The Seattle City Council unanimously approved a 10-year extension to Downtown Seattle Association’s (DSA) Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) on May 2, allowing the nongovernmental organization to collect mandatory fees from businesses in its area to maintain parks and other infrastructure.
However, DSA is also an advocacy organization, which means the people are paying not only for pressure washing but also to apply pressure to local officials for policies which they may not agree with.
The DSA provides street cleaning, security and ambassadors who support visitors to the city’s commercial core. As part of the renewal, MID rates will increase significantly, including up to 5 percent per year to account for inflation. The district is located to the west of I-5 down to the waterfront, stretching from Denny Way in the north to South Royal Brougham Way in the south.
The district’s total budget for the fiscal year 2023-2024 is estimated to increase to $18.4 million, from about $16.6 million in 2022-2023. According to a presentation from DSA, roughly 65 percent of the district’s ratepayers signed in support of the reauthorization.
More than a third of the MID’s 2023-2024 budget will go to cleaning services such as collecting trash off the street, graffiti erasure and sidewalk pressure washing. About 40 percent of the budget is planned to fund park activation, events, ambassadors and security, aimed at making downtown more hospitable to tourists, workers and other visitors. Roughly 19 percent is allocated to management, HR, accounting and marketing.
One of the key selling points of the MID is its commitment to offering high-quality, low-barrier employment, including health benefits, a retirement plan and a starting salary of $20 an hour.
“I’m what they call a second-chance individual, and the MID has taken me, like I said, under their wing and has given me not only a career path, but a value to my life,” said Jesse Gillihan, who works as a downtown ambassador helping manage operations at public parks. “I look forward to coming to work every day with a sense of urgency. I love being here in Seattle.”
Cherie Truncer, an assistant supervisor with the MID’s clean team, said that she feels appreciated by the community. “We get thanked on a day-to-day basis by individuals out here that either own business out here or live out here, constantly being thanked,” Truncer said. “It’s a beautiful feeling to have someone just really approach you and say, ‘Thank you, thank you’ and, you know, shake their hands, and ‘We really appreciate you.’ Like, they don’t feel like they would be in business or they’d even want to live out here if they didn’t have us around to help them on all levels, whether it be safety or clean team.”
Truncer added that over the past year, the safety conditions in downtown Seattle have significantly improved, which is starting to shift the narrative around crime.
“A lot of people that I’ve talked to and traveling on the Metro to and from work, they’re saying, ‘Wow, it’s really changed down there. It’s a lot cleaner. I’ve actually gone down there to visit so and so’ or something or went to shop,” she said. “And so that’s changing. I don’t hear so much of the ‘unsafe’ or that feedback.”
Another aspect of the MID renewal is its relationship with the larger DSA organization, which is known for its pro-business and corporate lobbying. According to DSA Media Relations and Issues Management Director James Sido, there is no firewall between the MID and the rest of the organization, meaning that downtown tenants, through their landlords, may be funding advocacy they disagree with.
For example, in 2018, DSA galvanized opposition to the Employee Head Tax (EHT), a plan to tax large corporations to help fund housing and services. That measure was ultimately defeated. Earlier this year, the organization co-wrote a letter to the mayor and City Council asking them to provide big corporations a tax break from the Jumpstart payroll tax — the successor to the EHT.
Sido said that, if ratepayers have complaints about the DSA’s advocacy positions, they can approach the organization’s board of directors.
Another area of concern is the MID’s approach to homelessness. In a 2016 paper, researchers from the Seattle University School of Law Homeless Rights Advocacy Project wrote that Business Improvement Areas contribute to a privatization of public space, increasing surveillance and displacement of people experiencing homelessness. The authors argued that the government has outsourced services and management of public parks to private organizations such as DSA, which have less oversight and could negatively impact poor and unhoused people’s rights.
Sido said that DSA does not participate in displacement such as sweeps. In a press release, the organization said that it completed 73,000 welfare checks for unsheltered people since 2013.
For Truncer, who has lived in a shelter herself, holding values such as compassion for and humanization of others is crucial to how she approaches members of the public, including unhoused people.
“Whether someone is having issues, or maybe they’re on drugs or being a little panicky, we’ll adjust to that,” she said. “We’ll help; we have safety that will approach them. We can offer sometimes water or if we have things for them, kind words. Just sometimes calming someone down, which is the idea that they’re not alone, we understand what’s going on. We’ll give them resources.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the May 10-16, 2023 issue.