City Council Passes Its 2017 Budget: Affordable Housing, Homelessness Response, Early Learning and an Independent Office of Labor Standards

by Cliff Cawthon

For Seattleites who believe 2016 has been A REALLY REALLY REALLY HORRIBLE YEAR for the nation, their city approved a budget today that funded a number of vital services and projects that should make most residents hate 2017 a little less.

In a Full Council meeting today, without many big protests or crowds, the City Council approved its 2017-2018 Budget Package that included $29 million for the construction of affordable housing, funding for paid sick leave, early learning programs, and new wage and housing law enforcement mechanisms.

Today’s meeting  saw a few affordable housing advocates, and supporters of funding new community centers in Lake City Park and Magnuson Park.

The budget, according to Budget Committee Chairperson, Councilmember Tim Burgess “reflected the values of our city”.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, however, disagreed with the assessment. According to her, the budget represented “business as usual” for Seattle City Council. She condemned it for “fundamentally [depending upon] taxing poor and working people” and called for a ‘peoples budget’. The latter being a publicly drafted budget that focuses more on public services and the poor, according to Sawant.

Nevertheless, in her remarks during the meeting, Sawant cited some noticeable victories: funding LEAD diversion programs, domestic violence survivor support, and the removal of the classification for International Investment Management Services from the City’s tax code, which according to her would create $2 million in additional revenue to fund extra services.

The council voted 8 to 1 to approve the budget with Sawant the lone dissenter.

Usually a wonky affair, this year’s budget talks had their profile raised by public pressure against the proposed North Seattle Police ‘Bunker’, and the subsequent launch of the “1,000 homes campaign”.

 The latter, resulting out of the ‘Block the Bunker’ campaign, has been criticized by some as a co-optation of the independent Block The Bunker coalition’s victory.  However, community members generally supported the call for 1,000 units of affordable housing.

The effort from community organizations, such as, the Tenants Union of Washington, SAFE in Seattle, STEPS housing project, Washington CAN and a number of housing advocates was able to push Councilmember Herbold to propose a concession during budget talk: $29 million in bonds towards affordable housing.

The $29 million capital investment project amendment would be short of the 1,000 demanded by the community.

Herbold was more enthusiastic about the funding for affordable housing, pledging to work with the Seattle Housing Authority and the Mayor’s office. The $29 million has not been set towards a specific housing project, nor has there been a specific planning session for how it will be used.

I  was able to catch up with Councilmembers Burgess and Bruce Harrell for a further look into the budget. Burgess expressed his pride in funding for an early learning program for children up to 5 years old.

“All these programs are designed to target areas of high poverty”, according to Councilmember Burgess, the programs are designed to invest in a “continuum of care” which funds regular home visits from specifically trained nurses; literacy programs going into a pre-school pathway; and then “Book Up’ literacy program to prepare children for school. In Councilmember Burgess’ s words, it’s the “best way to fight inter-generational poverty….and crime”.

After the budget vote, Councilmember Harrell, who represents South Seattle as the District 2 representative, shared the specific benefits of the budget to South Seattle.

“I think what will particularly help out district 2 is the unprecedented investment in the 13th year scholarship fund”. The Council added $1.5 million in funding for the scholarship program, which aims to provide all graduating seniors from Cleveland, Chief Sealth International,  and Rainier Beach with one year of free tuition at South Seattle College.

In addition to money for the scholarship fund, Councilmember Harrell touted $6.5 million in funding for the Equitable Development Implementation Plan which aims to fund a number of business endeavors in the South End.

During the course of our conversation, he also mentioned the advancing of $2 million from the Move Seattle levy to make the intersection next to Mt. Baker station more accessible. I asked him if he was also going to take initiative to hasten the construction of the Graham St. infill station that South Seattle residents saw as a vital part of both the Move Seattle levy and the Regional Proposition 1 ballot measure, “the Graham Street station was originally apart of the package,…..Graham Street Station was one of the needs that were identified early, and through conversations with Councilmember [Rob] Johnson we looking at getting it done in the near future rather than the far future”.

In addition to all of the projects that were funded the Office of Labor Standards, the subsidiary agency that is aimed at enforcing Seattle’s new minimum wage laws and paid sick leave laws, was funded towards becoming its own agency within the Mayor’s office.

This upgrade for the Office of Labor Standards includes funding for more investigators, funding for outreach as well as the budget that would allow it to exist outside of the Office of Civil Rights, in which it has been housed since labor unions fought and won $15 in 2014.

This budget session was also shadowed by the loathsome victory of Donald Trump in the Presidential election. Many fear that the victory by the Republicans on a national level will entail massive social services cuts while the City of Seattle has committed itself to be ‘sanctuary’ to many.

Harrell, in particular, referenced the resilience of communities of color in the face of repression and systematic discrimination, saying “under a Trump administration we will be more focused; for all people of our communities whether undocumented, uneducated, or homeless, we will find strength and be more committed than ever”.

Councilmember Sawant, who herself has been the target of a sexist and racist bile, also referenced the pressure that went into the small victory for the 1,000 homes campaign as a lead-in to a broader effort against the upcoming administration, and a reflection of her desire to keep Seattle safe and sanctuary to all.

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Eino Sierpe/ via Flickr