Last year members of the Wallingford Community Council (WCC) threw a mock funeral for the “neighborhood voice” at the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development’s open house on the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) rezone maps. The democratic process was being subverted, they argued. The City wasn’t listening to the neighborhoods (by which they meant community councils like their own).
Some neighbors would dispute that the councils speak for them and point to elections to show they aren’t democratic–Wallingford residents are each required to pay $15 (or plead their case for a waiver) by tomorrow (Tuesday, April 24th) to participate in the WCC election on May 9th. Wallingford resident Paul Chapman, who ran unsuccessfully for a WCC board seat, last May pointed to the groups lack of published minutes and flouting of its own bylaws to illustrate his point.
“It’s hard to know if the WCC intentionally contravened its by-laws or if it was simply due to a lack of attention to details. Regardless, by failing to adhere to the spirit and letter of its by-laws, the WCC board is continuing a pattern of silencing the neighborhood voice by excluding broader engagement among the Wallingford community by concentrating control of the organization in the hands of an entrenched minority,” Chapman said. “The board has not provided the minutes of board meetings to the general membership since November of 2016, maintaining a lack of transparency and accountability.”
Much of the tension stems from the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, which pairs modest upzones with mandatory contributions to low-income housing. Some Wallingford residents, such as the group Welcoming Wallingford, are organizing to pass MHA. Meanwhile, the WCC signed on to an Final Environment Impact Statement (FEIS) appeal seeking to block the rezone and affordability program. They’ve also printed and distributed anti-MHA lawn signs across the neighborhood.
“This pattern of silencing the neighborhood voice has been embodied in the WCC Board Appeal of the Seattle HALA MHA FEIS,” Chapman said. “A primary reason the WCC board entered into a legal appeal of the City’s environmental impact statement is because they saw ‘violations of citizen rights to meaningful participation’ and a lack of community engagement and transparency. However, while the WCC claims to “to encourage cooperative and democratic processes” and to ‘represent community interests,’ there was no advance notice to membership that the WCC Board was considering legal action. The general membership was not consulted nor given opportunity discuss whether the organization should start legal action. The board provided no minutes of the meeting where the decision was made. There was no transparency or democratic process.”
The WCC did not give much advance notice of its annual election for officers and board members. On April 15th the WCC posted an announcement on its website with the warning to get dues in within nine days or be ineligible to vote. Paying the poll tax at the poll would be too simple. WCC did email their subscriber list on April 3rd an update that included announcement of the Annual Membership meeting at the bottom, technically meeting the WCC by-laws dictate 30 days notice for the annual membership meeting. The by-laws also stipulate a lengthy nominating process that was supposed to start in January, when they didn’t hold a meeting. Nominations to be considered for a position were apparently due on April 18th three days after the website announcement. As such, it kind of seems like the same old guard leadership will stay in charge, with limited avenue for new input.
“I asked them if they had done outreach,” Welcoming Wallingford member Jessica Westgren said. “They started a mailing program, but by the last meeting I went to they hadn’t reached 50% of the Wallingford population before this vote.”
So why should you care who runs the Wallingford Community Council? The short answer is that we need to diversify the voices in neighborhood activism and reclaim the mantle of “neighborhood voice” from those who would abuse it.
The longer answer relates to history. It’s true that two years ago then-Mayor Ed Murray de-emphasized Neighborhood District Councils–to which the community councils get to elect representatives–by no longer earmarking City staff hours for attending District Council meetings. That move, announced in 2016, decreased the official power district councils (and thus community councils) wield, which had involved controlling three important neighborhood grant streams. Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods Coordinator Kathy Nyland pointed to the need to design a system that better incorporates the views of younger people, people of color, and renters and encourages their participation.
“District Councils work for a limited segment of the overall population…residents attending District Council meetings tend to be 40 years of age or older, Caucasian, and homeowners,” Nyland said. “This is in contrast to the Seattle population: Median age of 36…34 percent are people of color…and 52 percent rent.”
Even with the change, community councils retain considerable influence as well-resourced special interest groups and from their decades of agitating–with many of them focusing on maintaining status quo zoning or downzoning. Often you hear single-family-zoning preservationist longingly look to the halcyon days of the early 1990’s when the City allowed community councils to rewrite their neighborhood plans and zoning just how these homeowner groups liked them–typically this meant as little multi-family zoning as possible. If you go back far enough in land use history, you reach the days when detached single-family zoning was devised with an aim of keeping people of color and lower class people out of wealthy white neighborhoods. Urban single-family zoning is not as outwardly as segregationist as the racial covenants that outlawed people of color from many Seattle neighborhoods in the early 1900’s, but the effect is very similar.
Plus, if the neighborhood planning process doesn’t go their way, some councils have shown themselves to be deep-pocketed and all too willing to sue to delay changes as we saw with not just the MHA FEIS appeal, but also the backyard cottage bill and on a project by project level, such as this delayed Phinney Ridge project.
For my part, I tried my hand running for the WCC in 2016. I lost to a guy who opposes Seattle’s Housing Levy and got nominated from the floor. In a way, I’m relieved I lost. I stopped going to WCC meetings, but the handful I’ve attended have been fairly excruciating–usually with at least 30 minutes dedicated to complaining about parking and the apartment dwellers who are taking “their” on-street spots. It might come as a revelation, but people who do not own a car (e.g., me) do not find parking loss a riveting topic. My impression was that people wanting to work on things other than blocking MHA and hoarding parking may not find much for them at a WCC meeting.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Community councils could focus on parking reform, tenant protections, bike network upgrades, safe pedestrian crossings, wider sidewalks, Vision Zero, street/alley activation, Barcelona superbocks, or an aggressive climate action plan. Imagine the possibilities and the attention we could lavish on making better places for people when we stop worrying so much about car storage!
The Wallingford Community Council’s annual membership meeting starts with member sign-in at 6:30pm on Wednesday, May 9th at the Good Shepherd Center. If you want to vote, you’ll have to pay your dues of get a waiver by tomorrow (April 24th). You must live within the WCC’s boundaries which run from SR-99 to I-5 and from Lake Union north to 65th Street. Or if that sounds too intimidating, Welcoming Wallingford would be glad to have you, no dues necessary.
Author’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that WCC did email their subscribers list on April 3rd which technically met the requirement for 30 days notice set out in the by-laws–even if the website announcement lagged somewhat.
Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.