Skyway Wins Funding in County Budget as Candidates for 37th District Pledge to Invest in the Community

by Chetanya Robinson

Skyway, an unincorporated community sandwiched between Seattle and Renton, has few representatives. While other areas in King County have “essentially what amounts to lobbyists working for them and their interests,” as King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay puts it, Skyway has no mayor or city council. 

But the community will be represented by at least one new leader in Olympia after voters choose who will replace Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who retired from his seat as 37th District Representative last year. 

During a September 23 voter town hall held online, four candidates running for two Representative positions in the 37th District pledged to undo what they see as chronic neglect and under-investment in the Skyway community. 

The two candidates for Position 2, Pettigrew’s former seat, are Chukundi Salisbury, a 23-year Seattle Parks Department employee, entrepreneur, and DJ; and Kirsten Harris-Tally, a reproductive justice advocate who works as executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and filled a vacancy on the Seattle City Council for 51 days in 2017. Both are long-time community activists.

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos has held the district’s Position 1 seat since she was elected in 1998 and is running for re-election against challenger John Stafford, a high school history teacher active in the 37th District Democrats.

Skyway sits near the bottom of the 37th District, which runs from the Central Area in the north through the Chinatown International District and much of southeast Seattle east of Beacon Avenue, as well as most of Renton. 

Home to 18,000 people, Skyway has the highest proportion of African Americans in the state and faces unique challenges because of its unincorporated status and proximity to wealthy urban areas. Skyway’s area median income is under $50,000, less than half that of Seattle, and its childhood poverty rate is three times higher than the county average. 

“It’s not insulated from the economic impacts of being next to Seattle and Renton,” said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who represents the community in his district and thus may be the community’s most direct representative in local government. 

The community faces persistent challenges, including a lack of activities for young people. It also has no community center, limited access to healthy food, no sidewalks or transportation infrastructure, and a dearth of affordable housing. A newer challenge— gentrification — looms ahead, even as the County pledges to invest in the community.

Jeannie Williams, a 35-year Skyway resident and community advocate, said it wasn’t always this way, but over time it became hard for small businesses to thrive. When the grocery stores disappeared, “people had to figure out kind of how to keep the community going.”

King County would constantly ignore Skyway’s needs, she said. “There were projects and things that we asked them to invest in — housing, trying to prevent people from being displaced — and it just always fell on a deaf ear.”

Skyway won some new investments in King County Executive Dow Constantine’s proposed budget, including $10 million in seed money for a Skyway community center, $10 million for “new capital projects” in Skyway and other incorporated areas such as White Center, East Federal Way, and East Renton, as well as $6 million for new bus service in Skyway.

Zahilay credits community members for their advocacy in achieving these gains but believes more are needed, including a commitment to affordable housing specifically for Skyway. “When you disinvest in a community for a generation, it’s gonna take much more than a few tens of millions to make that right.”

The online forum included questions from Alicia Ing and Mia Dabney, two members of the Skyway Youth Leadership Council, who asked how candidates would help create a future Skyway community center. 

The community center is part of Santos’s top three priorities for Skyway, as she believes it would serve youth, help with economic development, and increase public safety. She said Skyway should leverage its $10 million in seed money for more dollars. Stafford said it was an important part of a broader set of needs, including a park and affordable internet access.

Harris-Talley and Salisbury said they would push for state dollars to go to the community center. “These are places that become the life blood and the hubs of whole communities,” Harris-Talley said. Salisbury recalled working as assistant director of the Garfield Community Center in the late 90s and its power as a community resource. 

Stafford’s priorities included more funding for County services and no austerity in the state budget. Santos’s priorities included economic investment for jobs and small businesses and better coordination of services for Skyway, which receives services from multiple jurisdictions including Renton, King County, and Tukwila.

To address these coordination challenges, Stafford suggested Skyway pursue formal governance of its own.

Salisbury said youth and economic empowerment were his top priorities, while Harris-Talley highlighted transportation investments, community ownership of public space, and the need for government to listen closely to community solutions.

On how to prioritize Skyway in the state budget, Harris-Talley, Salisbury, and Stafford spoke against austerity measures and about the need for tax reform that would allow more revenue to flow into communities like Skyway. Stafford called for investments from the state including unemployment benefits, work share program investments, and more funding for housing.

Given the billions in budget shortfall expected for the state, Santos anticipated “many difficult decisions” and favored making it easier for the County to provide more services to Skyway. She is also interested in reforming Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) to include racial equity principles and see how it might better serve small communities like Skyway that “do not want to have another layer of local government.”

Gentrification is a concern. Investment in Skyway, including Constantine’s proposed budget, “is going to bring the eyes of developers,” said Jeremy Williams, a Skyway community member and advocate with the West Hill Community Association. “I mean, it’s already starting.”

He worries that developers “see that writing on the wall” and are trying to come in before anti-displacement measures are put in place, such as zoning changes.

Jeannie Williams worries about “developers coming up here and making a lot of money and then moving on.” Skyway should make sure “we are very mindfully creating a community where people that are here can stay here.”

The candidates agreed on the need to prevent gentrification in Skyway. Santos framed the issue as a balance between increased community investments with some of the “attendant evils” that can come with it. “What does the community want and what is the community willing to accept for greater investment?” she said. While increasing housing stock is important, she said it should be balanced by preventing density from displacing homeowners, perhaps by creating property tax exemptions for seniors and low income people. Stafford said zoning downgrades in parts of the community could help, along with building more affordable housing and introducing protections against evictions and foreclosures

Harris-Talley and Salisbury both said property taxes should be made more affordable for seniors and low-income people. Salisbury wants to see subsidies for renters and a stop to “predatory lending and predatory development.” Harris-Talley called for investments in small businesses and reforming the B&O tax structure, saying she believes it is “crushing” small and medium businesses. She favors an expansion of renter’s rights measures passed in 2018, along with rent forgiveness and investing in more housing. 

On affordable housing, Harris-Talley noted that Skyway contains public land that she would like to see transferred to the community. She wants new equity standards instituted to define what affordable housing means.

Because Skyway has a large concentration of marijuana retail stores for its size, candidates discussed reforming state law to make more marijuana tax revenue available for Skyway. Candidates agreed that more revenue should come back to the community.

On public safety and police brutality, Stafford supports “restructuring” the police while investing further in youth programs but does not support defunding the police. He favors broad criminal justice reform and increased gun control. Santos spoke about the need to engage the community in conversations to solve public safety challenges, perhaps led by Skyway community and faith leaders, as well as investing in tough programs and strengthening the 940 police reform law.

“I am a proud abolitionist,” said Harris-Talley and added that abolition is not complete while the current system of incarceration exists. She called for youth investments and highlighted the need to decide whether the King County Sheriff should be appointed or elected. Salisbury praised solutions like Community Passageways, saying mentorship programs like this should be scaled up for Skyway. He also called for more unarmed community service officers in the community to help with public safety.

Girmay Zahilay, who grew up in Skyway and has said he has made it a priority to uplift Skyway and address its needs since he was elected at the beginning of the year, has not endorsed candidates for the 37th District, but said he has spoken with Harris-Talley and Salisbury and trusts that they would both be committed to Skyway as legislators. 

Chetanya Robinson is a King County-based journalist.

Featured image: Skyway community members listen to a speaker during the Heal the Hood march and rally that took place on June 29,2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)