The states only Black county council member went to bat for the states Blackest neighborhood. Right now, it looks like hes winning.
The state's only Black county council member went to bat for the state's Blackest neighborhoods. Right now, it looks like he's winning. Quinn Russell Brown

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay has been talking up the need to invest in Skyway since the second he walked into office earlier this year.

His argument is simple. Skyway, an unincorporated area between Seattle and Renton situated at the southern tip of his district, is home to the highest proportion of African Americans in the state. If Black Lives Matter, then Skyway matters. And if Skyway matters, then King County should reflect that fact in its $12 billion biennial budget.

Zahilay has argued this point in the op-ed pages of the Seattle Times, Crosscut, and PubliCola. He emphasized the point in remote town halls with Skyway residents and King County budget director Dwight Dively. And when I joined Zahilay for an interview outside the Skyway Grocery Outlet last month, he stayed on-message for a solid two hours as he handed out county-issued cloth masks to shoppers.

Judging by the substantial funds King County Executive Dow Constantine directed to the area in his proposed budget, Zahilay's advocacy appears to have paid off. For now.

The county gave Zahilay  24,000 masks to distribute to his district. He handed out a whole box outside the Skyway Grocery Outlet last month.
You can't tell from this picture, but chances are Zahilay is talking about Skyway. Courtesy of Girmay Zahilay's office

"I Lived in Morrowind"

When Zahilay moved to Skyway as a freshman in high school, he spent a lot of his free time in Morrowind, an expansive province that serves as the setting for the third installment of Bethesda's hit fantasy RPG series, The Elder Scrolls.

Zahilay played high-quality immersive video games during his summers and holidays because "there was nothing else to do," he said. Years ago, back when he lived up the road in New Holly, he hung out in community centers, bused around town, and walked to the park. But the moment he landed in Skyway he felt "trapped." His choices for hang-out spots were restricted to a parking lot, a bowling alley, the parking lot of a bowling alley, or Morrowind. A lot of the time, he chose Morrowind.

Other kids in town made other choices and wound up on the wrong track, "especially if they were like me," Zahilay said.

"My mom had to work three jobs, so she wasn’t home all the time. We were just kids without much structure around us," he added. "And then we wonder why our youth do stuff we don’t want them to. It’s because we haven’t invested in them the way we should."

What Happened to Skyway?

The state's Growth Management Act encourages unincorporated areas to join nearby cities so they don't end up like Skyway, a place reliant solely on the county for resources and representation. For years King County "encouraged" Skyway to join Renton by just not funding big housing and transportation projects in the area. Making such long-term investments would risk accruing debt they'd prefer Renton to take on, Zahilay said.

As a result, Skyway lacks a lot of the essential services they need to thrive. They have, for instance, basically no east-to-west transportation and very little north-to-south transportation. Zahilay said the King County Department of Community and Human Services couldn't tell him when they last invested in affordable housing in the area. "Not in the past five years, not in the past ten years," he said.

Zahilay said he has a name for this persistent lack of investment in the area where the state's largest proportion of African Americans live: "systematic racism."

"This is not secret stuff," Zahilay added. "But that’s why Skyway is the way it is."

Skyway or the Highway

So when the people of District 2 elected him to serve, the hometown hero aimed to put the full force of his office behind elevating their needs.

In the last nine months Zahilay has spearheaded policy to down-zone some areas of Skyway and to add some affordable housing requirements in others to "slow down the gentrification process" that continues to push people of color outside the city. He also helped pass an ordinance that adds a legal protection for residential and commercial tenants facing eviction in unincorporated King County, as well as another bill that directs law enforcement to connect minors to public defenders before they waive their Miranda rights.

These legislative wins will help on the margins, but Zahilay dreamed a little bigger when it came to the 2021-22 budget. Last month he said he and the community wanted to see "tens of millions in investment into affordable housing," plus $15 million for a community center to give neighborhood kids some place to go. The budget proposal Constantine handed down today didn't quite deliver all that, but Zahilay said he's pleased with the results so far.

Constantine's proposal includes $10 million in seed money for a Skyway Community Center and $10 million for "new capital projects" in unincorporated areas, including Skyway, White Center, Fairwood, East Federal Way, and East Renton. Rather than telling residents how to spend that $10 million, the county will invite community leaders to make the decisions for the area through a participatory budgeting process.

On top of that, Constantine plans to direct $6 million for new bus service in Skyway, "to be co-created with community."

To address community demands for police reform, Constantine proposes moving $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue from law enforcement to "community-based programs in King County" and directing $750,000 towards Skyway and White Center to design alternative systems of public safety, which could "involve hiring behavioral health professionals to partner with Sheriff’s Office Deputies and divert cases from criminal courts and jails."

Zahilay credits the work of Choose 180, Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests for foregrounding the need for major police reform and meaningful financial investments in Black communities.

As part of his mission to uplift those voices, Zahilay hosted a couple community budget workshops between those nonprofit directors, residents of Skyway, and King County Budget Director Dwight Dively. At these meetings Dively outlined the county's general fund spending and expected revenues, and then opened up the floor for various community members and organizers to state their priorities. If you want to watch Nikkita Oliver advance a pretty solid argument for defunding/reinvesting, do yourself a favor and watch the recording of that meeting.

Those meetings served primarily to increase transparency in the budgeting process for Skyway residents, but in the future Zahilay wants to launch a participatory budgeting process so the community can decide how to spend the money themselves. Constantine's proposed budget opens the door for that to happen.

The Future

All this good news for Skyway is, of course, provisional. The council will now hold several budget meetings, where they'll very politely try to direct as much money as possible to their own districts. With a smaller pie (thanks again, COVID) tensions could run high and Zahilay will have to play defense. But he's got a pretty good argument for maintaining those allocations, and it's well-rehearsed.

The budget's big, but it's only the beginning.

Zahilay said the county's investments in Skyway would help small businesses and families avoid the negative impacts of gentrification, but until they can stand up adequate defenses against mass displacement, the battle against gentrification will happen on a building by building basis. The owner of the Skyway Park Shopping Center, for instance, recently put the place up for sale. Before a developer swoops in, Zahilay said his office hopes to work with the tenants to buy the property and establish collective ownership of the building. "Nothing is concrete yet, but if we can do it, then that’s 8 or 9 small black businesses saved for a generation," he said.

He's also hoping King County voters pass all seven county charter amendments in November, many of which will set the stage for meaningful reforms to the sheriff's office and the criminal justice system, which accounts for 75% of the county's general fund spending.

The King County Charter Review Commission recommended all of those measures except for King County Charter Amendment No. 6, which Zahilay and King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski proposed. That amendment would give the council authority to change the duties of the sheriff's office, as it had before 1996. Instead of sending gun-toting officers, Zahilay would prefer to send bike brigades to manage traffic during protests, and he'd rather send mental health professionals to conduct wellness checks. But unless voters approve Amendment 6 in November, the charter forbids the council from taking such actions.

He's also working on transferring two parcels of land down the street from the Columbia City light rail station to a community land trust. The plan, which is responsive to one of King Count Equity Now's demands, is to build a Youth Achievement Center with free housing and programming for kids without stable housing in South Seattle.

Sound Transit owns the property, which has sat empty and fenced-off for over a decade. The agency wanted to transfer the property to the Seattle Office of Housing as part of an initiative to promote homeownership, but Zahilay said communities the office engaged with around that issue said they’d prefer a youth center with housing, instead.

The hitch: Right now, federal law requires ST to transfer the property to another public agency in order to extinguish the debt the agency required when it bought the land from the government. So that law needs to change. Zahilay said U.S. House Rep. Adam Smith and Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell hope to work that change into the CARES package.

And of course, Zahilay also plans to push the state legislature to grant the county authority to tax big businesses. Otherwise, the county will just keep leaning into property taxes and sales taxes to pay for needed services, which puts them in the position of creating programs to serve people in need while also taxing those people to death. But with a special session unlikely, he'll have to wait until January to have a shot at even trying to make that become a reality.