The Rainier Beach Community Center will open this fall with an indoor pool, gymnasium and a computer lab.
The $25 million project is meant to serve the recreational needs of neighboring residents, but activists and church leaders say it could have also offered them jobs. Most of the workers hired to build it came from outside of Seattle, they say.
Now, community leaders are pressing for legislation that would ensure city-funded construction projects employ workers from the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
The Targeted Local Hire Coalition is asking Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle City Council to craft an ordinance that would reserve a percentage of jobs on publicly funded construction projects for people in areas most in need of employment.
“Unless there are policies put in place to create more access, disadvantaged communities will continue to be at the back of the bus,” said Michael Woo, director of Got Green, a South Seattle nonprofit that advocates for local, environmentally sustainable jobs.
The neighborhood had a 7.6 percent unemployment rate from 2006 to 2011, compared to 4.8 percent citywide. The area median income is also 12 percent lower than in the rest of the city.
Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith said such legislation is complex and will take time.
Washington state voters passed an anti-affirmative action initiative in 1998 that prohibits state and local governments from hiring based on race or gender. Seattle is required to accept the lowest bid on a project and cannot select the contractor with the most diverse workforce.
A law would need to be carefully crafted, and city leaders will seek input from private contracting companies and labor organizations.
“We need to figure out a way to get at [local hire] that’s legally defensible,” Smith said. “We also need more than a feel-good statement of intent.”
City councilmembers have met with local hire experts from San Francisco and Milwaukee. Councilmember Mike O’Brien was encouraged by those conversations and is confident the council could pass the legislation, possibly by the first quarter of 2014.
“You can do it. There’s a number of ways to do it. It works, and it’s worth figuring out,” O’Brien said.
City leaders have for years been trying to make public construction jobs more accessible to disenfranchised communities, including women and people of color.
In 2011, the city established the Women and Minority-owned Business Enterprise (WMBE) program, which requires that public works projects include subcontracting with companies owned by women or people of color.
The Rainier Beach Community Center was the first project to include these requirements, Smith said. Other projects, like seawall construction and the creation of the First Hill Streetcar, have followed suit.
Smith said WMBE has been successful. A quarter of the money the city spent on construction projects in 2012 went to businesses owned by women and people of color.
Woo pointed out that the program is concerned with women and minorities but does not require those who are hired to be from Seattle. Subcontractors tend to hire workers from the city where they’re based, he added.
Got Green and the Targeted Local Hire Coalition’s proposal requires that contractors hire a percentage of the workforce from poor communities, perhaps using the median income of a ZIP code or census tract as a guide.
In other cities, similar ordinances require that up to 50 percent of the jobs go to people from those disadvantaged communities.
Woo said even a small percentage would make a difference.
“If we have just 150 of these kind of jobs down here, that’d be pretty significant,” he said.