On May 4, the Seattle Finance and Housing Committee held a public hearing on Zoom to let community members weigh in on plans for American Rescue Plan Act local expenditures; the committee is in line to receive $239 million in federal aid to help the city recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding from Congress will come in two tranches, the first batch being $119 million.
This is just a fraction of the $6.7 billion of federal relief that will be dispersed throughout Washington’s local, county and state governments.
For nearly two and a half hours, 80 community members shared how they thought the money would best serve communities in and beyond Seattle. Common themes callers voiced were needs for money to be directed to childcare services, housing, homelessness assistance, small business support and health services, as well as calls to action that money be shared with BIPOC communities that have long been neglected.
Around three-fourths of the community members also adamantly requested that none of the funds go to the Seattle Police Department. One person requested that “not a single cent (be) spent on supporting or expanding policing, criminalization, the prosecutor’s office, municipal court or any space for detention.”
“This is an opportunity for us with the federal dollars to start making some investments into building a more resilient local economy that is truly more equitable,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “We’ve joined in with other councils to hear how they are planning to deploy (ARPA) dollars, including from Austin and Minneapolis.”
Mosqueda explained that officials have been watching neighboring states closely to see how they spend their ARPA funds, making sure to leave no stone unturned.
A majority of callers requested that $100 million be reinvested into Black communities, pointing to disparities in services, such as structural institutions like schools. TraeAnna Holiday was one of these voices, urging the councilmembers to take action.
“At least $100 million of that money should go directly into Black communities so that people can have the resources needed to elevate the material conditions of Black people amongst all of the sectors where we see ourselves in the bottom rung,” Holiday said. “Now is an opportunity for Seattle City Council to say we are going to change this narrative.”
Housing was another hot-button topic. Many community members and housing advocates pled for funding to be put toward shelters, tiny homes, affordable housing and RV-safe lots. Representatives of several housing assistance programs made a case for receiving funds, including Susan Boyd, the CEO of Bellwether Housing. “Our residents have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic,” Boyd said. “Just within our portfolio, hundreds of households have lost jobs and have been unable to pay rent. Our seniors have fought isolation and depression, our residents who live with serious mental illness have been pushed to the brink by anxiety, and families with school-aged children have just been at sea.”
Sarah Cody Roth, director of WestSide Baby, spoke up for working families with young children, pointing out that one in four families in King County were lacking money for diapers even before the pandemic.
“Unlike other basic needs, like food and rent, there is no public assistance for low-income families to purchase diapers. SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) cannot be used to purchase this essential item,” Roth said. According to Roth, WestSide Baby is the largest diaper bank in King County and has needed to increase its annual diaper distribution by 50% to keep up with community need during the pandemic. Roth said that bigger topics push aside things like diapers but that diapers are an essential item every family should have access to.
Public comments were not limited to providing federal aid to specific programs; a few callers saw the funds as a chance to improve everyday needs, like creating a much-needed bike lane on Aurora Avenue near Green Lake. “People biking and jogging on the west side have to use an unsafe dirt path that is just inches from fast-moving traffic,” Greenwood resident Tom Lang said.
Councilmember Mosqueda said the council expects to decide how to spend the federal aid in the coming few weeks.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the May 12-18, 2021 issue.