Op-Ed: Keep the Bunker Blocked and Build 1,000 Affordable Homes Instead

by Kshama Sawant

Last Friday’s news out of Tulsa, Oklahoma was sickening. Yet another unarmed black man – Terence Crutcher, father of four, on his way home from a college class – was shot dead by police.  On Tuesday night,  another horrifying police killing took place – Keith Lamont Scott, a disabled father was killed by police in Charlotte, NC – shot while he sat in his car reading and waiting to pick up his son from his school bus.

Scott is the 214th black person killed by police nationally in 2016 alone.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has itself become notorious for the overuse of force, including shootings and killings, much of it targeting people of color. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) consent decree legally mandated the SPD bring about a fundamental shift in culture and practice, something the department is a long way from accomplishing. In their December 16, 2011 report, the DOJ found: “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing.”

This department, which has continued to fall far short in its primary responsibilities, accounts for a third of the city budget’s general fund. At over $300 million, this is not only the single largest allocation of city resources, it is also the most opaque and unaccountable part of the budget.

And yet Seattle’s Democratic political establishment – the Mayor, and the majority of the City Council – decided their highest budget priority this year was a new North Precinct police building for the eye-popping price tag of $160 million, complete with a shooting range and massive parking garage. If the new building proceeded as planned, it would have become the most expensive police precinct in the nation. I visited the current North Precinct with community leaders this month, which was slated for replacement. What I found is a building that, while not pristine, remains fully functional.

In pushing their plan, however, establishment politicians failed to anticipate the popular outrage that was to come. Hundreds of activists and social justice advocates, spearheaded by the Block the Bunker coalition, have attended City Hall meetings and confronted the Mayor at public events, opposing what seemed to them a stunning misuse of public funds.

Unable to counter the growing firestorm, the Mayor and Councilmembers  announced last week they were withdrawing the proposal. For the political establishment of a major city to have backed down on a project of this scale is a testament to the strength of the movement that has been built so far, and the wider popular opposition to the new precinct. But our movement cannot be complacent, since the withdrawal is so far only a one-year postponement.

The best way to truly stop the new police precinct is to shift the money away from the already-bloated SPD budget, to where it is most sorely needed. For many of the tens of thousands of Seattle’s working families facing rapidly rising rents, it is clear where $160 million would be well spent: on affordable housing. In the last year, Seattle rents have gone up more than three times the national rate. An average two-bedroom apartment in our city is now almost $2,400![1] The median home price is nearly $600,000.[2]

My office has determined that with the $160 million the Mayor intended for the police precinct, we can build 1,000 rental units of affordable housing.

The mayor and members of the City Council have all made fine speeches expressing their commitment to racial and social justice, and say they are listening to the community. Last February, in his State of the City address, the mayor intoned, “We cannot allow [Seattle] to become a place affordable only to the affluent and the privileged.”

I agree with these sentiments. But without real action, those words are empty rhetoric to Seattle’s working people struggling to get by, and to our sisters and brothers of color who experience racism and injustice on a daily basis. The city is fast being stripped of its economic and racial diversity, with skyrocketing rents pushing working families outside the city limits. Voters approved the housing levy by a landslide last August, proving that ordinary people want investment in the housing crisis prioritized.  Yet the levy is itself being outstripped by the rapidly growing housing crisis.

Elected officials have a political and moral obligation to do everything in their power to make the city affordable to the workers who make this city run, rather than setting aside the $160 million and trying again later to push through the new North Precinct building when the movement experiences a lull.

In the upcoming budget discussion at City Hall, I will move an amendment to the 2017 budget to use these funds to build affordable homes. But my voice will only have an impact if we get organized to demand such an investment.

Tonight at 6pm, my office is hosting a community rally and speak-out in Washington Hall, at 153 14th Ave, to celebrate our victory in “blocking the bunker,” and to build the movement to demand 1,000 new publicly-owned homes instead. I hope you will join us.

[1] https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/national-rent-data/

[2] http://www.seattlepi.com/realestate/article/What-600-000-buys-you-in-Seattle-9206097.php

Featured image courtesy of Kshama Sawant 

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