An immoral document

Jim Wallis, the long-time leader of the progressive Christian activist group Sojourners, is credited with coining the now-cliche phrase that “a budget is a moral document” – meaning that for government budgets, the assumptions, priorities, and choices made in those hundreds of pages of annual line items have real impacts on the lives of real people. They are the moral choices of the political leaders who pass it.

By many measures, then, new Seattle mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $4.8 billion dollar 2015-16 budget for the City of Seattle is a disappointingly immoral document.

Headlines for Murray’s proposal focused on policing; the mayor wants to set aside $3.3 million for the hiring and training of new officers in response to a surge in crime in core downtown neighborhoods. Murray’s office also has been promoting the inclusion of $1.5 million in new services (and funding to cover previous unbudgeted shelter costs) to address Seattle’s exploding homeless population.

The fact that 2015 will be Year Ten of King County’s “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness” might suggest that more status quo, band-aid approaches to housing and homelessness won’t work any better next year than they have in the last decade. Murray might, just possibly, ask why more people than ever are living on our streets.

Actually, he does, sort of – his budget includes money for two years of study by a new “Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee” to determine why Seattle doesn’t have enough affordable housing. Think of it as Seattle’s “45,921 Year Plan to Create Affordable Housing.”

Murray’s approach is sort of like paying 20 people to dig a hole while you pay a 21st person to study why your hole keeps getting deeper. Seattle doesn’t need to study its affordable housing problem; the answer is breathtakingly obvious. When you spend decades tearing down existing affordable housing to make way for record numbers of new, high-priced housing (a staggering 25,000 new units just in the last three years, with far more in the pipeline), and when you basically underwrite developers’ massive new schemes in the name of a particularly upscale kind of density, and when every discretionary transportation dollar is spent not on transportation but on improving real estate values, this is what you get.

For each of the last four years Seattle has had the highest rent increases of any large US city, and 2014 will be no exception – even the middle class is being priced out of the city, a phenomenon that is an entirely predictable consequence of years of budgets just like the one Murray is proposing. “Studying” the issue is a polite way to justify continuing to make the problem worse for at least the next two years.

Meanwhile, on the transportation front, Seattle’s love for enhancing real estate values continues – the Major Projects budget includes another $27 million for the endless Paul Allen Beautification Project gridlocking the Mercer Street Corridor, and $303 million for the downtown waterfront as the city prepares for the Alaskan Way Viaduct to come down and Bertha rests peacefully. Bizarrely, 14 years after being damaged in the Nisqually Quake, there’s still nothing for the Magnolia Bridge. When even traditionally wealthy neighborhoods can’t get existing infrastructure fixed, what chance do ordinary Seattle neighborhoods have of acquiring the new infrastructure that can support those 25,000 new units?

By any objective measure Seattle is experiencing an unhprecedented economic boom. There hasn’t been this much new construction since gold was discovered in the Yukon; downtown and South Lake Union alone have scores of new high-rises under construction, and neighborhoods across the city are riddled with detours and orange cones to accommodate the cranes. Unemployment is relatively low. Retail districts are bustling.

But all this is coming at a price – literally. The environmental, anti-sprawl veneer given to the city’s zealous promotion of market rate “density” dulls pretty quickly when working and middle class residents are forced to move to Renton or Everett to find affordable rents – and then need cars to commute because of inadequate public transit funding that is impractical for anyone needing to travel on, say, evenings, or weekends, or with multiple stops. Most people aren’t young, able-bodied, and childless – we can’t just bicycle everywhere. (For those who try to stay in Seattle anyway, not to worry: we’ll have more patrol officers to deal with these miscreants.) Meanwhile, even for city workers, Murray’s budget doesn’t fund even the first steps toward a $15 per hour minimum wage that Murray promised early in his term last winter.

Instead, the mayor’s budget doubles down on the McGinn years’ vision of a idealized Seattle in which most of its residents are childless 30-something, well-paid hipster tech workers. Some of us are that cliche – but most of us aren’t. Sadly, the moral of Murray’s budget story is that the rest of us don’t much matter.

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