Inside Seattle’s political clash over equitable development money

After major backlash from BIPOC leaders, Councilmember Maritza Rivera revised her proposal, but people still worry about funding for housing, clinics and arts spaces.

council woman martiza rivera sits behind a desk in seattle city hall

Councilmember Maritza Rivera listens to public commenters during a Seattle City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (Jason Redmond for Cascade PBS)

The drama began late Friday afternoon before the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

Seattle City Councilmember Maritza Rivera had introduced a technical amendment to a technical budget bill that spurred intense backlash from dozens of Black, Native, Latino and Asian community leaders and hundreds of their community members, along with housing and service providers, religious leaders and more.

It played out against the backdrop of a more than $250 million projected deficit in the 2025 city budget and fears about what programs and services might get cut to close the gap. 

The Council’s technical budget bill is a regularly scheduled process that allows city departments to reallocate unspent money from the previous year’s budget to the current year. Rivera’s amendment, if passed, would have placed a conditional hold called a proviso on $25.3 million allocated in the 2024 budget for the Equitable Development Initiative (EDI).

Launched in 2016, EDI helps grassroots groups pay for community-led developments including affordable housing, clinics, child care and education facilities, community and arts spaces and more. It is meant to reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities in communities that have faced displacement amid Seattle’s booming cost of living.  

Rivera’s amendment explained that the Council would lift the hold if the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) fully spent the $53.4 million in carry-forward EDI funds by Sept. 24 and provided a progress report about ongoing projects. If OPCD didn’t spend the money and the proviso wasn’t lifted, the $25.3 million would be removed from the department’s EDI budget and returned to the respective pots of city tax revenue it came from — primarily the Jumpstart Payroll Tax — where it could eventually be used for other purposes.

At the May 28 City Council meeting, during a marathon three-and-a-half-hour public comment period, more than 70 leaders from groups connected to EDI projects lambasted Rivera and her amendment.

“It’s a slap in the face to our community,” said Darrell Powell, president of NAACP Seattle King County. “Of the 76 projects you’re asking to take away, 27 are African American, 13 in the Central district, 14 in the Rainier Valley. I ask how many are in the north area that are being taken away. At best this is tone deaf. At worst it’s something more insidious.”

“[Amendment A] strips away the small advancement of equitable development that this city has committed to,” said Olisa Enrico, executive director of the Cultural Space Agency. “We understand the budget must be balanced but you must understand it is not on our backs. We deserve our spaces, we deserve to return home, we deserve to be here, and we deserve to do it together.”

In response to the backlash, Rivera ultimately withdrew her amendment. But she insisted that community advocates had misunderstood her intent.

“Let me be clear, the amendment does not cut the EDI program,” said Rivera at the May 28 meeting. “The amendment does not pull money away from existing projects. All 56 ongoing EDI projects would remain funded. That was made clear in the amendment. I’m deeply disappointed that the objective of this amendment has been mischaracterized.”

Rivera said her intent was to understand what OPCD is doing to help community organizations with the projects they’ve funded; find ways to speed their completion; and figure out why the EDI program always has leftover money that carries over to the following year.

Community advocates protested cuts to the Equitable Development Initiative and called for new taxes on the wealthy at a press conference inside Seattle City Hall, June 4, 2024. (Josh Cohen/Cascade PBS)

Since the program’s creation in 2016, 20 EDI projects have been completed, with another 56 in the pipeline.

Leah Martin, an architect who has worked with community groups on EDI projects, testified on May 28 that it is unfair to hold EDI projects to a higher standard than other housing projects, which can take as long as eight to 10 years to complete from design to permitting to construction.

Tanya Treat, a Duwamish Tribal Councilperson, testified that EDI recipients must “be given adequate time to deliver their projects — equivalent to or more so than with the grace that’s provided to city capital projects.”

EDI recipients feared that even if this year’s funding is safe, gaps in future funding could hurt their ability to finish the projects they’ve started. OPCD releases EDI project funding in phases. An EDI affordable-housing project, for example, could get a first round of funding for project design and land acquisition. They could then submit a proposal a year or two later for more funding for construction, and so on.

Ryan Donohue, chief advocacy officer for Habitat for Humanity’s local chapter, said a loss of EDI funding would jeopardize affordable housing for 200 people that’s already in Habitat’s construction pipeline.

Though Rivera’s amendment brought a laser focus to the future of EDI funding, the program was already in a holding pattern. As part of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s January hiring freeze, the Mayor’s Office and City Budget Office also imposed a temporary hold on any new or expanded grant proposal processes — known as “requests for proposals” — of more than $1 million. EDI is one of the city programs impacted by the hold, meaning community groups cannot apply for more money at the moment.

In an emailed statement, the Mayor’s Office said, “We’re seeking to review these in context of all projects and programs and to provide a complete understanding of upcoming financial commitments. Importantly, this does not mean these dollars will not go out the door, and multiple RFPs have moved forward.”

After withdrawing her amendment, Rivera introduced a new version that doesn’t put a hold on any EDI money. It instead asks OPCD to produce a status report by Sept. 24 on EDI projects underway, along with lessons learned to help speed their delivery.

Community advocates are still worried that the new amendment could ultimately lead to cuts for the EDI program, and that the focus on EDI now is a precursor to redirecting Jumpstart Payroll Tax revenue away from community development to close next year’s budget deficit.

A large group of EDI recipients and community leaders held a press conference before the June 4 City Council meeting to once again express their opposition to any changes to EDI funding, and to call on the city to impose new progressive taxes on wealthy residents to address the deficit, rather than cutting existing programs.

Leaders from Duwamish Tribe, Cultivate South Park, Khmer Community of South King County, El Centro de la Raza, InterIm Community Development Association, Friends of Little Saigon, Africatown Community Land Trust, Whose Streets? Our Streets!, United Indians of All Tribes, the Cultural Space Agency and Puget Sound Sage all spoke, along with Councilmember Tammy Morales.

“Despite the significant increase in our city’s millionaire population, our city is essentially facing bankruptcy in several key areas,” said Morales at the press conference, teeing up her call for new taxes. “Our public schools are about to close. And our general fund has a $250 million deficit. It pays to be rich in Seattle. And it is very expensive to be poor here. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“OPCD and EDI are already overextended,” said Christina Shimizu, Puget Sound Sage executive director, explaining the concern about Rivera’s new amendment. “And this level of extra reporting and scrutinization could be completely bypassed by the EDI team just giving a presentation to the City Council. Our concern is that additional scrutiny and reporting on OPCD and EDI would eventually trickle down to more barriers to community.”

At the June 4 City Council meeting, Councilmembers Rob Saka, Bob Kettle, Tanya Woo and Joy Hollingsworth all voiced strong support for the EDI program and its goals. They also expressed support for additional reporting and analysis from OPCD about the program.

Rivera’s new amendment passed 8-1, with Morales voting no. The underlying budget bill passed 9-0.

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