Councilmember Kshama Sawant and a group of faith leaders held a press event on Friday, June 19th, to bring attention to a letter submitted to the Mayor and City Council by Black Faith Leaders seeking City funding for affordable housing and more. (Credit: Kshama Sawant)

Calling for a “Central Area Housing Plan” that seeks to remedy decades of gentrification that have displaced Black residents from Seattle’s Central District, last week a group of pastors from African American churches held a press conference with Councilmember Kshama Sawant to draw attention to a letter they had submitted to the Mayor and City Council earlier this month detailing their call for action.

The letter, which was signed by Rev. Jeffery of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Lawrence Willis of Truevine of Holiness Baptist Church, and Rev. Willie Seals of The Christ Spirit Church, contains a list of initiatives ranging from specific to broad that the pastors desire to see implemented. It also contains a call for Seattle as a “progressive” city to “honor the legacy of George Floyd and the many unsung heroes who fight for justice and an end to racism” by changing the “landscape after the pandemic so that Seattle becomes a great place for African Americans to live and thrive for generations to come.”

Funding for the initiatives would come from the $500 million payroll tax proposed by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, best known as the Amazon Tax.

An infographic depicting revenue sources and some potential investments from the proposed payroll tax. (Credit: Councilmember Kshama Sawant)

The proposed tax would raise revenue by imposing a 1.3% payroll tax on companies with more than $7 million in annual payroll. Nonprofits, grocery businesses, local government, and some other entities would all be exempt from the tax which Sawant and Morales estimate would be paid by about 800 companies, or roughly 2% of Seattle businesses.

Sawant has long called for a tax on big businesses to raise funds for affordable housing. During the press conference, she voiced her support for using funding from the Amazon Tax to fund the pastors’ requested initiatives.

“I’m proud… to stand here today with the faith leaders, with the Low Income Housing Institute, and with our neighborhood to demand that the city and its political establishment acknowledge the historic and current wrongs inflicted on the Black community, and commit to taking the concrete steps–not words but concrete steps, that faith leaders have outlined in their Central Area Housing plan. My socialist council office wholeheartedly supports all of the nine demands in their letter, just as I wholeheartedly support the demands of the King County Equity Now Coalition.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant

What is the Central Area Housing Plan?

The centerpiece of the pastors’ list of demands is the Central Area Housing Plan, which would use public funding to build 1,000 new affordable housing units over three years for “historic residents and those displaced from the Central Area.” The Central Area (also known as the Central District) has been historically defined as “bounded by East Madison on the north, Jackson Street on the south, 12th Avenue on the west and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way on the east.”

“This is not just about sterile housing. This is about rebuilding a community,” said Rev. Jeffrey of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. “[W]e need the City to get on board and to help us do this to rebuild villages, to rebuild communities, so we can help each other again like we used to. So we can nurture each other again like we used to.”

Reverend Jeffrey of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church addresses the crowd at a press event. (Credit: Kshama Sawant Facebook)

The Seattle Times‘ Gene Balk reported that Seattle’s Black population has fallen to 6.8%, its lowest level since the 1960s. Back in the 1970s, the Central District was nearly 75% Black, a number that has shrunk to less than 15% as gentrification has fueled the displacement of Black residents, many of whom have moved to Rainier Valley and South King County suburbs like Kent.

The Central Area’s borders are a bit fuzzy. Some definitions have it going farther south and east. This map shaved off some blocks to the west. (Credit: The Seattle Times)

In addition to funding from the proposed Amazon Tax, the pastors have called on the City to use $40 million in profits from the sale of the Mercer Megablock to fund the effort. The funding would be used to support African American churches and nonprofits who wish to build low-income and mixed-income housing.

The pastors have also requested that the City adapt the zoning code to allow for denser developments on church-owned or controlled properties if the churches commit to building low-income housing.

Are the pastors asking for reparations?

Using the funds from the Mercer Megablock sale to specifically benefit Seattle’s Black population could be prove to be controversial for a host reasons. However, throughout the press event speakers, including Sawant, made reference to the need for reparations for Seattle’s Black community, which has endured racism, economic exclusion, police brutality, and gentrification.

“We are here to endorse what the coalition is working on to be sure that we stop the systemic racism, the economic injustice, and that we have reparations for our Black and Brown communities,” said Rev. Angela Ying, Senior Pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ.

The notions of reparations is not completely foreign to contemporary American cities. Last year, Evanston, Illinois made headlines when it passed a law paying up to $10 million in cannabis tax revenue into a reparations fund for Black residents, citing the how the historical injustices of slavery and the war on drugs continue to affect Black Americans. In Evanston, local leaders and residents have been conducting town halls to determine how the reparations will be spent. Current top priorities include investments in housing, business development and education.

“Reparations are any resources, no matter how large or how small, no matter how narrowly or broadly administered,” said Kamm Howard, national co-chairperson for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America in an article in The Daily Northwestern. “If these resources are targeted towards the repair or healing of current injuries from past harms, it is in fact reparations.”

In addition to calling for initiatives that would benefit Seattle’s Black community, the pastors have also called for other measures that would benefit Seattle’s marginalized and vulnerable residents with a focus on people of color. These initiatives include the creation of 5,000 units permanent supportive housing, 10 to 20 new tiny house villages for people exiting homelessness, pre-apprenticeship training programs, and an end to homeless encampment removals.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.