Seattle’s Xenophobic Housing Tax

A recent story out of Seattle had some unfortunate parallels to the larger political climate in America. When we realize just how small the world really is, some of us have an alarming tendency to draw all the wrong conclusions.

The main points of the narrative to keep top-of-mind are these: In recent months, public figures in Seattle, Washington noted that quite a few housing properties in their city were being purchased by investment concerns from China.

What they did with that information — plus the proposals they came up with afterward and everything they chose not to say about these patterns — seem to be a microcosm for some of the larger problems the U.S. is embroiled in right now — namely, a resurgence in nationalism and a rise in xenophobic speech, demonstration, and legislation.

The Foreign Threat in Seattle

Seattle Councilwoman Lisa Herbold wrote to John Wilson, the Assessor for King County, to voice her concerns about the matter. Her “concerns,” to be more specific, were that Chinese investors were buying large amounts of housing real estate in Seattle only to leave them vacant to “drive up” prices in the area and corner the market.

You’re right to think it sounds a little far-fetched. The facts fly in the face of these claims. To create just a 1% rise in housing prices in Seattle, these “Chinese concerns” would need to purchase and then forcibly empty (evict) nearly 1,500 properties.

Needless to say, it isn’t happening.

This is where the story begins to dovetail in a rather sad way with America’s larger political climate. Instead of checking her facts and tamping down her rhetoric just a little bit, Councilwoman Herbold doubled-down on what was now openly xenophobic ranting. When the Assessor’s office sent an official reply, they were unsparing. They pointed out just a couple more inconvenient facts, including this one:

In her original letter, Herbold and her cohort singled out investors from Asia, but saw fit to omit the considerable amount of capital pouring into Seattle from European — that is, almost exclusively white — countries. Millions of dollars of investment capital were conveniently swept under the rug to suit somebody’s chosen narrative.

To conclude, Assessor Wilson tackled the councilwoman’s proposal directly.

An Indecent Proposal

So what did Herbold and the rest of the Council actually want?

Quite simply, they wanted a strong tax on foreign investment to slow down what they saw as a threatening incursion from overseas. They were worried, they said, about “housing prices” for their “constituents.”

Assessor Wilson was clear that the proposed tax wouldn’t help Herbold’s constituents or keep prices low. Seattle is indeed gripped by a housing affordability crisis right now, but the problem is between supply and demand — and there is no evidence to suggest foreign investment is part of the problem.

But even supply and demand have their solutions if reasonable people commit themselves to finding them. Income-restricted housing is certainly possible in strained cities like Seattle, thanks to a variety of available subsidies and grants. These are solutions — a reckless tax on foreign investment is not.

We said above that this story bears an unfortunate resemblance to the racially fraught social climate in America today, and it does. Singling out foreign investments from a geographically arbitrary part of the world and pronouncing it an imminent threat is xenophobic at best. Stronger words might even apply.

It’s a little like, for example, threatening to build a huge and beautiful border wall between yourself and a neighboring nation at a time when net immigration from that nation is less than zero. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Worse, the proposed taxes would make it harder, not easier, for new affordable housing projects to take shape.

Yes — Herbold and the rest of the Council in Seattle have found quite a few opportunities to condemn the Trump Administration in front of cameras; but, as we can see here, where it really counts, they fall sadly short. They manufactured a conspiracy, suggested a mildly racist solution that wouldn’t actually solve it — even if the conspiracy was real. Then, they failed to see the irony of “condemning” a cartoonishly racist President who has suggested only slightly more ridiculous “fixes” for “foreign encroachment” than they did themselves.

Did We Miss Anything?

And lest we forget, we’ve already tried this stunt before as a country. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The gesture prohibited workers from China from emigrating to the United States. We feared for our livelihoods.

Cold War hysteria also lives on in 2017, with the U.S. deploying heavy sanctions against our arch-rivals in Russia. The only trouble is, these types of punitive economics only hurt regular folks — not the elites who run the place.

The point is, America has a very long history indeed of remaining fixated on borders instead of figuring out how it can help solve real problems. We also have a nasty habit of inflicting economic harm on people and nations we see as a threat. On the local level, this expresses itself in hysterical councilmembers who see a looming threat from the East. On the national stage, we have to watch otherwise intelligent men reveal lifelong prejudices and the unthinkable policies they inspire.

Reasonableness will certainly win back the day from suspicion and xenophobia — just not today, apparently.

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Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston is a political writer with an interest in social justice and human rights. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, “Only Slightly Biased.”
Kate Harveston