by Erica C. Barnett
When the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON) first put out the call for citizens to apply as neighborhood representatives serving on one of four new community focus groups that would advise the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development on the mayor’s proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), residents of mostly white North End neighborhoods—many of them vocal opponents of the plan—applied en masse. With just two weeks before the application deadline, fully half of the applicants came from only three North Seattle neighborhoods.
DON staffers, sensing that without more geographically diverse neighborhood representation, the focus groups would be dominated by white, north-end homeowners, put out a second call. DON solicited applications from other parts of the city, including West and Southeast Seattle, and got them—eventually, after I published a story on the demographic disparity and DON ramped up its outreach to community organizations, 661 applications poured in from across the city.
Of that initial group, 181 applicants, many of them renters, people of color, community activists, and members of other groups that have traditionally been excluded from city planning processes, were chosen to serve on the four HALA focus groups that have been meeting monthly since last April. The focus groups are organized based not on geography, but by type of neighborhood—low-density urban villages, medium-density urban villages, hub urban villages, and urban villages expansion areas. According to DON Director Kathy Nyland, the idea was to bring together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city”. At the meetings, the groups typically have received a presentation on some aspect of the HALA plan, followed by opportunities to ask questions, provide input, and engage in small-group discussions. The goal is to use feedback from the focus groups to help shape the zoning legislation that is the heart of HALA.
Attendance logs, obtained from OPCD through a records request, show that 137 focus group members showed up for that first meeting in April—a not-bad 76 percent attendance rate. Since then, though, attendance has curved downward sharply: from 60 percent in May to just 41 percent in September. The numbers for October aren’t available yet, but based on anecdotal reports from group members and my observations at the medium-density focus group I attended near the end of the month, with only 15 of 40 original members present, October attendance was probably lower still.
As important as the sheer numbers is who is no longer showing up. Although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, as well as a survey of monthly attendance sheets, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants, and residents of South Seattle neighborhoods—the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the planning process. The one clear exception to this rule is eight focus group members who were recruited by Puget Sound Sage, which provided them with ongoing technical support and follow-up meetings on the fundamentals of zoning and land use law.
Laura Bernstein, a University District community activist who resigned from her focus group in September, says she got discouraged when she saw her group being dominated by the “observers” who were supposed to watch quietly and not participate (Observers are members of the public who watch the meetings and receive a block of time to comment at the end; their names are recorded and included in official meeting attendance records). She says, “there were a lot of really angry outbursts and a lot of whispering form the observers. So you’re trying to get OPCD to answer your question and there’s someone whispering behind you. It was very disruptive and intimidating.” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded: “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?] This is what fake equity looks like.”
The medium-density focus group meeting I attended in late October ostensibly included multiple representatives from the Central Area and North Rainier neighborhoods, two areas that are generally more diverse than, say, Phinney Ridge. Nonetheless, for the first half-hour, there was just one person of color, David Osaki from Aurora-Licton Springs, in the meeting room in the basement of city hall.When Rokea Jones, from the Central District, arrived after finishing a meeting of the Seattle Women’s Commission upstairs, she noticed immediately that the wall-size map of her neighborhood had no “dots” (green stickers representing areas or spots participants wanted the full group to discuss further) in her neighborhood. Jones slapped one down on 23rd Ave. S and waited to speak.
Waited, that is, for longtime Fremont neighborhood activist Toby Thaler–a homeowner steeped for decades in the jargon and minutia of land-use decisions—to finish delivering a lengthy jeremiad about how the city “has abandoned neighborhood planning.” Standing up and jabbing his finger down at the seated audience, Thaler denounced the whole focus group process, suggested that the city chose people for the focus groups based on “some other criteria” than aptitude to serve, and lamented how far neighborhood planning had fallen since the 1980s, allowing “horrendous…ugly crap” in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.
When Jones finally got a word in edgewise (thanks in large part to aggressive hand-waving by OPCD senior planner Geoff Wendlandt, who struggled to get the attention of facilitator Susan Hayman, a consultant for EnviroIssues hired by the city), she talked about the need to prevent displacement in the Central Area. One way to do that, Jones, suggested, was by increasing the amount developers have to pay into an affordable housing fund before they can to build in gentrifying areas. “There’s a vast amount of displacement with this neighborhood,” Jones said. “I understand that there’s developers and a great deal of concern about them losing money, but frankly, I don’t give a shit about them losing money.” It was the first time the issue of displacement had come up all night.
After Jones spoke, Lynn Sereda, a Seattle Housing Authority resident and tenant activist, chimed in that the jargon of zoning and planning regulations could be especially intimidating to immigrants who speak English as a second language, and wondered whether the city had proactively offered interpreters to focus group members from immigrant and refugee communities.
“I’m wondering how many immigrants are in these focus groups, because they are going to be primary people who are affected by displacement,” Sereda said. “I’m not an immigrant myself and I don’t speak for immigrant communities, but it’s one thing to get in the mail a flyer that says, ‘If you want interpretation, call the city,’ but through my observations what works the best is finding the leaders in those communities and reaching out into those communities”.
“If you looked at the [unused] nametags [on the table outside the meeting] so many people were missing that night,” Jones said this week. “And even if they were there, there would have only been three to four people saying what I was saying. We were still really outnumbered, and that came from the application process.”
She added, “in my meeting, the people that come, the observers, they didn’t have to say shit, because we have some very, very vocal people in our focus group”— white homeowners and longtime neighborhood activists like Toby Thaler. “They’ve been part of this since, like, the early ’90s, and then there’s younger cats like me that are fresh in the game.”
Jesseca Brand, the DON staffer who headed the city’s outreach and recruitment for the focus groups, says she thinks the city’s facilitators “just did not do a good job of challenging people when they said things like, ‘You don’t know about this, I’ve been here forever’. There’s a sense that we never did get the right dynamic in the room.” She says she “assumed we’d lose a percentage of [the focus group members], because you do in every process, but I was hoping that we would have close to the same demographic split that we started with and we wouldn’t be losing any one set of people … but the numbers tell me that I was not totally correct in that [hope].”
Giulia Pasciuto, a research and policy analyst at Puget Sound Sage, says all eight of Sage’s recruits have stuck with the focus group process, but she makes it clear that sustaining long-term commitments has required some long-term investment from her organization and DON, which provided small stipends for people who couldn’t otherwise afford to spend two hours a month at nighttime meetings. “This is like a part-time, part-time job. We can’t just expect that folks will participate [for free],” Pasciuto says. “What we saw before we had a stipend opportunity is that the people who did apply [tended to be] older homeowners.”
Sage doesn’t just make sure their members can afford to attend the focus groups; they also hold a “meeting after the meeting” each month, at which “we review some of the things folks have learned and answer any questions about the technical side of things.”
“This is really complicated, and this is why people go to planning school. You can spend years learning about the intricacies of land use decisions, and it’s hard to mash it all into a six-meeting process where you’re meeting once a month,” Pasciuto says.
Rokea Jones says she was initially confounded by all the jargon, and felt frustrated that the city didn’t make more of an effort to get people new to the process up to speed before dropping them into the deep end. “I knew that we would be talking about planning, but … there was no, ‘We’re going to do workshops on city planning real quick so you can understand the language.’ It was like, ‘boom, this is what we’re talking about’ and … some of us needed some more support.”
Pasciuto also says she’s heard complaints about the facilitation—specifically, that the city’s facilitators have often failed to recognize group dynamics in which homeowners serving on their tenth or fortieth city panel are able to totally dominate discussions and assert their authority as “experts” at the expense of people new to the process. “There are definitely group dynamics that need to be addressed by a facilitator who’s aware of who is historically marginalized in these spaces,” she says. (Susan Hayman, the facilitator at the October meeting I attended, did not respond to a call for comment.)
In a survey of 46 focus group members conducted in August, 34.9 percent of respondents said they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the process. About 20 percent said it was too soon to say. In written comments, many participants said they were “confused” by the process and the content of the presentations (“so much is above my head,” one complained; another wrote, “Unfortunately, I feel like what I do most of the time is just try to keep up with the conversation”) or, conversely, that the city was providing too much basic information that they already knew (“It is an extreme amount of BACKGROUND knowledge,” one said.)
Wendlandt, the OPCD senior planner, seemed visibly frustrated at last week’s meeting, telling the group, “We did try to do something different with this process, which is to try to get a cross-section of a lot of different folks in the room at the same time. It’s had its pluses and minus and it could have been done better, but that was one of the goals.”
Contacted after the meeting, Wendlandt said his “main takeaway” from the process has been that “we need to provide more meaningful supports for the people that don’t have the necessary background if we’re going to ask them to participate in the same venue with those who do have more background.” Wendlandt says city planners also learned that “the focus on the land use and zoning topics, at times, just wasn’t as meaningful for [members of marginalized communities] as bigger questions of income inequality, displacement, and small business loss that they’re experiencing firsthand.”
Jones says she hopes the city will learn from the focus group experiment that “outreaching to communities of color is not easy work. The city likes to be able to check the box, [but] to get into a process and really connect with communities of color or low-income communities–it might take you years.”