Seattle People’s Budget: Fighting for the City We Need

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Seattle is the fastest growing major city in the US, and has topped all other cities in active construction cranes for the third year running in 2018. The area is home to giants like Amazon and Microsoft who, alongside the rest of the city’s corporate elite, have piled up mountains of wealth. Yet the market boom has in no way has meant prosperity for all, and Seattle has one of the worst housing and homelessness crises in the nation. While the city’s proudly “progressive” Democratic political establishment has long professed a commitment to address inequality and the City’s affordable housing needs, once again this year’s proposed city budget in no way matches that rhetoric, with not a single new dollar dedicated to the housing emergency.  

Three years ago, former Mayor Ed Murray declared a “homelessness state of emergency,” yet the numbers of people forced onto the streets continues to escalate as rents have shot up to dizzying heights.

Rather than taking action to build affordable housing or fighting to lift the state ban on rent control city officials continue to implore working and poor people allow the market to “correct itself” by constructing so many unused luxury apartments rents will start to go down. In reality, while the gross proliferation of unoccupied housing units has started to plateau rent raises, this has meant little for people who have already been pushed to the edge, and has not led to a downward turn in rent prices. Instead, a recent study showed that downtown Seattle has 26% vacancy rates – it appears the big developers and landlords prefer the new units sit empty than allow rents to fall.

Fighting to Tax Big Business

Activists and working people across Seattle organized a fightback, culminating in the Amazon Tax which would have taxed Seattle’s largest corporations to directly build hundreds of units of publicly owned affordable housing every year. Despite unanimous passage by the Seattle City Council in July, the Amazon Tax was struck down in less than a month by a majority of the council after the City’s business establishment, led by Amazon itself, launched an all out offensive against the modest tax.

The Amazon Tax was more than a battle over a piece of legislation, it has become an allegory for the political landscape of the city as a whole. Seattle’s corporate elite virulently fight any progressive reforms to defend their profits, while working and poor people stand desolate in a jungle of new apartments they can’t afford and are increasingly pushed out of the city or onto the streets.

Socialist City Council Member, and member of Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant was the only voice on the council unapologetically fighting to tax big business from day one and willing to stand up to Amazon’s bullying. She refused to vote for the Amazon Tax repeal and instead organized a fightback with the Tax Amazon movement, while calling out the political establishment for their craven backsliding.

Why a People’s Budget

Now as Seattle enters its budget season, in which the city assigns dollars to its priorities, Councilmember Sawant and Socialist Alternative are calling for a People’s Budget. While historically working and oppressed people are shut out of City Hall priorities, Sawant uses her political position differently than other elected officials. As an unapologetic voice for movements and the working class in City Hall, she doesn’t make backroom deals with corporate politicians or big business, and instead uses her office to work alongside movements of working people to force action by the political establishment.

A People’s Budget would reflect the actual needs of working and oppressed people, not corporations and developers. As socialists are a minority voice against the parties of Big Business however, our task is to help build as big a fightback as possible; around concrete demands to improve the lives of working and poor people in the City. Through grassroots discussion and organization a People’s Budget can serve as a nexus, bringing forces looking to create real change around common points of struggle, and wrest serious concessions from the grip of the political establishment. Previously the People’s Budget has won millions for working people in Seattle, while helping block some of the most reactionary attacks of corporate politics.

Seattle Fights Back Against Mayor’s Cuts

This budget season officially kicked off when Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan unveiled her budget proposal on Sept. 24. Earlier this year, Durkan announced “First, we must address the crisis of affordability, the growing economic disparities, and homelessness. This is a crisis that threatens the soul of our city.” One might expect with such progressive rhetoric that housing and social services would be the top priority. However instead, Seattle was treated to the opposite: the most regressive budget in recent memory.

The proposal from Seattle’s political establishment only allocates .8% of the total $6 billion budget toward the building of affordable housing, without one new dollar beyond what was legally mandated. At the same time, the police are being granted a big budget increase – of the $34 million in new discretionary spending this year, $32 million will be going to the police for things like expensive new computers in police cruisers. At the end of the day, a budget that seeks to meet the demands of big business and the rich, cannot meet the needs of the working people. A budget that radically prioritized affordable housing would run squarely against the grain of the profit-driven logic that drives a capitalist economy. Washington bears the most regressive tax structure in the country, meaning the burden of taxation falls hardest on the people who make this city run instead of the ultra rich profiting from the city’s boom. Durkan’s budget would further reinforce these already deep inequalities, with its regressive cuts to social services and failure to address the housing crisis.

Durkan’s budget means more working families of color being displaced. It means victims of domestic violence trapped in abusive situations because of the lack of affordable housing to move out. It means no end in sight for the ever mushrooming numbers of homeless people, and more dire circumstances to those same folks when funding for services get slashed. It means turning a blind eye as seniors and low income tenants are pushed out of neighborhoods en masse.

It is against this context that this year’s People’s Budget was organized. On Saturday October 6th, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative hosted over 100 attendees at City Hall for the kickoff. Many were activists and organizers from around the City who have been enraged by the pro-corporate budget.

Tenant’s rights groups, homeless advocacy organizations, indigenous rights activists, socialists and community activists used the afternoon to brainstorm and breakdown our demands, tasks and what strategies it would take to fight for and win a People’s Budget. Demands were raised for millions in funding for the immediate construction of high-quality, publicly owned affordable housing, full funding for restorative justice and community-based safety programs, a stoppage to cuts of social and homeless services programs, a city office through which all workers in Seattle can use to fight sexual harassment in their workplaces, full funding for the hard won Indigenous People’s Day celebration in Seattle, among many others.

The Saturday forum helped lay the basis not only for a fight through the budget season, but beyond. By organizing around a common program of demands and priorities, we can begin building a broader movement for The City We Need, that can pose a fighting alternative to City Hall’s business as usual.

The fight continues to ramp up, and now the question of housing in the 2018 budget has been sharply posed. In late October, we put forward a call to build high quality, permanently affordable housing by raising $48,000,000.00 in the budget through progressive taxation like the Amazon Tax, or through eliminating some of the more regressive aspects of the Mayor’s Budget. There is no reason we couldn’t also use these funds to take out a 20-year bond, allowing for the immediate construction of three to five thousand units of social housing, to provide a public alternative to the broken for-profit housing market. Councilmember Sawant put forward three different options for a major expansion of publicly-owned, high quality social housing, to begin to provide an alternative to the broken private housing market. Unfortunately, so far the establishment wing of the council has been largely silent on all three proposals and continued in its quiet capitulation to Amazon and big business, instead of addressing the ongoing housing crisis.

Yet clearly these demands have struck a nerve in the city, as our press conference announcement became front-page news in nearly every major Seattle outlet.

A Movement for the City We Need

Building movements is the key to winning substantial change in our cities and communities. What the Fight for $15 and countless other struggles have shown is that what we can win is directly reliant on the strength and determination of our movements.

Socialist Alternative urges all other socialist candidates elected, to use their office to help build fighting movements. To be an unapologetic voice for working people, and help build struggles of workers and activists to fight for change, and not to rely on backroom negotiation or the good graces of the political establishment.

There is a serious need to a political alternative to the parties of big business. While the Republicans and Trump are carrying out the most vicious attacks on working people nationally, it is the Democrats who control Seattle as well as the “Blue Wall” of the whole West Coast. Yet we see this austerity budget from Seattle’s Mayor, as well as a total lack of political will to fight for rent control and taxes on the super wealthy.  We need an alliance of progressives and socialists who will fight for the City We Need, against the bullying of corporate behemoths like Amazon, and to elect independent left candidates in 2019 to replace the corporate establishment on the Council. And we need a new party for working people, completely independent of corporate money and that fights unambiguously for our needs.

We encourage all who can to get involved in our fight for a People’s Budget!

On November 7, Kshama Sawant’s office and Socialist Alternative are hosting a rally to fight for affordable housing to build thousands of high-quality, permanently affordable housing units. This will be the paramount struggle of the budget season and beyond, however it will also serve as a lightning rod for those that want to fight.

November 7 is also just one of many events being organized as part of this year’s People’s Budget, and hearings will continue into the second week of November. Join us!

By basing our power not on what we can convince corporate politicians to accept behind closed doors, but instead on the power of our collective action as working people, anything is open to us.

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