NIMBYs of the fighting Southeast!

How an obsessed faction of residents drives the politics of an entire Seattle neighborhood.
Crosscut archive image.
How an obsessed faction of residents drives the politics of an entire Seattle neighborhood.

When I attended my first Columbia City Community Council (CCCC) meeting last December, I was naive and unschooled in the tender mercies of neighborhood politics. Since then, I've been to meetings all around Southeast Seattle and made myself a student of the values, grievances, and vendettas that animate the committed core of residents who always show up.

I have been surprised and troubled to find that, in a community famed for its ethnic, racial, and income diversity, one narrow worldview prevails among the small group of people who represent themselves as the leaders of South Seattle. Do you know what your local neighborhood activist is saying about you?

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The people who showed up at CCCC meetings were an impressive bunch, articulate and informed about the neighborhood. It was the first time I had observed Robert's Rules, with its motions and points of order, in the wild. Zoning regulations and other arcana were quoted chapter and verse. The nuggets of intelligence I picked up about local goings-on alone seemed worth the price of admission. And the price of admission, I found, was reconciling myself to the peculiar sensibility I found there.

When I joined up, the exhausting chore of creating bylaws left time for little else on the agenda. The evident love some members had for the artifice of meetings and parliamentary procedure accounts for some of this, but mainly our discussion of bylaws centered around the need to protect the group from being taken over by hostile outside forces.

At my second meeting, it was ominously asserted that somewhere in the darkness of that winter night there were people plotting to launch a rival group — people whose very absence from the meeting signaled bad intentions. A new community group with a handful of regular attendees, no budget, and no standing with the city was beset on all sides by enemies. This was a little rich even for a newbie like me, and it made me want to meet the people who had dropped out, who, it turns out, are numerous.

And when we weren't defending ourselves from being co-opted, we talked about crime — break-ins in the neighborhood and muggings and the gunshots heard the other night. Everything else — transportation, real estate development in the neighborhood, city government — was viewed through the lens of co-optation or crime.

In the end, the defensiveness, apparent lack of interest in turning out more of the community, and single-minded commitment to one contentious view of the neighborhood led me to quit. Yet the sensibility I found at the Columbia City Community Council perplexed and fascinated me. The more I looked, the more places I found it. The more closely I examined it, the clearer it became that the sensibility in question is a deep, cryptic strain of NIMBYism in Southeast.

Co-opting the Southeast District Council

During my time at the CCCC, I naturally got wind of the drama at the Southeast District Council, the organization on the next level of the neighborhood hierarchy, which featured some of the people I knew from the community council. The conflict at the Southeast District's "council of councils" stands out for being particularly, embarrassingly tawdry. Character assassination, open confrontation, and public grandstanding were the order of the day when the feud was hot last year. It seems the factions shared no sense of larger purpose that drove toward consensus, let alone restraint.

The fight is ostensibly about process — critics of the district council want the group to abide by its own bylaws, which they say have been flouted by allowing groups to participate that don't have open membership or have paid representatives rather than volunteers. But if it were a book club or a knitting circle that had been allowed voting membership on the SEDC, we wouldn't be where we are today. In reality, its substantive policy differences — specifically about the place social services are to have on the council and in the neighborhoods — that split the group.

As Mariana Quarnstrom, the president of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council (SSCPC), has written, the community "has lost its voice to nonprofits that are not truly invested in the community and could be gone tomorrow and we must live with the consequences of their decisions." Dolores Ranhofer, president of the Lakewood/Seward Park Community Association, drives home the point in a letter to Mayor Nickels:

Social service organizations are dependent on the city of Seattle for their funding, and their representatives on the SEDC do not own homes or businesses in the Lakewood/Seward Park community, I question their interest in voting for issues that benefit the Lakewood/Seward Park community.

The argument is that since social service providers are funded by the city, it's in their interests to be the city's stooges. As such, social service providers herd the poor, the addicted, and the criminal away from more desirable parts of the city and into Southeast.

Ultimately, "social services" is code for all kinds of interlopers and the problems they bring with them — each understood to be a product of the city's negligent meddling and each representing a kind of intolerable compulsion. The city tries to force the poor to move to South Seattle, commuters to use the light rail, and drivers to give their cars the summer off. And meanwhile, the complaint goes, the neighborhoods are expected to display a meek acceptance — of views blocked by six-story buildings; of their accustomed parking spots hogged by new renters; of an inadequately staffed police precinct; of the crime they say comes with increased population density.

Social services haven't always been such a flash point in Southeast. Jim Diers, the founding and former director of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, says in his book Neighbor Power that, "Today, subsidized housing is being developed in Southeast Seattle by community-based organizations." He singles out SEED and HomeSight as prime examples of organizations that have been nurtured by and committed to their communities. "Not a word," he writes, "has been heard from the NIMBYs."

So much has happened since the "today" Diers refers to. Now SEED and HomeSight, which were center stage in the SEDC drama, are preferred targets for Southeast's NIMBYs.

The new leadership of the SEDC has answered critics by arguing that they are strictly an advisory body and consequently do not have the power to directly affect policy (nothing to see here folks, move along). Short of bending the council to their way of thinking, an SEDC neutralized as an activist body probably looks like a victory to the people who started the fight.

But success left the victors with no formal relationship to the city — a problem solved by the creation of the new South East Neighborhood District Council (SENDC), an explicitly activist organization. Their schtick, aside from having an extra word in their name, is that they don't need to write any bylaws because they're simply abiding by the SEDC's original, legitimate ones, which exclude social service organizations from membership.

Knowing what I do now, I think of the Columbia City Community Council as a groomed charter member of the SENDC. In all the meetings I attended, there was never talk of seeking a seat or even attending a SEDC meeting, a natural step for a new community group. The CCCC's bylaws, especially its voting and membership criteria, were formed in response to the perceived illegitimacy of the SEDC's. The lack of interest in increasing meeting attendance and distrust of low-income residents came with the torch NIMBYs carried back from the SEDC fight. It's a sad irony that the fear of co-optation I found at the CCCC came from those who were busy co-opting the group.

Save Our Valley: Anatomy of a NIMBY campaign

NIMBYs argue that whatever initiative they've set their sites on cannot reasonably go down in their neighborhood, but, crucially, they do so without honestly engaging the larger needs that inspired it. The label is always political — I say "NIMBY," you say "community advocate." In offering that South Seattle is a hotbed of NIMBYism, I'm letting on that I've got a problem with the way certain folks down here engage with the problems of the community.

There are no reticent NIMBYs — it's by virtue of their public statements that pissed-off residents get to be NIMBYs. Our NIMBYs bring a Barnum-esque flair to framing the issues of the day and consequently have become favored media representatives for South Seattle.

As best as I can tell, today's NIMBYism first cropped in the late-1990s. At the end of 1999, Sound Transit finalized the route for a light rail system that would run from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport through the Rainier Valley and downtown, ending at the University District. Resistance to the project, under the banner of Save Our Valley (SOV), focused on the fact that the 4.6 miles of track running through the Valley would run at surface level. SOV demanded that the rail line run underground instead to minimize impact on the surrounding communities. Looking back at the public statements of the project's detractors, all the essential ingredients of today's NIMBY arguments are there.

A successful NIMBY campaign transcends the neighborhood, making the case that the opposed project would be a detriment to society as a whole. Cost is the obvious starting point for any critique of a large public infrastructure project. The inevitable competition to get a finger in the pie makes any such project vulnerable to overruns and inefficiency, which is justly a concern to taxpayers. But no self-respecting NIMBY would rest with this argument, and the Southeast's NIMBYs are anything if not self-respecting.

Attempting to appeal to every possible audience, NIMBYs reserve the right to take contradictory positions. According to the SOV's Web site, gentrification, the phenomenon of rising property values and increasing cost of living in a neighborhood, will result from the rail project. But in the next sentence, the scourge of lowered property values is invoked. When it was proposed that more money be spent on neighborhood improvements in Southeast to mitigate project impacts, SOV champions assumed it would never reach the neighborhoods. But just in case it did, Ray Akers, then an SOV board member, offered that no amount of money could address the real issues of the above-ground trains — safety, noise, and vibration.

NIMBYs hang their hats on false choices, most often claiming that the alternative to meeting their every demand is actively destroying their community. When Sound Transit moved to restrict new auto-oriented business around future station sites until planning was complete, SOV hysterically accused the agency of "wiping out any possibility of business coming out here." Another SOV spokesman echoes the charge: "This project would destroy all the economic development that we've built for the last 20 years."

NIMBYs are their brother's keepers. The leadership of Save Our Valley eventually decided that they were, above all, crusaders for racial and economic justice. Their last, best chance at scuttling the project was the complaint filed in federal court against Sound Transit and the Federal Transit Authority contending that the light rail project was "discriminatory in its intent and impact in Rainier Valley." Or, if you prefer, that Sound Transit is "raping minority neighborhoods." Three of SOV's four claims were thrown out by a federal judge and the project proceeded.

Politically adroit NIMBYs never actually say "not in my back yard" — they say "yes," but with impossible conditions. The notion that South Seattle would accept light rail underground or no light rail at all was their ultimate false choice and one SOV never had the standing to demand. It's clear to me that the most active members of Save Our Valley never wanted light rail in Rainier Valley. Today, the same people who tried to kill light rail in Southeast lead the fight against every initiative that could make it a success, and they are still doing it in the name of the poor and the minorities of South Seattle.

A borrowed sense of grievance

NIMBYs always plead the special case — there is something about our neighborhood, they say, which makes the opposed project particularly inappropriate. Down here in Southeast, we say we're already the worst off, don't add insult to injury. You say we're doing better? We say don't mess with a good thing.

To a person, our NIMBYs align themselves with the poor. Paradoxically, they argue that our communities are too poor to accommodate more social services aimed at supporting the poor and too "fragile" to weather the upheaval caused by light rail and the increasing population density it will bring.

On behalf of the South end's poor and minorities, Beacon Hill dentist Fred Quarnstrom accuses Mayor Greg Nickels of "social redlining", referring to the bygone practice of enforcing segregation by refusing home loans to minorities in majority white areas. Because we are so ethnically diverse and "our residents are modest to low income," he argues, "the mayor and the City Council have their paintbrushes and cans of red paint," sabotaging our schools, job market, and business climate as they leave us to deal with the city's larger problems. Then he predictably reels out the "dumping ground" thesis that all Southeast NIMBYs hold dear:

The [property] values are kept artificially low by locating more and more social service projects here. We get what no other area of Seattle will tolerate.

The opposition to social services in Southeast is categorical — the mission, organizational history, and performance of any particular organization are irrelevant. In a recent Stranger piece on the opening of a new nonprofit near Columbia City which serves the recently incarcerated, South Seattle Crime Prevention Council board member Ray Akers puts a fine point on the issue:

It's been like the floodgates have opened down here. These are organizations we embrace, but ... is there no other neighborhood that needs a Union Gospel Mission or homeless facility? A thrift shop would appeal to a lot of other communities.

It's telling that the beef over who is eligible for voting membership at the SEDC was with organizations like the Tenant's Union, which organizes Section 8 households into tenant councils to ensure that their voices are heard in the community. The woman one of the SENDC activists calls a "carpetbagger" and a "fucking bitch" similarly represents low-income Seattle Housing Authority residents.

The very idea that a nonprofit might be a legitimate and useful representative for poor residents who don't have the leisure and resources to organize on their own is inimical to the NIMBYs of Southeast. In a letter to the mayor on behalf of the Mount Baker Community Club, Pat Murakami, the group's president, writes:

The only authentic voice of any community is that which comes from, of and by those who reside or have a financial investment in that community. All residents of Southeast Seattle are capable of representing themselves. They do not need to be spoken for through a third party. It is the responsibility of the city, through the Department of Neighborhoods, to ensure that cultural and language barriers are minimized or completely eliminated.

My experience with the CCCC bears out the anti-renter, anti-low-income bias of South End NIMBYs. Per the group's bylaws, the geographic area the group represents follows the generally accepted boundaries of Columbia City, except in the northwest corner, where it veers dramatically inward to exclude the SHA's mixed-income Rainier Vista development.

The CCCC was very keen to speak on behalf of all of Columbia City but loathe to spend time advertising the meetings or otherwise making them an attractive place for people to be. The notion seemed to be, "Hey, if you want your voice heard, come out to the meeting. If not, well you had your chance."

I'm lucky that my wife is patient and my job affords me the flexibility to attend the meetings I do. What if I were poor or a single parent, or both? It's easy enough to imagine the priority I'd give attending CCCC meetings, especially if I got there and found overt suspicion of the poor. For many reasons, cultural and economic, it's difficult for conventional neighborhood organizations to reach low-income households. That the SENDC has made cutting off "third party" representation for the poor their signature issue brings into question just whose interests they represent.

For all the effort they put into limiting and undermining the existing channels low income residents have to participate in neighborhood politics, the NIMBYs don't offer compelling alternatives. What little they have to say publicly about how the lot of Southeast's poor may be improved is safely beyond their control.

In the Beacon Hill News & South District Journal, Ann Sheeran, a board member of the SSCPC, asserts that the recent violence we've seen on our streets is the product of "the city of Seattle's economic and development policies for the South End." She asks:

Why aren't people saying let's get some economic development down here, let's get some jobs to help these kids.. Reaching out is a given, but we need to put it in context with the systematic discriminatory economic development policies and the open door policy to social services with fragile populations. The poorest area of the city gets the most social services.

In this way of thinking, an intuitive equation — most poverty and crime in a neighborhood equals most social services — is twisted into an outrage. The NIMBYs have made such a habit of demonizing social services that they've come to believe they cause poverty, crime, and low property values.

Above all, it's this abdication of responsibility for the problem of poverty in Southeast that makes our NIMBYs NIMBYs. The city must overcome language and cultural barriers and the city must bring economic development. And what passes for leadership is bemoaning the fate of the poor while actively foiling the groups in our community that serve them.

Beleaguered homeowners, rise up and overwhelm the meetings!

Viewed from a certain angle, the clash of interests is the inevitable consequence of our housing patterns and changing demographics. In addition to having the largest concentration of Section 8 households, as of 2000, according to Census data, Southeast has the highest proportion of owner-occupied housing units of any of the 13 district areas in Seattle (61 percent of all households).

The fear that propels NIMBYism in our community is that the historic influence of the single-family homeowner is threatened and that the tide is shifting toward the interests of renters, low-income households, and the denizens of all kinds of multifamily dwellings. Light rail and social services are the two fronts where they've chosen to stand and fight.

The one phrase from the Columbia City Community Council's mission statement that departs from platitudes is decisive: "... seeing that visions for a future community do not displace the rights of the people in our present community." It's the visions of a densely populated, transit-oriented South Seattle dancing in the heads of the mayor, real estate developers, and social service agencies that spur our NIMBYs to action. And the ultimate displacement of their rights is eminent domain, the threat to rob homeowners of the source of their standing in the community.

The e-mail reprinted in this blog post, from a member of the CCCC, the SSCPC, and now the SENDC, encapsulates the NIMBY worldview and the nature of their fight. Knowing that it will arrest the attention of the faithful, the author begins by ritually invoking eminent domain, calling a potential up-zone "the son of CRA."

The would-be Paul Revere summarizes the threat posed by more multifamily housing around light rail stations incisively: "... encroachment on the single-family neighborhoods is going to be more than significant." Counterintuitively, the author then calls the city's invitation for public input "the tactic of divide and conquer." To combat this imposition, he challenges his readers to "overwhelm the meetings and let their outrage be heard."

And overwhelm the meetings they have. The SEDC was overwhelmed, and the Columbia City Business Association only saved itself from the same fate by suspending its membership in the SEDC. The CCCC, which started out as a large, diverse group, has been so overwhelmed that few bother to show up anymore.

There is no minimizing the importance of homeowners — since we own a piece of it, we are literally invested in the fate of a community. Woe to the developer or city official who doesn't heed our concerns. Yet in its excess, this defense of "the rights of our present community" looks a little like the defense of "states' rights" in the civil rights era. Local participation, whether at the state or neighborhood level, is a win for democracy, except when the rights being defended represent the narrow interests of a few.

The "just chill" administration vs. the fighting Southeast

The story of the dysfunctional relationship between city government and the neighborhoods can be found in miniature in the unfolding of the mayor's Car Free Days. Planning for the events, which closed thoroughfares to cars, was haphazard, and far too little effort was made to get buy-in from affected residents and businesses. To the criticism he got for the lack of coordination, Nickels responded, "It's just for one day, just chill. Get out of the car and walk."

The view from the neighborhoods was of a potentate proudly conferring on his subjects the gift of a major street closure. At the last SENDC meeting, apropos of nothing, one attendee offered that she'd "like to see the mayor try a 'give your car the winter off' campaign. I'd like to see how people do with that in the wind and rain." Another attendee chimed in sarcastically, "Yeah, because the last one was such a success," referring to the recent Rainier Avenue car-free day.

The Columbia City event actually was a success, but the community members who pulled it together were effectively erased from the story. (A Google News search reveals not a single account of Columbia City's successful event, but several of the rained-out Capitol Hill one and of local residents' complaints.)

So it is with South Seattle politics. The same handful of activists are always front and center, ready to disparage anything perceived to come from city government, regardless of the merits. The mayor or whatever department of local government ends up in the activists' sights shrugs and digs in their heels because they've heard it all before. And the many people who busy themselves serving the community and making the best of the resources at hand get left out of the story.

NIMBYs do violence to their own cause with the incessant grandstanding and exaggeration because it deafens residents of Southeast to their frequently valid concerns. Our social service providers are flawed. However noble his aims, our mayor is arrogant and remote from the neighborhoods. City planners and developers too often share in that arrogance, viewing engagement with the neighborhoods as an unnecessary hassle. Worse, the contempt for the mayor and "The City" the leaders of the SENDC flaunt at every opportunity calls into question their credibility as a group, since their only prayer of accomplishing something positive is working with local government.

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I moved to South Seattle six years ago knowing full well that two-thirds of my front yard would be purchased by the city and that my neighborhood would be bogged down in construction for years to come. From my front porch, I will feel the breeze when light rail trains pass. I guess you could say that I'm predisposed to a different view. Short of the mayor sending down some henchmen with bags of cash, I personally can't imagine a better government-driven bid for economic development in Southeast than building light rail.

But where I see a vast improvement in the new Martin Luther King Jr. Way and vital mixed-income neighborhoods replacing old project homes, the leaders at the SENDC see a dumping ground, or, as it was succinctly put at their last meeting, "the creation of a slum." The SENDC leadership has given no quarter to the many people like me who see light rail as an opportunity for our community and our social services as a precious resource.

Ultimately, history will sort the NIMBYs from the community advocates by what they do after the campaign against this or that project is over. Ten years hence, when we look back at the activists who fought under the banner of Save Our Valley and now the SENDC, we should ask what they did to help light rail serve our community once its future was assured. The early answer is that, in the interest of tamping down any effect it might have on their lives, they have "overwhelmed the meetings" and fought tooth and nail every initiative that might make light rail a success.

  

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