Skip to main content

The day Seattle Nice died

caption: Tents are shown as people gathered to protest the sweeps of homeless camps in November, 2017, at City Hall in Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
Tents are shown as people gathered to protest the sweeps of homeless camps in November, 2017, at City Hall in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Let May 2, 2018, be known as the day that Seattle Nice died.

On Wednesday night, the day after May Day, residents packed a city council hearing at a United Methodist church in Ballard. The topics: homelessness and the city’s proposal to tax large corporations (read: Amazon) to build more affordable housing.

Read: Seattle just voted for a shrunken ‘head tax’

The audience booed, jeered and shouted down council members. At one point, the entire room erupted into an angry chant: “OP-EN MIC. OP-EN MIC.” They wanted to ask questions into a microphone rather than write them on notecards.

Within minutes, the meeting turned into a cacophony of grievances that Seattleites have quietly nursed for years. The city has taken off like a rocket, but the buzz is wearing off, and a feeling of exhaustion now hangs over the city.

Residents are tired of the traffic, of discarded heroin needles, of 911 dispatchers telling them to figure it out, of human feces in parks, of homeless tents lining traffic medians, of real estate bidding wars, of increasing property taxes to pay for these problems (but then nothing getting better), of the din of construction, of the constant dust, of the rats that sneak into basements because of the development next door, of the box house going up and blocking the sunlight.

Read: The tragic reason Seattle never got a SeaWorld

The refrain, more constant than rain, has become the heartbeat of this formerly working class, Wild West town: What is happening to my city?

At the meeting, which was recorded by KOMO-TV, a woman shared her story: “Last October, I got a bill to raise my property taxes, and I couldn’t do that and pay my mortgage too. I lost my house. I had that house for 28 years. There’s got to be a different way for them to get money and help people.”

The meeting came hours after Amazon announced that it is halting construction on buildings downtown. The buildings would house 7,000 employees.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’ve never been so fed up and disgusted and embarrassed for my city,” a man said, addressing the council. “Now Amazon starts packing up and leaving because of you guys. …

“We’re getting called Nazis and NIMBYs by your colleague Debora Juarez” – City Council member – “just look at the cemeteries in her district. They’re getting crapped on and there are needles everywhere. Those are Jewish cemeteries. How do you think they feel about that?”

Audience members punched the air. City Council members maintained their poise, which did little to assuage anyone. Rub your hands together instead of clapping, the moderator insisted. The audience roared their disapproval.

In “C is for Crank,” Erica C. Barnett described the scene like so:

“LIES!” several people screamed. A speaker said he owned a home in Ballard and supported the tax. “SHILL!” “PLANT!” “PHONY!” the crowd roared.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, the target of the audience ire, said the “head tax,” as it’s being called, was about fairness:

When I talk to homeowners, what I hear is the property tax too high. When I talk to renters, I hear that the rent too high. When I talk to small businesses, I hear it’s a competitive, cutthroat environment out there.

When I look at Amazon’s profits in the first quarter of last year, where they made more than $2 billion, and I look at the folks doing well in this environment, that seems like a fair system to me. We designed a tax that seems fair.

Amazon has done a lot of good for our community, but I also believe they’ve benefited immensely from our community. That prosperity needs to be shared.

The audience was unmoved.

“Every year there’s a new tax or levy for the same thing,” said a woman. “Last year was the $290 million housing levy. What happened to the $290 million levy?”

Some at the meeting said they were mortified by the crowd's behavior.

Read: PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at Sea Gals tryouts

“I’m a member of this church,” said Susan Helf. “I’ve never been to a public meeting where I’ve seen so much disrespect to the people making the presentation.”

As the audience booed, Helf kept going.

“You would think that rather than having your property taxed, you would want to tax rich people,” she said.

The audience grew louder.

“I see,” she said, seemingly buoyed by their disdain. “So blaming poor people for what’s going on is like blaming Syrian refugees for ISIS. Amazon is ISIS.”

The audience began to shout. Helf burst out laughing.

“I wish you would be more like kindergarteners than over-entitled rich white people,” she said.

Amazon declined to comment.

A vote for passage is scheduled for May 14.

Why you can trust KUOW