For decades, activist homeowners have held virtual veto power over nearly every decision on Seattle’s growth and development.
In large and small ways, these homeowners, who tend to be white, more affluent and older than the average resident, have shaped neighborhoods in their reflection — building a city that is consistently rated as one of the nation’s most livable, as well as one of its most expensive.
Now — in the face of an unprecedented housing crisis and a dramatic spike in homelessness — that may be starting to change.
Last July, Mayor Ed Murray and the director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland, announced that Seattle was cutting formal ties with, and funding for, the 13 volunteer Neighborhood District Councils that had been the city’s chief sounding boards on neighborhood planning since the 1990s. Through this bureaucratic sleight of hand, Murray and Nyland signaled their intent to seek more input and feedback from lower-income folks, people of color and renters — who now make up 54 percent of the city — and away from the white baby boomers who have long dominated discussions about Seattle’s future. The message: We appreciate your input, but we’re going to get a second opinion.
A few months later, the Department of Neighborhoods doubled down on its commitment to community engagement, putting out a call for volunteers to serve on a new 16-member Community Involvement Commission, which will be charged with helping city departments develop “authentic and thorough” ways to reach “all” city residents, including underrepresented communities such as low-income people, homeless residents and renters. Finally, DON will also oversee and staff a second new commission, the Seattle Renters’ Commission, which will advise all city departments on policies that affect renters and monitor the enforcement and effectiveness of the city’s renter protection laws.
The shakeup has rattled traditional neighborhood groups, which have grown accustomed to outsized influence at City Hall, and invigorated some groups that have long felt ignored and marginalized by the city.
The shift toward a more inclusive neighborhoods department, and neighborhood planning process, is more than just symbolic; it’s political. The homeowner-dominated neighborhood councils have typically argued against land use changes that would allow more density (in the form of townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near Seattle’s traditional single-family neighborhoods, which make up nearly two-thirds of the city. Including more renters and low-income people in the mix could dilute, or even upend, those groups’ agendas.
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