Fighting for the City We Need

by Kshama Sawant, Violet Lavatai, Zoe Schurman, David Parsons, Nickelsville Central Committee, Matt Remle, Juan Jose Bocanegra, Tim Harris, Shaun Scott, and Kailyn Nicholson

The notice on her door was jolting: You have to move because the apartment building is being demolished to make way for more a profitable housing development. It was the fourth time that Esther “Little Dove” John, a retired psychology professor and long-time Beacon Hill resident, has been “demovicted” in Seattle — forced out of her home by big developers.

For 18 years, students and faculty from Seattle University, along with residents throughout the South End, have flocked to Saba Ethiopian Cuisine, a popular restaurant just south of the university campus. But over the summer, restaurant owner Workie Wubushet learned that a large real estate developer had just bought her building and she will have to move.

Ironworker Logan Swan has helped erect the steel beams that frame condominium towers, hotels, and offices in Belltown, Capitol Hill, Fremont, and the Denny Triangle. But like an increasing number of his fellow construction workers, he can’t call Seattle home, because even with union ironworker wages, a mortgage in the city is out of reach.

Frances (a pseudonym) lived comfortably with her husband in a North Seattle house for decades. But Frances couldn’t keep up with the housing payments when he died. Now, as an elderly woman living on the streets, she is one of many homeless seniors who routinely visit the Wallingford Community Senior Center for meals, bus tickets, and a kind word.

Seattle is rapidly becoming two distinct cities. One city is a playground for the rich and for the venture capital firms that are sinking billions into luxury condos and high-end office towers.

Meanwhile in the other city, the rest of us face the nation’s fastest-rising housing costs and dislocation from our neighborhoods as developers gentrify entire blocks. Our transportation systems, schools, healthcare, and other vital social services are strained to the breaking point. The crushing inequality falls hard especially on immigrants, the indigenous community, and communities of color, along with the LGBTQ community, who feel the brunt of a “profit before people” ethos that guides the economic elite and those politicians who unreflectively support them.

In her State of the City address back in February, the new mayor, Jenny Durkan, declared, “First, we must address the crisis of affordability, the growing economic disparities, and homelessness. This is a crisis that threatens the soul of our city.”

Unfortunately, the mayor’s proposed new budget completely fails to match rhetoric with action. Only 8 percent of the mayor’s proposed $5.9 billion budget is allocated for essentials such as health, homeless and other human services, and affordable housing.

In the middle of an unprecedented crisis, the mayor budgets $50 million to build affordable housing — not a penny more than the previous year. Compare that to the $363 million budget of the Seattle Police Department. The mayor has increased the police budget by $32 million this year alone. For context, $32 million annually could fund roughly 200 new affordable housing units every year.

In her budget speech on Sept. 24, the mayor said, “City spending and revenue is reaching a plateau. So we have to live within our means.” But this call for working people and the marginalized to tighten our belts does not apply to those few at the top who continue to amass more wealth than ever.

We all know that the resources exist in Seattle to build the kind of City We Need. Just look around at the gleaming towers, the swanky new downtown restaurants, and Amazon’s crystalline spheres that house thousands of exotic plants at their corporate headquarters. In 2017 alone, Seattle issued permits for $5 billion in new construction.

What’s lacking isn’t money, but political will. When the City Council responded to community pressure earlier this year to adopt a modest tax on Amazon and other wealthy corporations to fund affordable housing and homeless services, the majority of Councilmembers caved and reversed themselves in the face of political extortion by Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce.

We cannot rely on politics as usual. We need to build a mass people’s movement to win the City We Need, starting with this year’s City budget, continuing through the 2019 city elections, and beyond.

To be successful, our movements need to unite around a vision of fundamental social change; policies that put the needs of people and the environment over the profit-driven politics of big business. Our City We Need principles, which we will continue to shape and develop with input from members of the community, will be the basis for the budget demands that we put forward this fall:

  1. Affordable Housing for All. The private, for-profit housing market has clearly failed us. We need to build tens of thousands of units of social housing, paid for by taxing big business. We need rent control as an emergency measure to protect existing affordable housing and to address our city’s severe housing crisis. In the midst of this crisis, luxury apartments are sitting vacant all over downtown and South Lake Union — we need a vacancy tax on big developers and property-owning corporations.
  2. We need a world-class mass transit system. The climate crisis is bringing yearly wildfires to Seattle and hurricanes and other extreme weather around the world. We need a massive expansion of bus and train infrastructure and service to provide viable alternatives to reliance on car-based transit, living wage jobs and union rights for all workers in the transportation sector, and free public transportation (ORCA passes) for not only school-aged children, but also students in our higher education systems and people throughout the city.
  3. Healthcare and childcare for all. The for-profit health insurance system needs to be replaced by a single-payer system in Washington State, as a step toward a national Medicare for All system that covers medical needs of everyone including our trans community members. All parents need affordable childcare and at least 15 weeks paid parental leave.
  4. Racial and gender justice. We need strong enforceable laws that put an end to discriminatory housing and employment policies that continue to systematically oppress women, people of color, immigrants, Native Americans, and the LGBTQ community. We urgently need laws to address the epidemic of evictions in the city, which disproportionately impacts people of color and women. We demand an immediate stop to the Youth Jail, and instead full funding for job training, schooling, and restorative justice programs.
  5. Police accountability. We need a full audit of the $363 million-per-year Seattle Police Department budget. Establish an elected community oversight board with full powers over the police, including department policies and procedures. End the school-to-prison pipeline.
  6. Defend women’s rights. Fully fund access to reproductive health care for all. Create an elected office to investigate workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination in all Seattle workplaces. End the gender pay gap.
  7. Everybody has a right to a job and a living wage. We need to fund a major green public works program to provide thousands of living-wage jobs and dramatically reduce the region’s carbon footprint. We need strong enforcement of the city’s existing labor laws. Big businesses that engage in union-busting, such as the New Seasons grocery chain, should have no place in our city.
  8. Stop nickel-and-diming and criminalizing homeless people. SHARE-WHEEL and other shelters, which provide a lifeline to our homeless community members, must be fully funded. We must stop the costly and immoral sweeps of people experiencing homelessness.
  9. Fight immigrant detention and deportation. We must do more to protect those who are in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, by completely severing cooperation between Seattle police and other law enforcement agencies with any agency that collaborates with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and other branches of the federal government that are involved in the detention of immigrants.
  10. Tax big business and the rich. We must tax the corporate elite instead of working people so that we can fund the expanded services and programs to build the City We Need.

As we organize and mobilize around the 2019 City budget, we will measure the mayor’s proposals, or the City Council’s, by whether they advance us toward the City We Need — a city that houses, feeds, clothes, and educates all; a city of racial and social justice.

Undoubtedly, those within the political establishment who benefit from the status quo, including the big business lobby, will claim that we can’t, or shouldn’t, do these things; that our aspirations are too lofty. When they assert that, what they are really saying is that it’s OK when people get economically evicted from their apartments or when our small businesses are forced out. They think it’s fine for ordinary people to do all the work of building and running Seattle, but shouldn’t expect to live here. They think it’s alright when an elder in our community is forced to live on the street.

We completely reject this idea of a Seattle bought and paid for by Amazon and other big business, and urge our neighbors, friends, and fellow community members — this fall, and beyond — to join us in fighting for the City We Need. As a first step, we invite community members to join with us and other activists on Saturday, Oct. 6 at our “2018 People’s Budget” gathering in City Hall. Between 3 and 6 PM, we’ll rally, hold workshops, and plan actions for this fall to begin to win the City We Need. We hope to see you there!

Kshama Sawant is Seattle City Councilmember and a member of Socialist Alternative.

Violet Lavatai is Executive Director, Tenants Union of Washington.

Zoe Schurman is a leader in Zero Hour Seattle: Youth Climate Movement.

David Parsons is president of UAW 4121, the Union of Academic Student Employees & Postdocs at the University of Washington.

Nickelsville Central Committee is the body that governs the Nickelsville communities.

Matt Remle is co-founder of Mazaska Talks.

Juan Jose Bocanegra is co-chair of the organizing group May 1 Action Committee for El Comité, writing in personal capacity.

Tim Harris is Founding Director of Real Change.

Shaun Scott is a columnist for City Arts Magazine and a member of the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Kailyn Nicholson is an organizer with Seattle Socialist Alternative.