Last month, Columbia City resident Ray Akers attended a meeting of the Southeast District Council, an umbrella community group that advises the city on the needs and wants of the Rainier Valley and surrounding neighborhoods. Akers, whose extended family has lived in the Rainier Valley for more than 100 years, was already steamed at council leadership, which he feels has been taken over by people who do not live in Southeast Seattle. So when Vice President Joy Bryngelson, a Skyway resident and Seattle Housing Authority employee who works with tenant groups at SHA's NewHolly development, told him he couldn't sit at a table reserved for voting members, he called her a "fucking bitch," according to numerous people present.
"I wish instead of using curse words, I had referred to her as what she really is: an interloper and a carpetbagger," says Akers, who declines to confirm the specific wording of his alleged slur. Bryngelson counters that where she lives is irrelevant, because she represents 1,200 southeast residents in her SHA capacity.
In any case, City Council member Sally Clark says, "That meeting was just a complete train wreck." Clark recalls watching the proceedings devolve into a long discussion of Akers' comments and leadership's attempt to get him to leave. (He refused.) The implosion was especially disappointing, Clark notes, because the September meeting followed a two-month hiatus that she hoped would allow participants to cool off after a June meeting in which the district council's treasurer, Tony To, got into a heated exchange with a Mount Baker resident named Dan Fink. According to To, Fink came up to him after a meeting and said, "I'm going to kick your ass." To says he then filed a police report accusing Fink of threatening him.
Fink, however, says police have told him no such report exists, and that a joking remark was misinterpreted by To, who then got in his face and started swearing. "We got a Hillman City boxing gym," says Fink, implying the two could settle the matter inside it.
This very un-Seattle display of bare-knuckles politics has just about everybody involved with the district council on the verge of tears, fury, or both. "I hate coming to meetings," says council President Leslie Miller, who joined the group two years ago through her involvement with the Rainier-Othello Safety Association. She says nobody is able to talk about anything of substance anymore, except who should and shouldn't be permitted to vote on council business—an issue scheduled to be taken up at a meeting on Oct. 24.
On one side are residents who feel that the council has been invaded by nonprofit agencies with a social-engineering agenda that would shove more density and low-income housing down their throats. "The neighborhood has lost its voice," says Pat Murakami, a longtime leader of the Mount Baker Community Club and a member of the district council's executive committee who is at odds with the rest of the leadership. On the other side are newcomers to the scene, including the nonprofits, who say that they are a voice for diversity. "Everything comes down to whether or not people have an analysis of, and commitment to, racial justice," says Michele Thomas, an organizer for the nonprofit Tenants Union, who is one of the council's newer members.
The backdrop for this face-off is a flurry of development that, as the rest of the city gets built out, has finally hit the South End. "We've been fighting for economic development down here for many, many years," says To, who represents the Rainier Chamber of Commerce on the council, and is also the executive director of HomeSight, a nonprofit organization that promotes affordable housing. "Now things are happening, whether we want it or not."
To wit, light-rail construction has come barreling through the valley, with its huge infrastructure changes, displacement of businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and promise of new enterprise soon to be attracted to the spruced-up corridor. In addition, the Seattle Housing Authority launched two major redevelopment efforts in recent years, at Rainier Vista and NewHolly, that turned drab subsidized housing projects into shiny mixed-income communities.
Private developers have also flocked to the area. HAL Real Estate Investments recently paid approximately $7 million for Columbia Plaza, a prime Columbia City locale that currently houses low-end retail. A few blocks south on Rainier Avenue South, Harbor Properties plans to develop hundreds of units of housing, as well as thousands of feet of retail, according to Akers, a Realtor who represents Harbor. And a number of developers have built smaller clusters of townhomes and condos.
In spite of his prior advocacy for economic development, all this raises a troubling question for To. "What happens when people get pushed out because rents go up?" he wonders aloud. Herein, To and his allies are searching for tools to guide development so that it includes some affordable housing. It is one of those tools that blew up in the district council's face and helped set the organization down its currently perilous path.
Last year, the city's Office of Economic Development floated the possibility of designating a broad swath of Southeast Seattle as a "community renewal" area. Paradoxically, the official state designation would be based on a finding that the area is "blighted," a ghettolike connotation that flies in the face of recent development in neighborhoods like Columbia City, as well as long-standing affluence in shoreline burgs like Mount Baker and Seward Park.
Part of the rationale for blighting this varied terrain was that development was only hitting areas like Columbia City, while areas like Rainier Beach languished. But another part of the rationale was that such a designation would allow neighborhood groups to harness development to their own ends. A community-renewal label gives the city the power of eminent domain—thus forcing property owners to sell—a power that Sound Transit had only recently exercised in the valley, resulting in considerable bitterness among those who were pushed out.
Under its new-guard leadership, the Southeast District Council disseminated information about community renewal, and some members warmed to it. The Tenants Union's Thomas says eminent domain "can allow the community to have control over development instead of keeping it in the hands of private developers." Her organization envisioned a community board that would approve forced sales.
But the district council's old guard feared instead that the mayor would begin doling out acquired parcels to his developer buddies. "You don't bulldoze some poor family, force them to move out of their home, and then use it to build a Kinko's," says Murakami. "Then you don't have gentrification—you have gentrification on speed." Murakami also notes that a designation of blight would "affect our ability to sell our homes, get a home loan, or get [house] insurance."
Others complained that agencies like HomeSight, which need land to build affordable housing, were pushing eminent domain out of self-interest. About 20 eminent-domain opponents attended a training session on how to fight the practice that was put on by the Seattle office of Institute for Justice, a national libertarian legal organization.
As rancor grew over the possibility of eminent domain, the city killed the notion. But in its wake have arisen other contentious issues, which have been funneled into a debate on who legitimately belongs on the district council. Murakami and her allies point to a 1987 City Council resolution that says district councils should be composed of community councils and neighborhood business organizations. Thus, they say, nonprofits like the Tenants Union, the Legacy of Equality, Leadership and Organizing (LELO), and the Homestead Community Land Trust should not be permitted membership—or, at most, should organize into one group that would have a single voice on the council rather than one vote per organization, as at present. "People on the district council need to live in the southeast," says Murakami. "They need to live with the consequences of their decisions."
The other side points to an amendment that says district councils can add members at their discretion, and should seek to reflect the diversity of their district. Whether adding paid professionals who purport to represent diverse constituencies satisfies this directive is an open question. Bryngelson, for one, notes that she has tried to get NewHolly residents to council meetings themselves, but that the few who have come have been put off by the "scary" atmosphere.
In a way, the debate seems odd because the council's opinions on matters carry no official authority, but are often taken by the city to represent the collective voice of a neighborhood or cluster of neighborhoods. Either way, the meeting on Oct. 24 is not expected to alleviate matters much. There is to be a vote on a proposed set of bylaws that would address membership criteria, but the validity of the proposal is itself in question given that a bylaws committee disbanded by council leadership came up with a separate proposal, one that is unfavorable to nonprofits.
"Everybody wants the city to step in and take their side and restore order," City Council member Clark says. "It's hard."
Clark doesn't think the city should dictate who can and can't be members, though the city's Department of Neighborhoods is supposed to work with district councils and help them function smoothly. Acknowledging that something needs to be done, however, Clark says she is trying to get the city to offer a professional facilitator to take over the meetings, before concluding, "People are so bitter at this point."