Since Edward Murray was sworn in as the 53rd Mayor of Seattle, he’s been a man on fire, overseeing the passage of measures to increase the minimum wage, fund Seattle bus routes and institute universal Pre-K in the city. In his State of the City address Tuesday afternoon, he resoundingly reminded a packed City Hall of those successes and presented a continuing progressive agenda heavily focused on equity and increased transparency.
His speech included an announcement of three new city projects to improve transportation planning, budget transparency and government progress and transparency. His plans to address affordable housing and economic development on the other hand were mostly non-specific.
After opening with a poem titled “I Have a Dream, Sequel,” from a young African-American student, the Mayor picked up on the issue that would be the plum line through his speech. “We see inequities,” he said, “between those who benefit [from growth] and those displaced by it, between those who can afford to live here and those being pushed out, between those who are coming to school, ready to learn and are graduating on time, and those who are not, between those who are safe from crime, and those who are at greater risk of crime because of who they are or where they live.”
As demonstrated by his nomination last week of of Parks and Rec superintendent Jesus Aguirre, the Mayor appears determined to bring social justice and racial equity to the forefront of every conversation.
As he settled in to the address, Murray began by listing what is indeed an impressively full calendar: Come April, Seattle’s minimum wage and parks programming will increase; come June, Murray’s successful transportation measure to increase bus service, passed by voters last November, will begin to take effect; in July, priority hiring for local construction workers will start; and in September, the city’s pre-K measure, also passed by voters last November, will provide a city-funded program for Seattle 3- and 4-year-olds.
Murray opened his policy agenda with, arguably, the most discussed question facing Seattle: Growth and planning. According to the Mayor, Seattle is growing faster than its suburbs for the first time in a century. In the next twenty years, he said, “Seattle is expected to add 120,000 people.”
How that growth should manifest itself has been hotly debated, namely around issues of gentrification and loss of culture. According to the Census Bureau, Seattle rents rose by more than any other U.S. city between 2010 and 2013, propelling it into position as the 10th most expensive place to live. Most believe that is a direct result of Seattle’s enormous growth.
“I’m really concerned about gentrification,” said Pamela Banks, CEO of the Urban League of Seattle. “Increasing minimum wage is great, but I know and you know, $11 dollars an hour isn’t enough to live in Seattle.”
Murray placed particular emphasis on bridging the disparity between the top and bottom economic brackets. “Growth should be about placing without displacing,” he said. “In 2013, the income of the top fifth of Seattle households was 19 times that of the lowest fifth.”
However, the mayor spent most of the time allotted for affordable housing focused on reliving the successful minimum wage increase. Murray's Joe the Plumber was one Malcolm Cooper-Suggs, a fast-food worker in the audience who Murray claimed would soon be able to start saving money rather than spending it all on rent. It wasn't until his last sentence on housing that Murray brought up the task force assembled by his office to find affordable housing solutions, a reminder that came with a new pledge: “$35 million of city resources to enact the recommendations of this advisory committee.” It was the most concrete number he would throw out all day.
After the address, councilmember Kshama Sawant was skeptical. “I’m not sure where that $35 million came from,” she said. “That’s not explained in the speech.” Sawant, who has made affordable housing one of her priorities, wondered if those funds were already allocated to the Office of Housing. If that’s the case, she said, “I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about funds that are already allocated.”
The mayor also pledged to revise the city’s Comprehensive Plan, placing a new emphasis on equity in planning for new development. “In the coming weeks,” he said, “I am sending a resolution to council that recognizes race and social justice as one of the core values of the plan.” He also promised to increase digital outreach to populations most affected by development, namely lower class, immigrant and refugee communities.
He did not address how, exactly, that outreach and emphasis on race would affect city decision-making.
In between comments on affordable housing and equity in economic development, Murray praised the economic success of Amazon, the company many like to blame for spurring Seattle's disproportional growth. He called the company’s presence in Seattle lucky, saying that the city needs a more coordinated strategy to promote further economic development. That strategy, he suggested, should include expanded conversations with a wider array of players in Seattle's business community. Again, specifics were sparse.
The mayor was most concrete when addressing transportation and government performance, announcing the launch of three new government-led projects all meant to coordinate city efforts
The first, Move Seattle, will combine the city’s many transportation plans into one strategy that, according to Murray, “is greater than the sum of its parts. Said the mayor, “We will use Move Seattle to guide our investments as we renew our transportation levy this year.”
The second, Performance Seattle, is an interactive website for city departments to contribute data on how well they are achieving their goals. “In the coming months,” said Murray, “all city departments will set performance targets and report regularly to the public on their progress.”
The final is OpenBudget, another website, soon-to-be-launched, that will allow citizens to clearly see how city money is being spent.
Many who attended, including Urban League CEO, Banks, were most interested to hear what the mayor would say about police reforms.
“Our efforts to reform the Seattle Police Department remain a top priority of my administration,” Murray assured the crowd. He promised to introduce measures to bring about a more diverse police force, better training in de-escalation tactics, more extensive investigations into misconduct, a streamlined complaint process and more transparency sometime this spring.
Still, after the fact, Banks wished he’d been more specific. “I just feel like we’ve got to get a little deeper. It’s the training, and then what?”
Activist Rose Harriot, 28, agreed. “It’s not a lot of specifics. He’s willing to talk about, possibly, in some way, in the future, maybe doing something about it.”
His address may have lacked the specifics some desired, but Tuesday’s speech was certainly notable for the efforts it made toward advancing a citywide conversation about inequity.
"Forty percent of African-Americans will fail to graduate on time from our high schools, or at all," Murray ended. "Homicide is the leading cause of death of young, African-American men. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of Caucasians."
“It’s time for Seattle to talk with each other about how we heal the wounds of race.”