If you're a young person or a renter, this could turn out to be very good news: Yesterday, Mayor Ed Murray signed an executive order to begin cutting city ties with the district council system that represents neighborhoods across the city and hasn't seen significant change in three decades. But the first thing you need to know is what the hell a "district council" is.
Seattle's 13 district councils are made up of other, smaller neighborhood groups. Hyper-local community councils, nonprofits, and business groups send representatives to their district council, then the district council sends a representative up to the City Neighborhood Council. The groups advocate on neighborhood issues like zoning and growth, often expressing concerns about new housing projects, parking, traffic, and so on. They also dole out some grant money. The city supports them, spending $1.2 million a year on nine city staffers to help the district councils organize meetings and answer questions.
Here's the problem: According to city data, these groups are dominated by middle-aged white homeowners, even while the city as a whole is not. A 2013 city survey of the councils found that they were mostly made of people who were older than 40, white, and owned their homes. (Six groups reported no people of color at all.) Meanwhile, a 2010 census found the median age in Seattle was 36 and 34 percent of city residents were people of color. Since then, the city has attracted many new young people and is now 52 percent renters.
These city-supported groups can then become echo chambers dominated by older homeowners' perspectives. (I'm generalizing here. The community councils, which help make up the district councils, vary. In Wallingford, an urbanist renter says he was sidelined and in Queen Anne, they're fighting new backyard cottages, but in Capitol Hill, they're supporting safe consumption sites.)
Murray's executive order is an effort to force change. The district councils may still exist, but they will no longer have city staff supporting it and those councils will no longer get to allocate city grant funding. Instead, the city will create a citywide group called a "Community Involvement Commission." Specifics about that commission will be decided later this year. Expect to hear promises that it will offer information in multiple languages, take feedback online, and switch up meeting times.
"We cannot move forward if most of the people in this city—the diversity of this city—are not represented in the very neighborhood groups that this city helps fund and run," Murray said yesterday. (Worth noting: The crowd standing behind Murray at his press conference was largely white.)
Catherine Weatbrook—a member of the Ballard District Council who admitted the groups "haven't figured out a way to get [renters and people of color] engaged"—blames the city for the diversity problem. Her group needs more staff and funding to do things like live-stream their meetings, she said in an interview last night. "It feels like we've never been asked to see the shortcomings on the ground."
But even when renters do get involved, the atmosphere at these types of groups can be exclusionary and gross. Laura Bernstein, a University District renter and YIMBY activist who supported the mayor's announcement yesterday, wrote in an email to city council members that several years ago someone passing out fliers for the Roosevelt Neighbors' Alliance told her "you should convince your husband to buy your home so you can have a stake in the neighborhood and really get something out of your membership in the local group."
The city has talked about fixing this stuff for years—a 2009 city audit found similar issues—but the mayor's announcement comes at a time when he is facing ongoing neighborhood backlash to his housing plan, known as HALA. Murray claims the two are unrelated. He also promises he won't back down when the same neighborhood voices fighting HALA inevitably push back on this news.
"What I am doing here," Murray said yesterday, "is not anything I am going to back away from."