Does Seattle Mayor Ed Murray take business and Seattle’s strong economy for granted? Maybe not. But he shouldn’t assume the golden goose is invulnerable to outside shocks or policy blunders from City Hall.
Before coming to Seattle, I covered business news in five big cities and two smaller ones. In every case, the mayors were de facto chief economic development officers.
Recruiting new companies, retaining existing ones and focusing on business and job creation were among their most important tasks. Along with failing to plow the streets after a snowstorm, indifference to the local economy could mean electoral doomsday for these mayors.
Seattle is different.
In his State of the City address this past week, Mayor Ed Murray noted cranes on the skyline, high median income and 90,000 jobs created since 2010. But he did so almost as a bystander.
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What captured his passion, aside from delivering the speech at a mosque in the age of Donald Trump, was helping the marginalized, especially the homeless:
“But for many — in fact, for thousands who are losing hope and witnessing Seattle’s renewed vitality from the sidelines — our city’s success is only a harsh notice that they are living in another Seattle: the ‘Other Seattle,’ ” he said.
As for businesses, he called on them “to raise $25 million over the next five years focused on disruptive innovations that will get more homeless individuals and families into housing.”
One could argue that “disruptive innovations” tend to push the most vulnerable further down the mountainside. But set that aside. I suppose he’s trying to use tech lingo in technopolis.
In addition, Murray proposed a five-year, $275 million property-tax levy to double spending on homelessness.
Good intentions noted — but the plan raises some serious questions.
The 2016 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that nationally, chronic homelessness continued to decline.
Its rise in Seattle coincides with increased funding for what Murray declared a homelessness “crisis.”
This discrepancy raises the question: Is the city assessing whether its policies are exacerbating the problem and drawing people from elsewhere?
I interact with street people almost every day and have yet to encounter one who is actually from here. Late last year, I was on a street in Phoenix when a homeless man noticed my Mariners cap. He told me he wanted to get to Seattle “because it’s Freeattle.” True story.
Also, the term “homeless” is murky, encompassing many discrete groups and conditions.
A woman working at minimum wage can lose her job and be evicted — this is an unsheltered person who can be effectively helped.
Other individuals, beset with addiction or mental illness, are no less precious in the eyes of the Lord. But they are more difficult to help. Many of the chronic homeless in this group require a continuum of approaches and support beyond simple housing. Some don’t want to abide by shelter rules, or are afraid of being victims of theft there. No one wants to be on the street when it’s freezing cold and raining, but some portion of the cohort once called hobos prefers freedom over a conventional life.
One thing that’s clear is numerous nonprofits have a stake in ever-expanding funding of the “crisis.”
Whether the city is properly overseeing how the money is spent is a big question. Are the programs providing pathways to self-sufficiency and productive lives where possible? Or is even asking that being too judgmental?
Considering the “crisis” has gotten worse here despite added funding, is the most intelligent response to ask that businesses pony up another $25 million on top of their taxes and payrolls?
If so, use some of it to pay for rigorous, independent studies as to why this expansion in the homeless population is happening. Is our approach flawed or even making the problem worse? It’s important to know.
Otherwise, the implication of Murray’s request, intended or not, is that the problems of “the Other Seattle” are a consequence of companies that choose to invest here and the people who work for them and pay taxes.
Perhaps I am being too harsh.
As the City Council moves ever more to the left, especially with Tim Burgess deciding not to run again, Murray is the moderate. The one whom business can do business with (hence his embrace of Weyerhaeuser moving to Pioneer Square). And yes, the City Council approves upzoning to help “class enemy” developers. It’s a funny town that way — construction fees help fund social programs and the upzoning comes with affordable-housing requirements.
Nobody would be laughing if Seattle were not so blessed with (trigger warning) capitalism and commerce in abundance. It happens in a mixed economy with a great university, abundant government funding, visionary civic stewards and tolerance that draws talent.
Together, it enables experiments such as the $15 minimum wage and the many rules on companies and landlords that they wouldn’t face outside the city limits.
And it allows the mayor to be primarily an evangelist for the less fortunate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But let’s hope Murray and City Hall can walk and chew gum at the same time — provide sanctuary and pay attention to the economy.
Bellevue is hungry to steal Seattle assets, to a place that can claim to be cleaner, with fewer street people and no “war on cars.” Indeed, the generation of Bellevue leaders who will follow suburban pioneer Kemper Freeman are distinctly urbanist and could give Seattle serious competitive trouble.
Elsewhere, America has plenty of authentic cities with great downtowns and universities that are competing with Seattle for new companies and advanced industries.
Another risk is a recession that seriously mauls Amazon and the tech companies. Or one brought on by a trade war. That crisis would call for political leadership, perhaps even a mayor who must have an economic focus like peers in less fortunate cities.
Still, San Francisco has gone for decades with the easy coexistence of a strong economy and politics that are far to the left of the American mainstream. The most successful cities are blue, not red.
So maybe the message is: Carry on, Mr. Mayor. But, with all due respect to Satchel Paige, do look back occasionally. Something might be gaining on you.