Councilmember Tammy Morales • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Last month, Councilmember Tammy Morales was sworn in to her second term on the Seattle City Council, where she represents District 2, including the Chinatown International District (CID) and Southeast Seattle.

Morales will chair the Land Use Committee, and sit on the Housing and Budget Committees all of which will be vital, she said, in addressing the top concerns she heard from constituents during her campaign last year: Public safety, affordable housing, healthy neighborhoods, and homelessness.

As she thinks about one of her biggest tasks this year guiding the Council through an update to the momentous Comprehensive Plan, which manages growth in the city Morales told the International Examiner that the CID could be a model for Seattle.

“We all know that the CID is a neighborhood that needs a lot of attention,” Morales said. “But I think there’s also a lot of agreement that it is a thriving, vibrant neighborhood. And I really think it’s important that people don’t lose sight of that.”

The CID, Morales noted, has successful businesses, grocery stories, housing, access to transit, a school and health clinic. “Every neighborhood in the city should have access to that kind of essential goods and services, and the CID has it,” Morales said. “That’s the kind of thing we could do in the Comprehensive Plan we could set the vision that we’re going to create the 15 Minute Neighborhood all across the city.”

The Comprehensive Plan will determine Seattle’s approach to housing, zoning, infrastructure and growth including accommodating the people expected to move here for the next 20 years. Under Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA), Seattle is required to update its Comprehensive Plan by the end of 2024 (a deadline Morales worries about, with a draft plan not yet released by the City).

“We have had a particular growth strategy for the last 20, 30 years, and it has not been particularly effective at addressing either the need for housing or the affordability issue,” Morales said. “When we passed it the last time, we anticipated that displacement might happen, but did not actually prepare for that and put any mitigating strategies in place. And so I think that’s going to be important work for us to do this year.”

While the CID already has housing density and no single family homes, Morales noted that an increase in high-rise, market-rate projects in the CID in recent years contributed to speculation and a rise in land values, which can tip the balance toward displacement. “It affects the ability to build more housing that is affordable for working families,” she said. “So, finding the mitigation strategies for that is going to be important and making sure that folks can stay.”

This month, Morales plans to introduce the Equitable Zoning Connected Communities legislation. Morales describes it as essentially a pilot program allowing developers who want to build social or affordable housing to partner with small neighborhood groups. The hope is to ensure there are enough housing options for a range of incomes, within the same buildings.

When it comes to immediate public safety issues in the CID, Morales hopes a partnership between Seattle’s new Community Assisted Response and Engagement, or CARE Team, and future Crisis Care Centers from King County, will have promising results.

The CARE Team is a pilot program launched in fall 2023 in which specialists are dispatched to respond to nonviolent emergencies involving mental and behavioral health issues. Morales said she wishes these responders were not accompanied by police officers, as they are for most types of responses. But the idea, which SPD implemented as part of the response to the 2020 protests against police brutality, is to free up police time to respond to crime and public safety issues.

Morales said it remains to be seen how effective the CARE Team will be in ensuring people experiencing a mental health crisis or substance use disorder get access to services “without the threat of jail.”

Still, with a lack of shelter spaces, “we’re still sort of stuck,” Morales said. She hopes new crisis care centers from the County will create spaces for people to go that are not jail cells or emergency rooms. A proposal to fund and create Crisis Care Centers will go to voters in April. It would fund a network of five centers where people can go for same-day help if they experience a behavioral health crisis. The first center would open in 2026 at the earliest.

Morales noted that the next iteration of Sound Transit’s draft Environmental Impact Statement for new light rail stations in or around the CID will likely be published at the end of 2024, and she will work with the CID community to have its voices heard.

This year, the City Council must determine how to fill an estimated budget gap of $229 million dollars or more, every year. Morales’s colleagues have mostly indicated they do not support raising new taxes, instead favoring audits to the city budget and painful cuts.

“The reality is we’re not going to find that by shaking out city departments,” Morales said.

Morales believes efficiencies can be found in the budget to some extent, in the form of better transparency from the Mayor’s office, and cuts to some departments that consistently have unfilled vacancies.

But she believes there’s no avoiding the need for new progressive taxes.

“We just can’t address all the challenges that were raised in the last year about public safety and affordability and our mental health issues or substance use issues – all of that requires resources, if we’re really going to get serious about addressing it,” Morales said. “So we can’t start slashing the budget and do that at the same time the two are mutually exclusive.”

Morales has represented District 2 since 2020, when she championed a payroll expense tax on big businesses to fund a budget deficit caused by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The tax known as JumpStart funds over $300 million dollars per year. While in office, Morales also advocated for pedestrian safety in South Seattle, anti-displacement, and public safety alternatives to police. In the CID, she helped fund a Neighborhood Safety Model to increase street outreach in the CID.

Morales is now working with a Council far more moderate or centrist than in her first term, including her former election opponent Tanya Woo, who the Council appointed to fill a vacancy until 2024. Morales voted for a different appointee, and raised concerns about the influence of business consultant and former deputy mayor Tim Ceis in the appointment process.

But now that Woo has been sworn in, Morales looks forward to a positive working relationship with Woo and her other colleagues. She believes everyone on the Council shares the goals of improving public safety, building more affordable housing, and government transparency.

“I think it’s time for us to turn to governing, and to getting busy with our committees, with our priorities,” Morales said. “I think it will be really important for all of us to find where we align and really try to focus on those as priorities. And where we can’t, I think we have all said, we will have to agree to disagree. Sometimes that’s policymaking.”

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