Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant met with a standing room only crowd of constituents to discuss issues ranging from affordable housing and gentrification to low internet speeds and privacy at Squirrel Chops, a coffeeshop in Seattle’s Central District, Saturday morning.
“There’s a lot of issues facing us as a district with skyrocketing rents and hypergentrification and we’ve certainly seen the increase in gun violence,” Squirrel Chops co-owner Shirley Henderson said while introducing council member Sawant. “A lot of that is tied to our economic reality and the shifts that are happening.”
Sawant, who came with her husband and dog, opened the event by highlighting her struggles for $15 per hour minimum wage and Friday’s King County Superior Court ruling that upheld a Seattle law that capped move-in fees for renters. She also noted the broad struggles ahead in terms of achieving economic equality and racial justice.
“We are all getting screwed together,” Sawant said. “Ultimately, whether you’re talking about city politics or state level, we’re going to have to build movements to win any of these things.”
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The agenda-less community gathering was a rarity for Sawant who has maintained a national and sometimes global focus despite her position as the District 3 representative. In 2016 as she began her term as the D3 rep, CHS looked at the Socialist Alternative firebrand’s alternative leadership approach to hyperlocal government. During her election night victory party in 2015, Sawant gave a rousing speech but included no mention of District 3. When asked why, she said separating the issues facing District 3 from broader social struggles was a false dichotomy. “If you look at the issues that are the most urgent issues in District 3 … it’s the problem with the affordable housing crisis, the problem we have with traffic gridlock and the need for world class mass transit,” she told CHS at the time. “What stronger referendum are you going to find on what the people of District 3 want than the election itself?”
The gathering at Squirrel Chops comes as Sawant’s current highest profile cause is saving 1st Ave’s Showbox, a music venue far from her D3 turf but a political opportunity and cause she seems fully dedicated to despite a $40 million lawsuit against the city. A victory — even temporary — would be useful. Sawant and Seattle progressives were dealt a painful blow in June with the whiplash turnabout on the employee hours tax on Seattle’s largest companies. Sawant vowed to continue the fight to “tax Amazon” but the battle cry hasn’t been followed by any real action. 2019 will bring the end of Sawant’s term and a possibly brutal fight for reelection.
Saturday, of course, was also an opportunity for criticism and complaints. One attendee was upset with the fact that so much of the Central District is zoned for single-family housing when that land could be used for affordable housing units in a city in the midst of an affordability crisis. Sawant responded by speaking at length on the issue of affordable housing, and the employee hours tax.
“The main issue is there is simply not enough funds and that’s the mathematical problem with having a regressive tax system,” Sawant said. “We have to fight to tax big business” to open up money for affordable housing in Seattle.
Sawant also called for rent control.
A recent wave of gun violence and the murder of a man on 25th Ave S was not a main topic of discussion. One woman in the crowd noted that there need to be more cameras to catch perpetrators, but the council member pushed back on this by citing the importance of privacy.
The event was attended by a group diverse in both age and race. A long discussion broke out on the prospects of African-Americans in a neighborhood long considered a center of Black culture and community in Seattle.
“When I think of my mother, who does not know how to use her cell phone, but she’s never lived in any other neighborhood but the CD until she was gentrified out three years ago, she’s not going to be here,” one African-American woman said. “I want to know what you’re trying to do because I have to speak for her.”
Another audience member called on the council member and her colleagues to hire more people of color on their staffs as four of Sawant’s white staffers were in attendance.
A woman told the story of her child who has trouble receiving an online education because of poor internet speeds in their home. In the past, the family often had to get hotspots from the library to have adequate internet accessibility.
“I had to pay the next door neighbor because I can’t afford high speed internet to let us use the internet for their school computer,” she said. “I pay a hell of a lot of taxes.”
During the meeting, Sawant called for municipal broadband provided by the local government.