How City Hall – and you – can help Seattle win the global war for talent

I spent the weekend in Palo Alto at my 20th business school reunion. My wife and I met in grad school and moved to Seattle not long after, but most classmates chose to stay in the Bay Area. That’s not surprising given the region’s extraordinary economic performance, especially for anyone working in tech.

I visit the Bay Area rarely enough that each visit is a barometer of the shifting mood in the region. Prior visits always led with the positives – the amazing weather, the remarkable economic success and sense of opportunity – with associated negatives (long commutes in heavy traffic, a social culture overly focused on wealth and status) mostly in the background.

This past weekend was the first time those two narratives seemed to flip, even among this remarkably fortunate group. If the GSB Class of ’99 is any indication, the Bay Area has reached an inflection point where the extraordinary advantages of geography and history that made Silicon Valley what it is finally collide with the reality of the region’s near-total failure to invest in its civic infrastructure.

If that last sentence sounds like a non-sequitur, I hope you keep reading, because the time for Seattle to avoid a similar fate is right now.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Bay Area, and most particularly the City of San Francisco, is choking on its own success. Over the past 10 years, the center of gravity for the region’s world-beating innovation business has shifted up the peninsula. Companies that might once have occupied low-rise office parks down the 101 are now crowding into office towers in San Francisco.

But due to the complete capture of city government by anti-growth NIMBY interests, the city has failed to allow the housing stock to expand to meet this growing demand. As a result, the number of new jobs in the city has expanded eight times faster than the rate of housing growth over the past 10 years.

What happens when blistering job growth collides with persistently anti-growth civic policy? Spiraling rents, massive economic displacement, an exploding homeless population and associated collapse of civic order. It makes a city unlivable for residents, unappealing to visitors, and cruelly unjust to those at the bottom of the income scale.

This change happens slowly at first, then all of a sudden. It’s happening now in San Francisco, and it could easily happen here in Seattle.

A decades-long imbalance in jobs and housing isn’t fixed overnight. It takes years of legislative wrangling to unwind layers of exclusionary zoning rules and building code restrictions erected over decades. It takes years more for the missing housing stock, schools, transportation and parks to be permitted, financed and brought to market.

Today, Seattle is benefitting from two decades of relatively-less-bad civic leadership. We’re adding new workers at one of the fastest rates in the country, and many of those workers are leaving the Bay Area to help drive our local innovation ecosystem.

So everything is good, right? Not if you’re paying attention.

If we’re winning the war for talent over the Bay Area, it has more to do with their failure than it does our success. Our city politics today are too often a standoff between social justice warriors on one extreme and anti-growth NIMBYs on the other. What we need to avoid San Francisco’s fate is long-arc civic leadership, not hot-button grandstanding or passive defense of the status quo.

In fact, effective urban leadership demands policies that satisfy neither of these extremes. The civic investments required to enable long-term prosperity for all are as threatening to the leafy enclaves of white privilege as they are to redistributionists (who sometimes fail to grasp that larger pies offer more slices for sharing).

Whether on housing (HALA), transit (ST3), or the waterfront tunnel (now complete) and park (coming in 2023), Seattle’s most important investments in civic infrastructure have been resisted at every step, often coming to fruition only after decades of legal and political self-sabotage. (We famously rejected Paul Allen’s attempt to give us our own Central Park, not once but twice!).

We have a habit of avoiding San Francisco’s mistakes by the narrowest of margins, and only at the eleventh hour.

This fall, all seven of Seattle’s City Council district seats are up for grabs. The council we elect together will make the choices that shape our future as a city for decades to come. We don’t need to guess what will happen if we fail to embrace a policy of inclusive growth: just pay a visit to San Francisco and see for yourself.

Please take the time to educate yourself about the candidates in your district and vote your conscience this fall. But when you make your choice, remember that you’re voting not for the Seattle of today, but for the one we’d all like to live in 20 years from now.

Don’t choose leaders who only promise to defend your current interests, whatever they may be. Choose leaders willing to fight to make Seattle a truly global city that can welcome anyone, at any income level, who chooses to build their life here with us.

Thanks for reading + don’t forget to vote!