The city of Seattle seems to have everything going for it. It’s created a quarter of a million new jobs over the past decade, fueled in large part by one of its biggest employers, Amazon. As a result, the population has grown more than that of any other large city, which sounds like a very good thing. But residents don’t seem satisfied with the ability of political leaders to handle the challenges that come with growth.
Growth always presents trials, and Seattle seems to have all of them. The influx of jobs and people has meant that roads, already congested, have backed up even more. Housing prices have skyrocketed, which in turn has exacerbated the serious problem of homelessness. “Mayor [Jenny] Durkan’s been dealt a tough hand,” says Don Blakeney of the Downtown Seattle Association. “This is a city that has a lot of challenges coming at it and has a lot of needs.”
Seattle hasn’t reelected a mayor since 2006, and Durkan has received mixed reviews during her first year on the job. She’s been given credit for convincing voters to approve a big school levy and has generally gotten her way on budget questions, but she’s been slow to make some key appointments and was forced into an embarrassing reversal on a business tax meant to fund homeless programs, resulting in a compromise that seemed to satisfy no one. Meanwhile, two of the seven council members up for reelection in 2019 decided to bow out. They may soon be joined by a third.
Seattle could be suffering from a “great expectations” effect. The very fact that the city is so prosperous, with new wealth driven by technological innovation, leads people to wonder why solutions to its problems remain so elusive. Just as people used to wonder how the nation could put a man on the moon but not deal with basic domestic problems, Seattle residents wonder why their town can add 250,000 jobs but can’t get its act together. “We have a sense that Seattle has become the ‘it’ city,” says Nick Licata, a former council member, “and yet not only have the number of homeless people increased, but in neighborhoods people are seeing more homeless encampments.”
As the battle over the homeless tax showed, different constituencies in Seattle are working at cross-purposes. That fight produced a standard division between Amazon and other large businesses worried about paying more taxes -- even as they generally agreed something had to be done about homelessness -- and advocacy groups concerned with housing availability and costs and gentrification. In January, Microsoft pledged $500 million in grants and loans to address the city's housing shortage.
There have also been fights among activist groups. Some of them have lost sight of the big picture, arguing fiercely over small-dollar programs, rather than worrying about larger regional issues. Coalitions sometimes form around topics such as transit, but distrust remains endemic among groups that would seem to have similar goals.
Seattle is only one city within a huge metropolitan region of nearly 4 million people. Internally, the very structure of Seattle government has made it more parochial. Four years ago, most council seats moved from at-large to district representation. Having smaller districts offers the various neighborhoods of the city greater representation, but it has also made council members much more attentive to highly local concerns, sometimes at the expense of the city as a whole.
But solving small problems at the district level would go a long way toward restoring trust in city government. In the meantime, Seattle is suffering from a gap between public expectations and the reality of what can be delivered. “We have the odd situation of having progressive politicians and an outstanding economy,” Licata says, “with growing frustration from voters who believe their more mundane concerns are being ignored.”
*CORRECTION: In a previous version, Don Blakeney's name was misspelled.