By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Tony Au was fired up.
The business owner visited the Northwest Asian Weekly office on Sept. 11 to voice his concern about Cary Moon’s proposal to impose a tax on some buyers of homes in Seattle.
Au and several prominent Chinese business owners penned a bilingual letter that stated that the tax “would be xenophobic and discriminatory, and would deepen troubling and longstanding false stereotypes of Asian and Chinese people here in Seattle, while doing little or nothing to address the actual underlying causes of rising housing costs in Seattle.”
“The Chinese did not cause this,” Au told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
If elected, as part of Moon’s plan for the first 100 days as Seattle mayor, she plans to “leverage the data.”
The data she is referring to is the number of housing units bought by corporations, shell companies, and private equity firms, and the number of homes not purchased as a primary residence.
She said, “It is a fact that speculators and non-resident profiteers are driving up prices and exacerbating Seattle’s housing crisis, but we don’t know the real depth or dynamic of this problem because no one wants to look.”
Moon co-wrote a August 2016 piece for The Stranger that read, “This flow of Chinese money is looking for the next housing market, and it appears that Seattle and California are emerging targets.”
She added that Chinese buyers in Seattle are engaging in “the reckless exploitation of a local housing market.”
Au asked, “Why target the Chinese? Are you telling me that if the Chinese pull out [of their Seattle investments], that the whole economy would collapse? [The Chinese] are not that stupid. We buy property, to invest in it, not to leave it empty. Those taxes we pay on it create jobs, go back to the state.”
Au said housing prices are rising because people want to work here and live here. He pointed to companies like Amazon that have created a booming economy, and that people want to be a part of that.
In the letter he co-wrote with other community leaders, Au said the tax “would play into negative perceptions of Asians that unfortunately constitute a dark part of Seattle’s past.” It goes on to say that in the current environment, where “President Trump has repeatedly expressed negative attitudes towards foreigners generally, and towards China and the Chinese specifically, we think attempts to blame Seattle’s problems on outsiders, and the idea of a “foreign buyers tax,” sends the wrong signal that Seattle may not be the welcoming, diverse, and progressive city that we all believe it to be.”
Moon said it makes sense that people in the Chinese community are expressing concern, considering Seattle’s long history of discrimination and redlining in housing. “However, it is wrong to say that I’m suggesting a tax targeted by nationality or ethnicity. The opposite is true: We must stop the displacement of our Chinese, Asian American, and other communities of color caused by rising housing prices, rents, and property taxes.”
She said a key part of her affordability solution is to discourage speculation by global moneyed interests. “Whether that money is coming from shell corporations, Wall Street private equity funds, China, or Switzerland, we must not let Seattle be sold off to the highest bidder.”
Moon’s campaign also directed the Northwest Asian Weekly to speak with Andy Yan, a Chinese Canadian who is a urban planner in Vancouver, B.C. and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.
“Racism is a means of suppressing discussion about dealing with the real estate market,” Yan said. “These accusations play up the model minority myth. It assumes that when it comes to housing, the Asian community is okay, and they’re not. They suffer in this particular type of housing market just as much as any other population, if not perhaps more, depending on the research you read.”
Yan said the foreign buyers tax introduced in Vancouver in August 2016 was focused more on the image of doing something, as opposed to the substance of actually starting change. “The tax has made very little difference,” he said. “The expectation that this tax, by itself, would make housing more affordable is the wrong perception.”
Yan said we live in a time where global capital — the flow of money that move back and forth around the world — is unprecedented. “It’s important to really understand why housing prices are so high. Traditional factors, such as lack of supply, come into play, and certainly global forces. It’s not THE factor, but it’s A factor.
“Ultimately, you need to connect the local with the global,” said Yan. “An informed dialogue about the factors that are shaping housing in Seattle is crucial.”
Last month, the Seattle Times printed a story that said City Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked City Attorney Pete Holmes if taxes on foreign investors and vacant properties would be possible under local laws. When told “no,” the Times said Herbold then turned to King County Assessor John Wilson, asking in a June letter for help unmasking wealthy buyers who make purchases in the name of limited-liability companies (LLCs).
In an email on Sept. 12, Herbold told the Northwest Asian Weekly, “I favor an approach requiring disclosure in a manner that will not ‘foment racial bias or resentment’ done ‘in a way that is facially neutral about the national origin of the buyers. The King County Assessor’s response said I requested his assistance in ‘identifying the national origin of investors.’ This was not at all my request.”
Referring to the concerns of Seattle’s Chinese community, Yan said, “This sense of being targeted reflects a larger problem of not being involved in these conversations.” He urged all Asians to move from being invisible. “It’s incredibly important that Asians stay within these public discourses, in the building of their cities. Start being visible. Know to stand up for your rights. It’s about participating, being vocal, and being visible.”
Au expressed a similar stance. “The worst thing about the Chinese community is they never speak up. Do you ever see Chinese people protesting? Never. We don’t like to cause trouble, but we have been keeping [our concerns] to ourselves for too long.” ■
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.