If you didn’t hear that Mayor Ed Murray just decided to cut funding to district councils in Seattle, you haven’t been paying attention. This may just be the latest battle in the longstanding political fight between neighborhoods and downtown interests in Seattle. However, Murray has added a new twist: He says the problem is that district councils don’t reflect the diversity of Seattle and that they’re run by property owners in a city that’s majority renters.
However much Murray is using this argument to push his own agenda, he’s got a point. It’s not just the district councils. It’s the whole system of voluntary neighborhood councils, public safety councils and block organizations. To a large extent, they do good work. Who can argue with advocates for sidewalks, for fixing potholes, for cleaning up trash or for improving public safety?
But there’s a class bias here. Voluntary neighborhood groups are run by the people who have the time and resources to be active in them — largely the middle class.
Middle-class and upper-middle-class homeowners tend to be narrowly focused on the exterior life of their neighborhoods. Their own lives are more or less set and stable; they’re not dealing on a personal level with poverty, low wages, racial profiling, foreclosures or disputes with their landlords.
District council supporters have disputed Murray’s characterization, protesting that they don’t ask anybody at their meetings whether they’re property-owners. This kind of “class-blindness” is analogous to racial “color-blindness.” Pretending that everybody comes into these meetings as equals ignores the predominant culture and assumptions about what’s important in a neighborhood. In addition, there’s often an implicit or explicit bias against renters as being unlikely to be as “committed” to the neighborhood as homeowners.
Often these organized neighborhood groups have knee-jerk reactions to bringing services for the poor into their neighborhoods, on the assumption that providing services for poor and homeless will attract them to the neighborhood and therefore attract crime. My own neighborhood has one of the largest immigrant populations in the city, but opposition to Casa Latina’s day labor center was fierce at largely White neighborhood meetings a few years ago, with some people claiming (years before Donald Trump’s presidential bid and comments about immigrants) that their children were at risk of sexual harassment and molestation from immigrant workers. Similarly, a “wet house” facility for formerly homeless alcoholics on Rainier Avenue, though eventually built, faced angry opposition. Neither facility in its current location has created any problems.
One point of dissonance between neighborhood groups and social-justice concerns arises over issues of policing. A couple of years ago, a well-known leader in my neighborhood, commenting on a police killing of an alleged armed robber, said “fortunately, no neighborhood residents were injured.” She didn’t mention that the suspect was a resident who lived on that block. Similarly, when discussing issues of gentrification, a typical neighborhood response is, “What’s wrong with wanting the neighborhood to be nicer?” The answer, of course, is there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the poor can still afford to live there.
This isn’t to say that we can trust city government to generate a better system for representing everybody. The current pro-development “truth” that increasing density will lead to affordable housing, for example, is questionable at best. Look around you. How’s that working so far? And the city, like any government bureaucracy, will want to contain neighborhood opponents within acceptable bounds.
What’s the solution for neighborhood groups? It would be nice to think that this current crisis would lead them to find ways to involve all the socio-economic groups of their neighborhoods, maybe with city funding. But that’s probably asking too much. In any case, “diversity” isn’t enough. What’s needed is an explicit orientation to social justice and an explicit intent to use resources to organize the poor in our neighborhoods, to support them in their issues and to help them gain economic and racial justice.
Mike Wold is a regular volunteer and contributing writer for Real Change. He is a 25-year resident of Rainier Valley.