Mayor Ed Murray delivered an unpleasant surprise to some longtime neighborhood activists earlier this week when he announced, via laconic press release, that the city would sever its formal and financial ties with the 13 Neighborhood District Councils, which have advised the city on neighborhood planning since the 1990s, and create a new Community Involvement Commission to come up with new outreach strategies to include more people of color and other “historically underrepresented” communities into the planning process—including renters, who make up more than half of Seattle’s population. Currently, eight city staffers serve as neighborhood coordinators for the district councils, at a cost of more than $1.2 million a year.
“Our city has changed dramatically since the district councils were created three decades ago,” Murray noted pointedly at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “Three decades ago, we communicated by picking up the phone or writing a letter. Today, through social media and the internet, we communicate through dozens of different ways. Three decades ago, communities now part of the fabric of Seattle did not live here – for example, our large East African community.” Those communities, Murray suggested, might not always find it easy to attend a meeting at 5:30 in the evening at the library, if they even know it’s happening; currently, outreach to neighborhood residents often consists of flyers left on front porches or physical mail, which can exclude renters (more likely to move, less likely to have porches) entirely.
As Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland told the city council in a memo back in May, “We have heard from residents active in the system that ‘District Councils work for us.’ … However they don’t work for everyone.”
The eight full-time staffers currently devoted to the district councils will be reassigned to other duties within the Department of Neighborhoods, Murray said. “The job description of a district coordinator has not been updated in 15 years,” he also noted.
The need to reach out to those “underrepresented” communities—which, in addition to renters and East African immigrants and (in Murray’s words) “the person who’s cut my hair for 30 years”), also include other communities of color, LGBTQ community members, low-income residents, and people experiencing homelessness—seemed readily apparent at a meeting of the Ballard District Council a few hours after the mayor’s announcement, where onetime Southeast Seattle city council candidate Tammy Morales was the only person of color (and one of the few people with a hair color other than gray) in the room.
The meeting (like dozens and dozens of neighborhood council, community council, and district council meetings I’ve attended over the years) was mostly an echo chamber for neighborhood activists to declare themselves gobsmacked by the latest outrage from the city. The council members spent what seemed like half the two-hour meeting denouncing the city for proposing the expansion of urban villages (“the urban villages were never designed for this kind of development!”), claiming that none of the new developments will have sidewalks, parking, or other infrastructure, and insisting that of course they aren’t against density–just not this kind of density, and of course not here. Nothing could have made a stronger case for including more low-income people, non-homeowners, and, perhaps most importantly, new residents, than a room full of white-haired property owners telling each other how awful it will be to have so many new neighbors.
At city hall, the neighborhood residents who flanked Murray during his announcement were also noticeably pale-skinned—a reflection, perhaps, of haphazard planning (Murray is usually careful to gesture hard at diversity when making controversial announcements) and of the very problem DON and Murray say they hope to address: When the city puts out a call for people to show up for a press conference in the middle of the day, the people who show up are generally people without full-time jobs or with the flexibility to take a few hours off at short notice, and those people tend to be middle-class and white.
The changes, if they stick (longtime neighborhood activists have expressed shock and outrage on social media about being “left out of the process,” and a petition to recall Murray is currently being floated on Nextdoor) will represent a major triumph for DON director Nyland, a longtime neighborhood activist (in Georgetown) herself who seems determined to shake up neighborhood planning by getting new people involved, including people who are new to the city.
Longtime homeowners threw a fit when news leaked that Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda would have allowed more density in single-family areas, and Murray quickly backed off from that proposal, but on Wednesday, he insisted that wouldn’t happen this time, and that the very fact that he was signing an executive order—”I’m not going to rescind my own executive order,” he told me—demonstrated his commitment. “That’s a message to the community that this is going to happen,” Murray said. Unlike HALA, in which single-family zoning became “the hair of the tail wagging the dog,” Murray said, “What I am doing here is not something that [I am] going to back away from, because the people in the city of Seattle want this.
“You go on social media, and everyone’s angry, and you go to neighborhood meetings and everyone’s angry.” In listening to voices outside those echo chambers, though, Murray said, “I hear a city that wants to be more inclusionary and more affordable. … We cannot move forward if most of the people in this city, the diversity of this city, are not represented.”
Incidentally, when the city announced its intention to form focus groups to weigh in on HALA, the first pile of applications were dominated by homeowners from Wallingford, Ballard, and Phinney Ridge. In response, the city did a more inclusive outreach process—kind of like the inclusive outreach process Murray and DON announced Wednesday—to try to pull in people who haven’t traditionally been invited to speak. The result? More renters, immigrants, people of color, and folks from all sorts of previously sidelined communities suddenly had seats at a newly expanded table.