Throwing Neighborhoods Out With the Neighborhood Councils

City Hall’s anti-geographic rhetoric holds no water.

Earlier this year, on a visit to Department of Neighborhood director Kathy Nyland’s office in City Hall, a Seattle Weekly reporter noted a sticker on her door that read “HALA yes!” “I didn’t put that there!” Nyland was quick to say. You couldn’t blame her for being defensive.

The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda had badly frayed the relationship between City Hall and the neighborhoods Nyland’s office ostensibly represented. Of particular concern were the recommendations favored by developers and tenant-rights advocates that allowed duplexes and triplexes in parts of the city heretofore reserved for single-family homes. That recommendation, adopted by Mayor Ed Murray with the stated intent of quelling the city’s skyrocketing real-estate prices, was seen by many in the leafy hinterlands north of the Ship Canal as a direct strike against their “neighborhood character.” Nyland was stuck in the middle.

However, the Department of Neighborhoods could stay neutral for only so long. On Monday, it made its move. In a 10-page report released with little fanfare, the department issued a stinging indictment of Seattle’s neighborhood-based district council system. Created 30 years ago, Seattle’s councils, 13 in all, are a manifestation of Seattle as a “city of neighborhoods,” a formal place at the table for the quirks and nuances of Seattle’s various burgs. But per the Department’s report, the councils also represent “a valid, yet narrow, niche” and “don’t work for everyone because of the existing barriers to participation.” In other words, they were packed with old, rich, white people.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Murray said essentially the same thing when he pre-empted the department’s report with a surprise announcement last Wednesday that he would dissolve all formal relationships between the mayor’s office and the councils. (For more on Murray’s announcement, click here). The mayor’s announcement rendered the Department of Neighborhood’s report a ceremonial shovelful of dirt on the district council system’s grave. And yet the report is worth pondering, as it seems to indicate a new City Hall stance toward not just neighborhood councils, but neighborhoods in general—that stance being that they are completely overrated.

“Every community group, including District Councils, should welcome new and emerging community groups and organizations into their membership,” reads one section of the report that is impossible to argue against. But then things get weird. “This could prove challenging as many of our existing systems and programs largely define ‘community’ as being primarily geographic in nature, leaving out those who build and experience community around non-geographic concepts, like language, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or issue-based interests.”

Geographic concepts? Is that all South Park and Wallingford and Lake City and Rainier Beach are?

This mind-set should get rooted out of city government before it takes further hold. Neighborhoods, unlike religions or languages, are at their very essence the product of city governance: The city decided where the houses would go and where the businesses would go, where the crosswalks would go and where the playgrounds would go. For those charged with overseeing the further development of the city to now suggest that the functioning of these individual neighborhoods should be of no more concern than the functioning of a particular immigrant population or tax-bracket is, simply put, a dereliction of duty.

This isn’t to say there weren’t problems with the neighborhood council system as it existed prior to Murray’s action last week. It was indeed dominated by older, richer white people. This too the Department of Neighborhoods report bore out. But to use the lack of diversity—a condition that plagues all sorts of institutions in our city—as a pretense to summarily dismiss the very concept of neighborhood-based decision-making makes little sense.

The Department of Neighborhoods is scheduled to develop a new community-input framework to replace neighborhood councils over the coming months, and present it to the City Council in September. As it does, it should maintain its worthy goal of finding ways to include more diverse voices in conversations about our neighborhoods. But in doing so, the city should also ensure that the neighborhoods it helped create remain more than just “geographic concepts.”

This editorial has been modified for the sake of clarity.

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