Mayor Ed Murray’s annual State of the City address made quite a bit of news yesterday. From a proposed $55 million property tax for homeless services to a potential lawsuit against the Trump Administration, Murray’s 45-minute address (delivered with the aid of two Telepromptrs in his usual slightly stumbly monotone) was explicitly urbanist, unabashedly activist, and uncharacteristically impassioned. (Shout out to new speechwriter Josh Feit!) Here’s my take on what the mayor proposed, and what he didn’t.
• Murray proposed a $55 million property tax levy that would pay for “mental health treatment, addiction treatment and getting more people into housing and off the streets.” I can’t think of a more critical need in the city right now than to house the thousands of homeless people living unsheltered on our streets. Even if Trump doesn’t follow through on his promise to eliminate all federal funding to “sanctuary cities” like Seattle, the city’s housing programs rely heavily on funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was recently taken over, you may recall, by a guy who thinks poor people can eat bootstraps. More funding has to come from the local level.
My primary caveat about this proposal is that we still don’t know what it will pay for. Murray’s homelessness plan, Pathways Home, relies heavily on short-term housing vouchers for people exiting homelessness; if the $55 million pays for programs that house people for a few months before dumping them back into the same unaffordable housing market that made them homeless in the first place, it may not be money well spent. TBD.
• The location. Murray’s decision to hold the final State of the City of his first term at Idris Mosque was an impressive move on two levels: 1) It communicates to the Trump Administration—which is paying attention to Seattle, home of the “so-called judge” who first overturned his Muslim travel ban—that Seattle isn’t afraid of him. (Also today, Murray announced a series of FOIA requests seeking information about Trump’s policies targeting cities that welcome immigrants and refugees; if the administration refuses to provide the documents, the city will sue to get them). And 2) It serves as a visual and symbolic punctuation to the link Murray drew between immigration and dense, vibrant cities: We can’t call ourselves a sanctuary city if we build “invisible walls” that put most of the city off limits for housing development. “We cannot be a city where people protest the exclusionary agenda coming from Washington, D.C., while at the same time keeping a zoning code in place that does not allow us to build the affordable housing we need,” Murray said.
• A two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary soft drinks that will pay for a variety of educational programs, including the Parent-Child Home Program, the “Fresh Bucks” program that helps poor families buy healthy food, and other recommendations from the city’s education summit last year.
I’m a Diet Coke drinker myself, so this won’t impact me (sugar substitutes, although clinically proven to increase cravings and contribute to obesity, would be exempt from the tax), but that’s kind of the problem: Singling out sugary drinks as scapegoats for dietary problems like diabetes is not only pretty arbitrary (I’m not over here arguing that aspartame is health food), it also disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color, who spend more of their money on soda and other sugary drinks. (Hey, you know who made this argument? Bernie Sanders!) Now, it’s true that diabetes and obesity are more common among low-income folks and people of color, which is why I’m putting this in the “meh” category rather than saying it’s a bad idea. But I would want to see a very clear nexus between this new tax, which will add $2.88 to the price of a 12-pack of Coke (or Safeway Refreshe, currently $2.99 if you buy four or more), and the programs it funds. Just as cigarette taxes should pay for health care and liquor taxes should pay for addiction treatment and prevention, soda taxes ought to benefit the communities who will disproportionately pay them.
• A new property tax wasn’t Murray’s only suggestion for alleviating homelessness. He also called on tech leaders to come up with $25 million over the next five years to fund “disruptive innovations that will get more homeless individuals and families into housing.” When I posted that on Twitter, here are some of the unsolicited suggestions that came back:
Sooooo….I guess those tech guys can keep their $25 million?
• Just one month before Murray made his speech, 175,000 women and allies marched in Seattle for women’s rights. Chief among the concerns I saw women raising at the women’s march: Women’s health, pay equity, family leave, access to abortion, low-cost birth control, domestic violence, and Planned Parenthood clinic funding. Yet not one of those issues made it into Murray’s speech. In fact, the two times Murray did mention women, it was about things that happened in the past: the 43-year-old Roe v. Wade decision, which secured a right that is currently very much on the new administration’s chopping block, and the women’s march, which Murray mentioned in passing as an example of “a surge of activism across the nation not seen for decades.”
Activism to what end? Murray didn’t say. Perhaps, as his spokesman Benton Strong suggested to me after the speech, he wasn’t sure what could be done at the municipal level advance women’s rights; perhaps, as Strong also suggested, he believes that good policy is good for everyone, including women—a “rising tide lifts all boats” theory of social change. I’m skeptical of the latter theory, simply because much of Murray’s speech was dedicated to a new program called “Our Best,” which specifically targets young black men; and I’m skeptical of the former, because the mayor knows how the city works.
He knows, for example, that the city has the capacity to adopt policies that help women succeed. If we can pass a tax to fund addiction treatment for our homeless neighbors, or after-school programs for vulnerable young black men, then surely we can figure out a way to fund women’s health before Trump and his radical antichoice Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price kill the affordable birth control mandate and gut federal funding for family planning. If we can fund paid leave for city workers, then surely we can require large private employers like Starbucks and Amazon to provide the same benefits to all their employees, too. If we can condemn Trump’s anti-immigration policies, then surely we can establish and fortify programs to serve domestic violence victims in immigrant communities, victims who may soon find themselves more marginalized than ever before.
Murray, who’s up for reelection this year, is popular; he wouldn’t be risking much by laying out a bold agenda for women’s rights. But the first step is talking about women, and the phrase “men and women” doesn’t count.
• Murray also failed to mention the rash of pedestrian deaths and the city’s progress toward Vision Zero—the city’s plan to eliminate pedestrian deaths and serious injuries by 2030. As I mentioned in Crank last week, the city has failed to make progress toward Vision Zero; in fact, in the first five weeks of 2017 alone, six pedestrians were badly injured or killed on Seattle’s streets. In that context, the mayor’s failure to mention pedestrian safety was a glaring omission.
• Also missing, at least for the first few minutes of the speech: City Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who Crank hears celebrated her 40th birthday Monday night.
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