Reforming Seattle’s Broken Neighborhood Engagement System

These community members have overcome the barriers to participating in the current system to make their voices heard. Now, the City is trying to reform its outreach to bring everyone into the conversation.

These community members have overcome the barriers to participating in the current system to make their voices heard. Now, the City is trying to reform its outreach to bring everyone into the conversation.


Since the late ’80s, District Councils have been the City’s primary means of implementing citizen participation in the political process. The Councils are responsible for recommending local projects to the Mayor and City Council for Neighborhood Matching Fund grants. These District Councils also receive the lion share of DON staff support from 8 district coordinators.

As Director of the Department of Neighborhoods (DON), Kathy Nyland recently facilitated an evaluation of the City’s current engagement strategies—chiefly the district council system—and found a profound gap in representation. The demographics of the people currently serving on Seattle’s 13 District Councils are in remarkable contrast to the actual make-up of their communities (explained in this article from Seattle Met summarizing DON’s findings).

In her evaluation, Nyland explains that “Seattle’s population demographics are changing and DON needs to re-envision our approach to public engagement; re-think how to best connect with underrepresented communities; and retool our strategies to reach a broader cross-section of Seattle’s population, including ethnic and cultural groups, seniors, youth, home-owners, and renters.”

Nyland recognizes that the voices of many communities are not being heard under the current methods of outreach. “Many District Council members choose to define “community” as neighborhoods that are geographically based, leaving out those who build and experience community around non-geographical concepts, like language, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or issue-based interests.”

This is an important finding, because if the City’s current system of community engagement is taking recommendations from groups of people that do not speak for the breadth of voices in their neighborhood, then it is failing its fundamental objective to “promote, support, and involve citizen participation at the neighborhood level” as stated in Resolution 27709, the legislation that created the District Council system.


Mayor Murray will sign an executive order today to retool the Department of Neighborhoods’ community outreach strategy and ditch the District Council system in favor of what he is calling the “Community Involvement Commission” (covered here by Josh Feit). This is a great time to get involved and help shape the new systems from the ground up.

For other perspectives on the current system: here is a piece by local blogger Erica Barnett that discusses District Council power dynamics in relation to HALA; here is an article by former mayor Michael McGinn touching upon a bit of everything; finally, here is information from the City about the structure of the neighborhood involvement system in Seattle.

Your Community Forum CliffsNotes

Your Community Forum CliffsNotes

On Thursday, May 26, more than a hundred community members gathered on Capitol Hill for Gearshift 2016: Capitol Hill Housing’s 11th annual forum on issues affecting the neighborhood. Deviating from the format of years past, this Community Forum offered rapid-fire presentations by local leaders on five separate projects to advance community interests as the Hill continues its explosive growth.

The speakers were just a catalyst for the most interesting part of the evening: small group discussions among attendees to determine the community’s priorities. Kshama Sawant, Lisa Herbold and other city officials joined the discussions, gathered feedback and reported out to the larger group.

Couldn’t make it? Don’t worry – here’s the Cliffs Notes version of each presentation and breakout group discussion. (more…)

Diving into the Dumpster Problem on Capitol Hill: Part 2 of 2

dumpstersHere it is, the long anticipated part deux of 2 posts on dumpsters. Back in March I posted a copy of the report we produced with funding through the Office of Economic Development where you can read the 15 mitigation strategies we offered to the City for consideration.

The City considered our recommendations and then decided to ignore most of them. The good news, they are moving forward with a plan to address the problem.

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) is leading the implementation of a very hands-on program that includes “reviewing polices on storing trash and recycling in the right-of-way and performing site reviews of businesses that have dumpsters stored on streets and sidewalks, with the goal of removing all dumpsters and carts from the right of way.”

In April, SPU began reaching out to impacted businesses to review alternative solid waste service options and costs. The utility is providing information on solid waste service types as well as recycle and compost service information and education.

We support SPU’s very high-touch approach. Each business has unique site characteristics that makes a one-size-fits-all solution untenable.

We also plan to stay connected to the implementation process. Capitol Hill Housing is partnering with the Capitol Hill Chamber’s Clean and Safe Committee to monitor SPU’s progress and participate in a six-month evaluation to see just how many dumpsters and totes are removed. We also will help develop a follow up strategy to the City’s outreach and education effort.

Thinking Outside of the Bin: Seattle Food Rescue & Capitol Hill Housing Team Up

Walking through your local grocery store at the end of the day, have you ever wondered what they do with all the food that didn’t sell? The sad truth is that most of it will be discarded. Americans throw away 37 million tons of food each year, nearly 1/3 of what is produced.

That is the kind of needless waste that Seattle Food Rescue (SFR) aims to prevent.Seattle Food Rescue

A completely volunteer-run organization, Seattle Food Rescue partners with local grocery stores to get those perfectly good, about-to-expire sandwiches, salads and produce into the hands of hungry, homeless and low-income Seattle residents. The best part? They do it all on bikes, reducing the environmental footprint of transporting the goods.

Until recently, SFR used a “hub and spoke” model, delivering to community organizations like food banks who would then distribute the food to individuals. But a new partnership with Capitol Hill Housing (CHH) has afforded an opportunity to pilot a direct distribution system.  Approximately twice a week, SFR volunteers haul a load of packaged perishable food and fresh produce on their bikes straight to the front door of three CHH buildings with particularly low-income residents.

SFR founder Tim Jenkins explained that the benefits of this model are numerous:
“In addition to building a sense of community, there are logistical benefits,” he shared.

Whereas at a food bank, goods near the end of their shelf life may sit for an additional day or two, direct delivery ensures that the food gets consumed immediately. Furthermore, donors enjoy the idea that they are supporting their own neighborhoods, and since the food is from nearby, the options are more likely to be culturally appropriate for the recipients.  As Jenkins put it, “We wanted to make [our service] a little more personal and keep it even more local than at the zip code level.”

CHH and its residents are thrilled. Elliot Swanson, CHH Resident Services Manager, noted that low-income residents often eat highly processed foods, since they usually provide more caloric “bang for your buck”—an important consideration for poor families,
who on average already spend almost a third of their income on food. The fresh foods delivered by SFR fill a nutritional gap left by other hunger relief organizations that rely on shelf-stable but more processed foods.

food_waste_headerBased on the overwhelmingly positive feedback from residents, both Jenkins and Swanson would like to see this pilot program expand to more CHH buildings. Eventually Swanson would
even like to coordinate cooking classes for residents, helping them to make the best use of the fresh produce.

Reducing waste, getting resources to people in need, using sustainable transportation, and  building community—Seattle Food Rescue offers a surprisingly simple solution to some of this city’s most pressing priorities.

If you’d like to get involved with the Seattle Food Rescue, email them at

EcoDistrict Index Update – Transportation

Bike Photo

Bicyclists crossing paths at 12th and Pike in mid-March.

This is the second post in a series on the EcoDistrict Index Update for 2015.  The first post can be found here.

As we celebrate the opening of the Capitol Hill light rail station, new transportation data from 2015 show that transformations in the way we get around the Hill are already underway.

There is no shortage of data points for transportation.  We’ve got survey data, payment data, police data, manual counts, and counts with different types of sensors.  There’s data on driving, walking, biking, taking transit, and more.  In all but one area, we are seeing big progress, and even the bad news might be good news in disguise.

Big Progress

2015 was a much safer year on the streets in Capitol Hill.  There were no traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries declined from 12 in 2013 to 10.  These numbers experience some natural fluctuation year to year, but combined, the two year comparison indicates a 23% decrease in serious injuries and fatalities.

Safer streets generally correlate with less driving and we are seeing that too.  In our baseline data, a 5-year census survey covering 2007-2011, 31% of Capitol Hill residents drove to work, already low by Seattle standards.  In the new 5 year survey covering 2010-14, that percentage fell to 28%.

We also see big increases in bicycle and pedestrian traffic at key intersections.  At the 6 major intersections where we counted bicycles in both 2013 and 2015, bicycling is up 36%, 12% of the way towards our goal of tripling bicycle traffic.  The biking changes were visible across the board – in the morning, in the evening, and at all major intersections – with particular growth at 15th and John and 12th/Madison/Union and the slowest growth at Pike and Melrose and Broadway and John.

Walking Photo

Capitol Hill has some of the busiest pedestrian traffic in Seattle and it’s getting busier.

Pedestrian traffic was up big too, 18%.  Because walking on Capitol Hill has always been common, we only expected pedestrian volumes to increase by 33% by 2030.  In just two years, we are already 54.5% of the way towards our goal.  We may need to raise our sights.  Again, there is some natural fluctuation in these numbers, which are conducted in the morning and evening of one mid-week day in late-September or early-October, but the weather and other obvious variables are consistent across these years.

Good news in disguise?

At the same time, transit use appears to be down by 0.4%.  This small decline is likely related to Metro service cuts in late 2014, including temporary elimination of route 47 through west Capitol Hill.  These service cuts were then reversed by the passage of Proposition 1, which not only restored route 47, but also added frequency to Capitol Hill routes 10, 11, 12, 49, and 60 in June and September of 2015.  Unfortunately, our most recent boardings and alightings data date from February 14 through June 5, 2015, marking a low point after the service cuts and before the restored and expanded service.   With bus service added in the second half of 2015, and streetcar and light rail service starting now, we can expect to see a substantial increase in transit ridership in 2016.

Station Photo

Capitol Hill Station a few days before opening to the public.

Diving into the Dumpster Problem on Capitol Hill: PART 1 of 2

dumpster picDumpsters. They’re as commonplace on Capitol Hill streets as dogs and tattoos. The straight garbage dumpsters are maintained by Recology CleanScapes, which has a contract with the City at least until 2017. Customers pay for this service through their bill from Seattle Public Utilities. Recycling and compost collection is a bit more complicated. Different haulers, including Recology CleanScapes, Waste Management, Cedar Grove, Republic Services and Allied Waste, compete for contracts with individual businesses or building owners. You might see their different company logos peeking out from under graffiti on the many containers on our sidewalks, in our alleys and even parked semi-permanently in street parking spots in Capitol Hill’s commercial corridors.

Some residents may shrug or not even notice the many dumpsters, so familiar are they within the fabric of our neighborhood. But there is reason for concern as the neighborhood continues growing. More people means more trash and it has to go somewhere. In new buildings, code requires the inclusion of a trash room that is off of the street, but older buildings, especially those being retrofit for much denser occupation, don’t have trash rooms. There, the de facto trash room becomes the curb, alley or sidewalk.

During the summer of 2015, we worked with Seattle Public Utilities and haulers to document the challenges posed by dumpsters in Capitol Hill’s commercial corridors. In January, Capitol Hill Housing issued a report that names 9 specific problems associated with the many dumpsters.
1. Dumpsters block sidewalks and on-street parking spaces;
2. Dumpsters attract graffiti and illegal dumping;
3. Spills and liquids drain from dumpsters to the street and storm drains (violation of Seattle Municipal Code 22.803.030);
4. Dumpsters are a source of fire and litter from overflows and scavenging;
5. Dumpster odors detract from livability;
6. Dumpsters attract public urination, defecation, vomiting and illegal drug activity;
7. Private storage of dumpsters on sidewalks and in streets is an inappropriate use of public space;
8. Unenforced regulations of dumpsters create an impression that the issue is unimportant to the City;
9. Dumpsters create blind spots that exacerbate nighttime safety concerns.

This is a growing challenge, but not necessarily new or unique to Capitol Hill. About four years ago, Seattle Public Utilities approached Capitol Hill businesses to propose that Capitol Hill join Pioneer Square, the International District and Columbia City as a “Designated Clear Alleys neighborhood” and move off dumpsters to a pre-paid bag service with more frequent collection. Business leaders protested that the shortage of alleys in Capitol Hill made the Clear Alleys Program untenable up here.

We searched for alternative solutions in other US cities. In Downtown Denton, Texas, the City encourages screening dumpsters behind 6 foot tall masonry walls with steel doors. The Iowa City Downtown District recommended testing consolidated waste hauling contracts in a small pilot area to reduce the number of haulers. The Paseo District in Oklahoma City focused on enclosures, right-sizing containers, and installing compactors to improve efficiency, and in Portland, Oregon, the City settled on phasing in tougher enforcement of existing illegal dumpster storage and some financial assistance to smaller businesses to aid compliance.

Following our work to document the issue and research solutions, we offered 15 mitigation strategies to be considered for Capitol Hill. These strategies are grouped into 4 categories:
1. Enforce rules and assist compliance
2. Increase the frequency of service (to allow the reduction of container sizes)
3. Screen and beautify dumpsters
4. Improve sharing of infrastructure among businesses.

You can read more about these strategies in our report linked HERE.

EcoDistrict Index Update

In 2014, we selected an initial set of 15 indicators to track progress in 8 performance areas, set targets, and collected baseline data (mostly from 2013).   These indicators became the EcoDistrict Index (more background on the Index here).  At the close of 2015, we conducted our first update and can start to see how the neighborhood is changing and how we are succeeding or failing in moving towards our goals.  The table below gives a summary of progress towards each target.

2015 Update 6

In just 2 years, we have seen dramatic progress in a few areas. The Capitol Hill Farmers Market is going gangbusters.  They are almost a quarter of the way towards doubling both all shoppers and specifically shoppers using EBT and WIC through their Fresh Bucks program.

Farmers Market Index Highlight

Our transportation system is also shifting swiftly towards more walking and biking and away from driving (our post dedicated to these exciting transportation changes can be found here).

At the other end of the spectrum, Capitol Hill is backsliding when it comes to recycling and composting.  Already the problem child neighborhood of Seattle waste diversion, people here seem to be sending more and more stuff to the landfill.

Waste Diversion Index Highlight

The top line information for each of these indicators just scratches the surface.  In future posts we will delve deep into specific indicators to shed more light on the neighborhood changes they reflect, and illuminate opportunities to capitalize on success, pay more attention to neglected areas, and recalibrate poorly performing strategies.

The EcoDistrict is Launching a Renter Initiative

Renter EngagementLate last month, Mayor Murray hosted a cheerleading session for the City’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda or HALA. It was a packed room filled with enthusiasm for implementing the 65 recommendations that emerged last July in response to Seattle’s housing crisis. Comments by Sara Maxana, a homeowner in NW Seattle, were a highlight. Referring to the rapidly escalating value of homes like hers and the resulting impacts on renters, Maxana said: “I don’t see why one class of people, homeowners, should be getting a windfall from the same phenomenon that is causing other people in Seattle to struggle,” she said. “I don’t think that’s okay.”

Before closing the meeting, Murray took a handful of questions from the crowd. “Guy in the Striped Shirt” asked an important question: “How will renters be engaged in discussions about HALA?”

The mayor responded very generally, saying that we need to engage everybody: owners and renters, young and old, etc. and etc. I would respond more directly.  Renters must be engaged about HALA. After all, renters comprise nearly half of Seattle’s citizenry and it is renters who face getting priced out of neighborhoods by rising rents.

But engaging renters to address neighborhood issues isn’t easy. There’s a section in Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam’s treatise on the decline of civic engagement in post-war America, about how homeowners, due to their “rootedness,” tend to be more engaged in civic life than renters of similar age, income, and education. Putnam suggests that since renters are more likely to move out of a neighborhood, they are less likely to care about local decision-making. Renters also are less motivated by “exchange value interests”, ie protecting property values, so are less likely to engage in civic activities that may preserve or increase property values (Manturuk).

Generally, renters are less likely to show up for public meetings or participate in local churches and community clubs. But we know that renters do certainly care about their environment. They care deeply about how a neighborhood feels – is it safe, inclusive, clean? They care about its walkability – is it close to services, amenities and open space? And, of course, they care about its affordability.

We also know that residents living in the heart of Capitol Hill, 80 percent of whom are renters, are not apathetic or disaffected. The voter turnout from the 43rd legislative district was higher than most Seattle districts this past cycle (though that’s admittedly a low bar) and we re-elected the first socialist on the Seattle City Council in a hundred years– a second-term city councilmember who last Thursday sent out a blast email with a now-familiar tone:

“Seattle is a very wealthy city, and is experiencing an economic boom. But this is a boom that is primarily benefiting a small wealthy elite. Economic inequality has expanded, with the city’s middle class shrinking rapidly.”renter vs homeowner net worth

This message decrying inequality should resonate with the renters living in Sawant’s district. According to the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, homeowner net worth ranges from 31 to 46 times that of renters, and that inequality is growing. Economics prodigy Matthew Rognlie made waves in 2015 by showing that “surging house prices are almost entirely responsible for [the] growing returns on capital” identified in Thomas Piketty’s best-selling Capital in the 21st Century as the source of the wealth gap in America.

At the meeting last month, a small group of angry Wallingford homeowners showed up with placards protesting the greed of developers and demanding time at the microphone to speak against the HALA agenda. Reminders that this wasn’t a public hearing didn’t deter them.

As Josh Feit points out in Publicola, it’s pretty rich for single family homeowners to protest getting shut out of a conversation. Since this nation’s founding, property owners and their rights have been at the center of politics and power. John Adams declared property rights “as sacred as the law of God,” and Hoover urged homeownership, believing that “if one had an equity stake in the country, they’d less likely fall under the spell of Communism.” As recently as the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, homeownership was touted akin to civic duty.

American housing policy has favored homeowners for some time (providing federal mortgage insurance, the mortgage interest tax deduction, and other benefits). The MacArthur Foundation recently reported that: “While roughly 35 percent of Americans rent and the other 65 percent own, the federal government spends approximately three times as much to support homeownership as it does to support renting.”

Even as governments continue to push homeownership, the social bias towards homeownership appears to be shifting. Three in five adults (61 percent) believe that “renters can be just as successful as homeowners in achieving the American Dream.” This shift correlates with a broader shift in opinion towards ownership in general. According to Janelle Nanos (and many others who have heralded the arrival of the sharing economy) at Boston Magazine:

A startling number of young people… have begun to question one of the central tenets of American culture: ownership. It’s a change that has arrived thanks to a confluence of developments. Times are tough. … Simultaneously, rapidly evolving technologies are enabling a new kind of connectedness and sharing, just as more of us than ever before are moving to urban areas. And more and more of us are at last awakening to the terrifying idea that our quintessentially American drive to own and consume more is bringing about dramatically harmful climate change. As a result, many of us are starting to rethink what it means to own something [emphasis added].

I suggest that it is time for renters, Capitol Hill’s majority population, to assume ownership for the health and livability of the neighborhood.

Besides voter turnout, there are hopeful signs of renter engagement on Capitol Hill. Top for me is the Capitol Hill Community Council under the leadership of President Zachary Pullin, a self-described YIMBY = “Yes in My Backyard,” and a committed board of mostly young renters. Their agenda is both progressive and action oriented. They hosted one of the first community meetings in the City about HALA, are leading on addressing homelessness in the neighborhood, improving walking, biking, and transit service, and starting important neighborhood conversations about criminal justice reform and services to address mental illness and substance abuse.

Capitol Hill Housing plans to build upon this foundation and create a solid base of renter leadership. Our 2016 renter initiative will invite more renters to assume leadership roles in defining and addressing the topics of greatest interest to renters. We will recruit and support “ambassadors” from buildings across the EcoDistrict and host a Renter Summit in September focused on the HALA agenda.

Recruitment for the renter initiative has begun, so if you’re looking for a way to own what’s happening in the neighborhood, here’s your chance. Email Alex Brennan at abrennan[at]capitolhillhousing[dot]org or call 206-204-3803.

Civic engagement takes time and investment. Not every renter will choose to make this commitment, but we hope that many will. Communities with a high level of civic engagement have fewer social problems, lower crime rates, and are more cohesive. And if the HALA agenda is to succeed in Capitol Hill, it will require renters getting involved.

Community Solar – One Year Later

IMG_4977In Seattle, energy rates are low and the skies are often cloudy. Not ideal conditions for investing in solar energy. To make things even more challenging, we decided to put an array atop the Holiday Apartments, one of CHH’s low-income housing tax credit properties with a complicated ownership structure.

The Holiday Apartment’s 26 kW solar array started generating power in December 2014. The first community solar array on an affordable housing building in Washington State, it is a pilot with Seattle City Light to counter the notion that green energy is the province of the wealthy elite.

Community Solar is crowd-funded solar generation that allows individuals and businesses to invest in and receive benefits from a system located on a community-based facility. Instead of installing their own rooftop system, participants purchase a piece of a system that’s located elsewhere and right-sized for their budgets. It allows people who can’t or don’t want to invest in their own system to reap the benefits of solar, including renters and those who can’t afford the upfront costs.

The Holiday Apartments community solar array was made possible by upfront financing and administration by Seattle City Light. For as little as $150, City Light utility customers purchased 925 “solar units” of the Holiday Apartments array, which entitled them to a portion of the production payments and the value of the electricity produced at a “community solar rate.”  The bite-sized units were sized to return $150 back to the customer over the life of the program, plus a little extra.

Thanks to a sunny year, the array exceeded year-round productivity expectations by more than 20%. In the first 12 months, the Holiday Apartments installation produced enough energy to power three homes for a year. Take a look at this nifty dashboard for real time solar data.

Customers told us that they loved the triple bottom line nature of community solar. Through their small financial investment, they were helping to reduce the long-term operating costs of affordable housing while also supporting clean, local solar power.

In the fall, just as we were developing a strategy for expanding community solar to more affordable buildings, City Light made an announcement that put our plans on hold. Rapid adoption of solar in Seattle, increased production due to sunny weather, and decreasing electricity sales meant that City Light would reach the state-imposed cap for solar production incentives much earlier than originally thought, likely sometime in 2016. Customers were told to expect a proportional 31% reduction in incentive payments. This means that Holiday Apartment community solar participants may not make their money back.

With this uncertainty, came a re-evaluation of how we might bring solar to more affordable housing buildings. There are a number of feasible concepts, such as third party owned systems and direct ownership, but community solar would be difficult under the current conditions.

That’s why we’ve joined with solar industry allies, affordable housing advocates, and solar customers to work to improve and expand the state production incentive structure and support clean energy policies that will better serve the needs of the affordable housing sector.  We will be tracking important solar legislation this year and will be advocating in Olympia for outcomes that expand the available options for solar deployment on affordable housing. We encourage you to join us in these efforts to enable low income access to clean energy benefits and ensure a bright energy future for all.

Reflections following PolicyLink’s Equity Summit

I just turned 45, so I think I can officially claim the label: Middle Aged White Guy. I am okay with my age and I like to think I own my white guy privilege, which I carried along with a small overnight bag to Los Angeles for the PolicyLink Equity Summit.

PolicyLink is a national institute advancing economic and social equity. The 2015 PolicyLink Equity Summit was the first gathering they’ve hosted since 2011. The driving theme was “Equity is the Superior Growth Model.”

At the opening plenary, Stanford economist Raj Chetty offered up an uneasy laugh line: “The chance of achieving the American Dream is 2x higher in Canada. Angela Glover Blackwell, the president of PolicyLink, urged the 3,000+ crowd, saying we need to “harden our commitment to being in the struggle…to achieve equity.”

For the past couple of years, Capitol Hill Housing and our partners on the EcoDistrict Steering Committee have been working to deepen our commitment to social equity in our ecodistrict work. We added a performance area for equity and consulted a wide range of experts and community members in development the following goals:


We formed an Equity and Engagement Working Group from members of the steering committee and other community volunteers to create an “equity lens” through which we’ll examine and evaluate every new EcoDistrict initiative.

The working group created a questionnaire that asks several key questions: Who is included in shaping and leading the project? Who does the project benefit and who is left out? And finally, how does the project strive to address oppression, both overt and systemic. The Equity and Engagement Working Group also will lead the planning for the EcoDistrict’s first major equity-focused project, the EcoDistrict Renter Engagement Program. More details soon!

At the Equity Summit, Blackwell read PolicyLink’s Equity Manifesto where equity is defined as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” Will you join us in the struggle to achieve equity on Capitol Hill?

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