Housing, homelessness, and police reform continue to dog the Emerald City.
We asked contributors to tell us what issues and challenges are most likely to shape 2017 in their metropolitan areas.
The morning after Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States, officials in Seattle gathered at City Hall to assure those who Trump had insulted and threatened during the campaign—women, people of color, immigrants, refugees—that they still had a welcome home in this city overlooking the waters of Puget Sound.
“Seattle remains a city guided by our values of equality and inclusion, openness, and equity,” said Mayor Ed Murray, standing before an image of the Suquamish chief for whom the city is named.
Asked if Seattle would remain a “sanctuary city,” offering safe harbor to undocumented immigrants despite Trump’s pledge to yank all federal funding from any burg that dared to defy his mass deportation orders, Murray replied without hesitation, “Yes. … Because that’s who we are.”
Seattle has been a progressive trailblazer, leading the charge on issues such as minimum wage (Seattle’s will rise to $15 by 2021), affordable housing (voters just approved $290 million in new taxes to fund low-income housing) and climate change (when Shell’s Arctic oil drilling platform rolled into town, Seattleites called in the local Navy).
But despite its carefully guarded progressive image, the Emerald City is also a place of deep-seated inequities that have only grown stronger during the recent tech boom. The year ahead is sure to be a test of the city’s progressive chops.
Here are three issues that will dog Seattle in 2017:
Living in Seattle these days, it can seem like you’re watching a time-lapse video of a cityscape rising. Construction cranes jag across the skyline, apartment buildings sprouting around them almost at unimaginable speeds. Mildewed bungalows that housed generations of longshoremen, machinists, and part-time mountaineers are being torn down to make way for cubist space dwellings and hives of closet-sized micro apartments buzzing with young tech workers.
But the explosion can’t seem to touch the demand. The median home price in Seattle surged to $666,000 last summer, thanks in part to Wall Street and foreign investors who are outbidding locals and paying cash. Middle-class families are being forced to the suburbs. Artists and musicians are fleeing in droves. The city’s historically African-American Central District is now less than one-fifth black. (While Washington state, like the nation as a whole, is becoming more diverse, Seattle is only getting whiter.)
The market has shown signs of cooling in recent months, but prices continue to climb. Some suggest that Seattle should follow the lead of Vancouver, where the provincial government last summer instated a 15 percent surcharge on foreign buyers who have been blamed for skyrocketing home prices. (Foreign investors walked away—many of them heading south to Seattle.)
On any given night in Seattle, an estimated 3,000 people are sleeping on the streets, with thousands more in emergency shelters or staying with family and friends. Tents and makeshift tarp shelters clog freeway underpasses and scraps of unclaimed green space. At one point, an encampment known as the Jungle, stretching beneath Interstate 5 south of downtown, housed an estimated 400 souls. Shelters are filled to capacity. Social workers struggle to keep up with the caseload.
The situation was so bad that in November 2015, Mayor Murray joined with officials along the West Coast and in Hawaii and declared Seattle to be in a homeless state of emergency. He marshaled millions of dollars for additional services, created sanctioned homeless encampments around the city, and began clearing camps that officials deemed unsafe.
But 2016 ended much as it began, with homeowners raising a hue and cry over a proposal to open city parks to camping, headlines about mismanagement of camp clearings, and a $200,000 report, prepared by a national expert, that basically said that the city has been doing it all wrong. The coming year will tell if Seattle has the political will to correct its course on homelessness, or whether it will continue to spend tens of millions of dollars each year on what amount to Band-Aids.
While Seattleites pride themselves on their progressive views, racism is alive and well here, and has been for a very long time. Relations between police and communities of color are strained, and a series of high-profile encounters, including one in which a white officer arrested and jailed a 69-year-old African-American man for allegedly threatening her with a golf club that he used as a cane, has made the city a center of the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to change state laws that protect police officers from prosecution.
After a 2011 investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found a pattern of excessive use of force, and raised concerns about discriminatory and biased policing, the city agreed to clean up its act under the watchful eyes of a monitor and a federal judge. But progress has been halting, at best, and Trump’s rise to power raises questions about whether the DOJ will continue to be vigilant on the issue.
A sanctuary? Perhaps, but for whom it is not entirely clear.