OPINION: Clergy Call for Justice for Seattle’s Central Area

by Rev. Lawrence Willis and Rev. Angela Ying

In 1969, City of Seattle officials presented Rev. C.E. Williams, pastor of the Central Area’s New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, with an offer he couldn’t refuse: Sell your parking lot to the city. If you don’t, they told him, we’ll condemn the property and take it.

With no real choice, the African American congregation acceded to the sale, getting $34,000 for a piece of land that today is worth $2 million — more than eight times the inflation-adjusted property sale price.

The City’s coercive seizure of land from the Black church is just one example of how the City’s political establishment over the decades has been complicit in the impoverishment and destruction of the Central Area’s African American community. Between City policies like the notorious Operation Weed and Seed, which was set up in the 1990s explicitly to gentrify the Central District while fast-tracking the mass incarceration of young Black men, and profit-hungry corporate developers who snapped up entire blocks in recent years, evicting long-time homeowners, Seattle’s African American community today has been decimated and scattered beyond the city.

In the 1970s, more than 70% of Central District residents were Black, and the area, while struggling economically, was a vibrant community with locally owned restaurants and grocery stores, cultural gathering spaces, parks, churches, and community centers.

Today, after decades of racist gentrification policies and practices, the Central District is less than 18% Black and declining every year.

Now, the current pastor at New Hope church, Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffrey, Sr., has joined with other senior African American clergy to demand that the City make amends for its sins and reverse decades of gentrification policies.

To begin with, Rev. Jeffrey wants the City to make reparations: return to the church the land it coercively seized 50 years ago. This will enable him to carry out the mission of the church to build affordable housing for the community. The church has also prepared designs to build 90 apartments on two other properties to serve a mix of families, seniors, veterans, homeless persons, and persons living with disabilities. He envisions that New Hope Family Housing, utilizing the City’s new community preference policy, would prioritize housing for Central District residents who have been displaced from the neighborhood or current residents at risk of displacement.

But Rev. Jeffrey isn’t stopping with affordable housing on only his sites. Last month, he and Rev. Lawrence Willis, pastor of Truevine of Holiness Missionary Baptist Church, and Rev. Willie Seals, pastor of The Christ Spirit Church, challenged the City to build at least 1,000 new units of affordable housing in the Central District, “to bring back households who have been displaced or forced to leave Seattle.”

“We ask you to act locally to redress the great injuries, the injustices, and the racist policies inflicted upon African Americans in the Central Area,” the clergy wrote in their June 2 letter to the mayor and City Council. “We ask you to see the connection between two pandemics that are not isolated: you must fight the pandemic of the coronavirus on the lives of African Americans and fight the pandemic of racism that killed George Floyd and other Black men and women.”

At a follow-up press conference two weeks later outside of New Hope Church, Rev. Carey Anderson, pastor of Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, noted, “Simply put, if Black Lives Matter, then affordable housing for Black families in the Central District should matter.”

This Wednesday, July 15, City Councilmembers will be challenged to stand with the community. The Council’s Budget Committee will take up legislation prescribing how revenues from Jump Start Seattle are to be spent by the City. Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who represents the Central District, has united with the clergy and is putting forward a legislative proposal to allocate $50 million per year — less than a quarter of the tax revenue — to build those affordable homes in the Central District over the next several years.

More than 220 clergy and faith activists have now joined the African-American clergy demand, calling on the City to commit hard dollars to build 1,000 Central Area homes. Hundreds of residents have written to councilmembers, echoing the demand.

They will all be watching closely on Wednesday to see if the councilmembers’ progressive rhetoric of recent weeks, and their declarations that Black Lives Matter, are matched by the substance of their actions.

Rev. Lawrence Willis is Senior Pastor of Truevine of Holiness Missionary Baptist Church.

Rev. Angela Ying is Senior Pastor at Bethany United Church of Christ

Featured image: Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI)

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