Seattle’s Neighborhood Empowerment Fund Involves Thousands of Citizens
in Community Improvement
For many years, officials in Seattle, understanding that diverse neighborhoods and their active citizens are the City’s most valuable assets, have built on these assets by decentralizing government and encouraging broad-based citizen participation. In 1988, City officials took the unusual step of creating a Department of Neighborhoods. While every other department in City government is organized by function, the Department of Neighborhoods is focused on the way Seattle’s citizens have organized themselves – by community.
The foundation of the Department’s work is a system of 13 Little City Halls, storefront offices in neighborhoods throughout Seattle which provide a local connection to City government. A quarter-million visits are made to these offices each year by citizens paying their public utility bills; most are low-income customers who, because they cannot pay in full, are provided with credit assistance and referrals to a wide range of human services. Court magistrates maintain hours in the Little City Halls, as do police and crime prevention personnel. Neighborhood planning staff members are also found there, along with a Coordinator who serves as a link between the community and the City government downtown.
The Department of Neighborhoods offers a wide range of resources for community empowerment, but in the opinion of Mayor Paul Schell, no program has been more successful in this regard than the Neighborhood Matching Fund, a City cash fund which supports community self-help projects. Through the Fund, neighborhood organizations may apply for cash as an equal match to their contribution of cash, volunteer labor, or donated goods and services. The Fund enables the City to more than double its investment and neighborhoods to receive assistance on projects that otherwise might not be feasible. Fund investments have been used to build new playgrounds at most City parks and schools, create new parks, reforest open space, plant street trees, develop community gardens, restore streams and wetlands, create public art, renovate facilities, build traffic circles, pilot community school programs, and much more.
Since the Fund’s inception, more than 1,500 projects have been completed across nearly every Seattle neighborhood – 450 of them in just the last two years – and many more are anticipated. Since his election in 1998, Mayor Schell has worked with the City Council to increase the Fund by 150 percent, to $3.75 million a year. Adding another $750,000 by next year, as he has proposed, would effectively triple the Fund’s resources.
The Mayor says he regards the Fund "as the single most successful City strategy for building both tangible projects and a stronger sense of community." Among the reasons:
After successfully piloting a new model of neighborhood planning through the Neighborhood Matching Fund, former Mayor Norm Rice decided to use the model to develop plans for 37 neighborhoods targeted for growth under the City’s Comprehensive Plan. The model enabled each neighborhood to initiate its own plan, to define its own boundaries and scope of work, and to hire its own planners in exchange for a commitment to involve all stakeholders. The four-year planning process, completed in 1999, resulted in thousands of recommendations, most of which will help the City meet its commitments under the Washington State Growth Management Act. The more than 20,000 citizens who were involved developed a strong sense of ownership of their plans, are implementing the recommendations assigned to the community, and are holding the City accountable for implementing the remainder.
Recognizing that City government had to be decentralized in order to make good on its commitment to implement the neighborhood plans, Mayor Schell divided Seattle into six sectors, directed the major City departments to decentralize accordingly, and added six Sector Managers to the Department of Neighborhoods. These Managers staff an interdepartmental team in each sector and work with the departments and the communities to prioritize recommendations, identify resources for implementation and opportunities for collaboration, and track progress.
Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers says his agency has helped many other cities of various sizes establish their own neighborhood departments and programs similar to the Little City Halls. More than 40 cities have replicated the Neighborhood Matching Fund, he reports, most with annual budgets around $50,000.