percent of the 93,000 new residential units in the city were built on less than 25 percent of residential land.15Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections Permit Warehouse, “Urban Center / Village Housing Unit Growth Report,” July 15, 2021. Granted, not every street has the infrastructure to support substantial new development, but that doesn’t mean those streets can’t have that capacity in the future. What if future zoning policy assumed a duplex or even a fourplex as the default for a typical 5,000 square-foot lot? Upgrades to sewerage and transit would be necessary, as would a plan to prevent displacement, but the investment would be small compared to the benefits. In fact, some of the city’s most coveted single-family neighborhoods — Wallingford, Green Lake, parts of Capitol Hill — got their start with a mix of multi- and single-family homes that persist to this day.16See Mike Eliason’s history of Seattle’s zoning in “This is How You Slow-Walk Into a Housing Shortage,” Sightline Institute, May 23, 2018. A return to this vision of Seattle would not only increase affordable housing stock, but also expand the number of walkable, amenity-rich neighborhoods. Except, this time. there would be no stipulations about who can live on the land.

Notes

  1. James N. Gregory, “Racial Restrictive Covenants: Neighborhood by Neighborhood Restrictions across King County,” The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington.
  2. Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948).
  3. Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2017), 85-91.
  4. Catherine Silva, “Racial Restrictive Covenants History: Enforcing Neighborhood Segregation in Seattle,” The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington.
  5. See Janelle Jones, “The Racial Wealth Gap: How African-Americans have been Shortchanged out of the Materials to Build Wealth,” Working Economics Blog, Economic Policy Institute, February 13, 2017.
  6. See Office of Planning and Community Development, City of Seattle, “About Seattle’s Neighborhoods,” 2015, for demographic data on Seattle’s 7 City Council districts. H.E. Orr Park, and most of the covenanted properties mentioned, are in District 5.
  7. See Forecasting and Research Division of the Office of Financial Management, State of Washington, “2020 Population Trends,” August 2020 and “Document 46: Factors in Recent Growth of Population,” Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington.
  8. Connie Combs, Katie Haima, and Vanessa Murdock, “Neighborhoods for All,” Seattle Planning Commission, Fall 2018; City of Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections Permit Data Warehouse, “Urban Center / Village Housing Unit Growth Report,” July 15, 2021.
  9. Michael C. Lens and Paavo Monkkonen, “Do Strict Land Use Regulations Make Metropolitan Areas More Segregated by Income?,” Journal of the American Planning Association vol. 82, no. 1 (January 2016): 11.
  10. See Combs, et al., 11.
  11. See, for instance, transfer of sale signed by George A. Purdy, Eugenia Purdy, and Ethel Mae Gardner, “Warranty Deed for North Seattle Heights, Div. 1,” April 2, 1929. This example and others are archived online by the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington.
  12. Editors, “Welcoming Community,” Currents: News from the City of Shoreline, vol. 20, no. 1 (February 2018).
  13. Diane Hettrick, “81 Unit Townhome Development Under Construction on N 145th,” Shoreline Area News, November 14, 2019.
  14. Doug Trumm, “Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability is On Course So Far,” The Urbanist, April 28, 2021.
  15. Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections Permit Warehouse, “Urban Center / Village Housing Unit Growth Report,” July 15, 2021.
  16. See Mike Eliason’s history of Seattle’s zoning in “This is How You Slow-Walk Into a Housing Shortage,” Sightline Institute, May 23, 2018.

About the Author

Zach Braaten

Zach Braaten will complete his B.Arch at Tulane School of Architecture in 2022. His research focuses on tracing the impacts of restrictive covenants in his native city of Seattle, and exploring the possibilities of restorative development. He has worked on public-interest design projects with institutions such as the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytère, and Arts Council New Orleans.