Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.
Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.
Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.
MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.
Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.
The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”
If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.
A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.
This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.
The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.
One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.
Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.
Earlier this month, Washington, D.C.-based economist Ben Klemens and I wrote a two-part series about how the human desire to emulate other people can help explain (and help cities address) gentrification for the website Strong Towns. The two-part series can be found here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). Here’s a bit of the beginning of Part 1, which explores a game-theory concept known as the Beauty Contest (which, as the non-economist author, I’ll describe as the process by which people sometimes make decisions based not on their own preferences or prejudices, but on the perceived preferences and prejudices of other people). The series focuses on the corner of 23rd and Union in Seattle, and the neon-clad monument to cannabis consumerism that is Uncle Ike’s.
It’s a little more academic than the usual fare here at The C is for Crank, but I encourage you to read it if you’re interested in alternative ways of looking at gentrification.
This story takes place in Seattle, but it could be set in any large or midsize city where gentrification is changing the political, cultural, and physical landscape. For the purposes of this story, we’ll define gentrification as the process by which the residents of historically working-class, minority neighborhoods are displaced, often rapidly, by people with lighter skins and higher incomes. [Editor’s note: Read our own previous discussion of the different understandings of “gentrification” here.] How you choose to explain gentrification says a lot about your political worldview. Do gentrifiers act out of self-interest? Racism? A little of both? Or something else entirely?
In Part 1 of this two-part series, we use the example of one Seattle neighborhood to argue that it’s entirely possible to explain gentrification with something we can easily observe—signals, which communicate to prospective homebuyers what other people like them believe about whether it’s a good idea to invest in a certain neighborhood. Then, in Part 2, we use accessible theoretical modeling to demonstrate two ways in which, even in the absence of conscious beliefs (such as racism, classism, or the belief that land values will rise over time) or preferences (a desire to live next to popular amenities), signals can still lead to gentrification.
But before we get to Seattle, we have to go back to 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes, and an economic concept called the beauty contest. In 1936—a time when newspaper sweepstakes were popular—Keynes came up with the following thought experiment: What if newspaper readers were asked to choose the most beautiful woman from a roster of photos, and the sweepstakes winner was drawn from a list of everyone who chose the most popular woman? The trick to winning that kind of “beauty contest” isn’t to pick the woman you personally find most beautiful, but to guess which woman other players think is the most beautiful, knowing that they’re doing the same thing.
The crux of the beauty contest is that we don’t form our opinions about beauty, the value of a dollar, or a house, in a vacuum—we come up with those beliefs based on a long chain of assumptions about what we think other people think. Why do I think a piece of paper printed by the Treasury that says “$1” in the corner is worth a dollar? Because I think I can give it to somebody, Steve, because Steve values it. Why does Steve value it? Because he thinks Maria thinks it is worth something. And I believe Steve thinks Maria values it because she knows Paula will accept it. And so on.
If the piece of paper said something else (maybe the ID for a bitcoin wallet), the same process might not happen. Given multiple options, it isn’t always obvious who’s going to win the beauty contest, or which centrally located neighborhood is going to suddenly shoot up in value. What is certain is that as long as human beings make predictions about value based on these signals, they will result in predictable behavioral patterns—you may not know where gentrification is going to happen next, but there will be some sequence of signals that will precede it.
So let’s make this less abstract.
Consider buying a new condo, with an asking price of $500,000. Whether it is a good deal today at $500,000 is partly a question of whether it will one day sell for more or less than $500,000. Your purchase is a wager, based on the information available to you, that the value of your condo and similar properties in the area will continue to appreciate.
Your decision to buy also depends on what amenities are nearby now. Will your friends want to move in nearby? Will restaurants and a grocery store start filling up empty storefronts nearby, and will they be able to stay in business? Will you have access to reliable transit lines when you move in? In a decade? All these questions also factor into whether you choose to buy here or across town.
There is no way to poll all the people somehow involved in such questions, so we have to play a beauty contest game, guessing what our friends, local restaurateurs, and transit planning agencies are thinking, and what they will be thinking in a decade. Meanwhile, they’re all doing the same thing: just as I don’t want to move to a neighborhood with no restaurants, no restaurant wants to open in a neighborhood where they aren’t likely to have customers.
In the 1950s, determining a neighborhood’s status was easy: check the map. As part of an arrangement by the National Association of Realtors and the U.S. federal government to limit the ability of African American homebuyers to buy houses in “white” neighborhoods, maps were developed with clear red lines around black neighborhoods and explicit racial covenants or bank practices enforced the racial divides on those maps. Today, these formal covenants have been replaced in most US cities by zoning, which walls off certain areas—often those originally segregated by redlines—as designated single-family-only neighborhoods, which tend, by historical precedent and by design, to be mostly white.
Recent years have seen the demographics in the Central District nearly flip. In the 1970s, the neighborhood was more than 70 percent black; by 2016, that number was 20 percent. Whites now make up about 60 percent of the area’s population, and the trend is on track to continue.
Few neighborhood businesses more perfectly exemplify this demographic shift—or serve as more of a lightning rod for protests and accusations of racial insensitivity and white colonization—than a flashy recreational pot shop called Uncle Ike’s. (Washington state voters legalized recreational pot in 2012.) Lit by cheeky neon signs—on the next block: “Hey, stoner, around the corner”—it sells recreational pot like fancy coffee: expensive and unabashedly bourgeois. A ten-pack of Magic Kitchen peanut butter brownie bites will set you back $28, and a bottle of Moss Cow Mule cannabis ginger ale goes for $20.
Situated between an old car wash (recently purchased by Uncle Ike himself, Ian Einsenberg, and rebranded as Uncle Ike’s Car Wash) and an African- American church, Uncle Ike’s is a sign of the apocalypse for anti-gentrification activists, at the literal crossroads of old and new. Across one street: A doomed strip mall anchored by a liquor store, a barber shop called Earl’s Cuts and Styles, and Africatown, a local nonprofit working to build affordable housing and preserve the history of the neighborhood. Across the other: A sleek modern apartment box called The Central, where open-plan one-bedrooms go for $2,060 a month.
Uncle Ike’s wasn’t the first new business in the neighborhood to cater to a largely white crowd—a quaint, quirky bar next door called “The Neighbor Lady”, which a local news report said would “breathe new activity” into “the troubled corner,” preceded the pot shop by two years. But Ike’s opening in 2014 was quickly followed by an influx of new businesses catering to a similar crowd, which converged on the intersection as if summoned by a pot-leaf-shaped bat signal. Today, a strip that once housed a 25-year-old soul food restaurant called Thompson’s Point of View and was notorious for gang-related violence is home to an airy, loft-style coffee shop, a salon/cafe owned by two women who have said they were priced out of a nearby neighborhood known in past decades as a haven for artists and hipsters, a bike shop that sells $3,000 electric bikes, and a doughnut shop specializing in gluten-free mochi doughnuts.
Former Tenants Union director Jon Grant first ran for City Council Position 8 back in 2015, when now-interim mayor Tim Burgess was running for reelection and the field consisted of four straight white guys, three of them named Jonathan. Back then, Grant beat out the other two Johns on the ballot by arguing that incumbent Burgess had failed to act boldly on police reform and was in the pocket of big developers. This time, Grant faced a diverse group of primary opponents, including two women of color, the city’s first transgender council candidate, a lesbian, and a gay Egyptian-American Muslim man. His general-election opponent is labor leader Teresa Mosqueda, a Latina and renter who works as a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council. Grant says he considered dropping out of the race when it appeared that his frontrunning opponent would be a woman of color, but decided to stay in after he sat down with Mosqueda and realized they had different “theories of change” and visions for the city. A longtime advocate for public financing of local campaigns, Grant has raised $300,000 in democracy vouchers—publicly funded contributions from individual supporters.
I sat down with Grant at Eastern Cafe in the International District last week.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: What do you see as the biggest policy difference between you and your opponent?
Jon Grant [JG]: The obvious answer is housing. When the city developed the Grand Bargain, it was a committee comprised of 28 members, of which I was one. Half of the committee was comprised of representatives from private developers, and that was really reflected in the final proposal. [Ed: Only nine of the 28 HALA committee members work for private, nonprofit, or mixed-income developers; Grant declined to clarify which of the other HALA members he considered developer representatives.] Folks forget about this, but the conversation before HALA was around a linkage fee [a proposed square-footage fee, to be paid by developers, that would fund affordable housing], and council member Mike O’Brien had a proposal to max out the linkage fee [at $22 a square foot]. At the time, [the city’s Department of Planning and Development] did an analysis and they found that over the next 10 years, it would have brought in about $1 billion for affordable housing. My point being this: When you compare that raw number to the raw value of the Grand Bargain, it’s around $640 million, and that’s a pretty big difference. That’s letting private developers off the hook for millions and millions and millions of dollars, and I felt that that was a problem.
My opponent has criticized me for walking away from the table on the HALA process. That’s a mischaracterization. I stuck with that process for 10 months, and at the end of it, I voted my conscience. [Ed.: Grant actually abstained from the final HALA vote.] I felt it was important that there be a community conversation about, are we actually acting in the public’s best interest by striking the deal, and I thought abstaining from the deal created a space to have that conversation. And back in 2015 [when Grant ran for council Position 8 the first time], I put forward my own proposal that would have brought back the linkage fee. That’s unfortunately not how things worked out. We now have the Grand Bargain, and there are now these citywide upzones without any real discussion of whether we are getting the best benefit or the most for the public good. I think that’s a real concern, and I think that’s what’s at stake in this election.
ECB: HALA and MHA are now largely the law of the land in Seattle, with full support from the council—would you propose revisiting the process and reconsidering zoning decisions that have already been approved?
JG: I think that question—’Well, would you walk back HALA?’—is actually a distraction. I think the question is, why aren’t we asking for more in terms of affordability? My opponent won’t say what she’s willing to do in that regard.
“If you just allow for a citywide elimination of single family zoning, what’s going to happen is that the first properties to go are going to be rental properties, because if you rezone that area, the landlord who owns those properties will be very quick to sell it off to a developer to build a million-dollar condo or whatever.”
ECB: In our conversation, your opponent said she would like to bump up the MHA requirement, but that she thinks your proposal to require developers to make 25 percent of their units affordable is too high.
JG: I have yet to hear what that amount is, and there are opportunities for her to weigh in on that debate today, and she has not.
To me, there are signals that a candidate can give to voters about where they stand on these things, and not being vocal about this when the community has had real concerns about how these upzones are moving forward, and that the affordability levels are at the minimum—when you’re a candidate who’s had opportunities to be vocal and stand in solidarity with the community and you don’t do that, I think that’s a signal to voters. I think it’s also important to note that my opponent accepted a maxed-out donation from Maria Barrientos, who was a developer who was an architect of the Grand Bargain itself.
ECB: You mentioned this at a forum recently, and I have to point out that it was $250—hardly enough money to buy influence. [Ed: Barrientos is also one of the only prominent women of color in Seattle’s development community, and she has long incorporated below-market housing into all her buildings.]
JG: I think it really matters where your money comes from. It matters for voters to know who you’re listening to, who you’re accountable to, and for my part, I think taking a stance of not taking money from developers—it sends a clear signal to voters that you’re going to stand with them. When developers are having so much influence at city hall, what we really need is not another lobbyist at city hall that’s going to be cozy to developers but a community advocate that’s going to fight against the forces of displacement. I understand that when you’re talking about very complex policy issues, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. What I would really like to see is for the city to do an economic analysis of every upzone to determine what was the amount that the developer could afford before that tipping point where the developer walks away from the project.
ECB: Would you be open to allowing more density in Seattle’s single-family-only areas?
JG: If you just allow for a citywide elimination of single family zoning, what’s going to happen is that the first properties to go are going to be rental properties. It’s not really widely known, but one of the largest portions of our affordable housing stock is single-family homes. Now those are also the homes that are most at risk, because if you rezone that area the landlord who owns those properties will be very quick to sell it off to a developer to build a million-dollar condo or whatever. When we talk about changing the zoning, we have to acknowledge the fact that there’s 100,000 people moving to our city and they have to go somewhere, so we have to accommodate that growth, but I am very nervous and very cautious about the idea of eliminating rental housing that is currently affordable. If we don’t manage that we’re going to see widespread displacement of low-income people and people of color.
ECB: Do you have actual data to indicate that there are a huge number of people renting affordable single-family houses in places like the Central District who would be at risk of losing their housing if the city got rid of single-family zoning?
JG: Anecdotally, from my time at the Tenants Union, yes—the calls we would get from people in the Rainier Valley in particular and also in the Central District. I went to a forum recently and I asked people, ‘How many of you know someone who lives in a single-family home that rents?’ Like half the room raised their hand. So I think that it’s an issue that’s not really talked about.
[Ed: I searched Craigslist for houses to rent in both the Rainier Valley and the Central District and found none that would meet most definitions of “affordable.” A few representative listings included a four-bedroom house for $3,600 in Rainier Beach; a $2,500 two-bedroom in Hillman City; and a $2,000 two-bedroom in the Central District. In contrast, there were plenty of relatively cheap single-family homes near the University of Washington, including a $2,000 five-bedroom, a $5,000 seven-bedroom, and a $3,800 six-bedroom. Those rental listings, however, are obviously aimed at students, not families, and the University District is not a gentrifying, historically African-American area.]
“Police, as employees, stand apart from any other employees, in that they’re the only employees that have a license to kill. And for that reason, they need to be held to a different standard.”
ECB: You’ve criticized your opponent, including in this interview, for being a lobbyist. Teresa has pointed out that her clients are unionized workers, not big corporations. How do you respond to that, and are there any specific examples where she’s taken a position that’s out of step with working people?
JG: For my part, I stand in solidarity with rank-and-file workers. When we talk about labor leadership, I think it’s a different conversation. We’re in a moment right now where there is tremendous opportunity in Seattle politics to really push the envelope and get really progressive people elected, and [yet], the [Martin Luther King Central] Labor Council endorsed the same person for mayor [Jenny Durkan] that the Chamber of Commerce endorsed. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars being thrown into the race against me, even though I have a track record of being very pro-labor. I used to be a union member [at the Office of Professional Employees International Local 8]. I worked alongside Teresa on initiative 1433 to raise the statewide minimum wage. [UPDATE: Mosqueda says Grant did not “work alongside” her; rather, she ran the campaign and “I hired him for a few months.”] I’m very pro-worker, I’m very pro-union, but I just call into question these decisions that are happening at the higher levels. I think we have more than enough insider people at city hall who are more accustomed to making deals in back rooms than being out in the community and pushing the envelope.
ECB: One reason labor might not like you is that you’ve called for opening up police union contract negotiations to the public, which labor advocates worry will open the door to eliminating confidential negotiations for other public workers.
JG: Yeah, I don’t see that.
ECB: Why not?
JG: I think that what’s important to remember is that the police, as employees, stand apart from any other employees, in that they’re the only employees that have a license to kill. And for that reason, they need to be held to a different standard. And what I have seen through the negotiating processes with the union is that a lack of transparency in that process has led the public not to understand what is being bargained away, in terms of the right to have constitutional policing. I am 100 percent pro-union. I don’t think that the police labor contract should be completely open to the public. I think the provisions around discipline, especially, should be, because we’ve seen too many times where officers have been let of the hook. I think that if the city doesn’t take bold stances to actually address this culture of impunity that exists in our police department, we are going to continue to see more racial profiling, we’re going to continue to see more excessive force, and I’ve just got to call into question my opponent, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the same groups [unions] that are supportive of [the Seattle Police Officers Guild], and would call into question whether she’s going to hold them accountable.
ECB: How would you avoid opening that Pandora’s box and having all city union negotiations open to the public?
JG: If the city were to pursue this, we would craft legislation so that it’s specific to the police union. We have a reality where there is, every year now, a person of color getting shot by the police, and the idea that it’s not worth going out on a legal limb to try to save a life is not compelling argument to me.
ECB: As a white guy, how do you sit here and say, ‘Vote for me—I will represent the interests of women and women of color better than a woman of color’?
JG: I think this comes down to values and theory of change. Very early on in this race, I sat down with my opponent, and it was really clear to me that we represented different visions for the city.
ECB: Can you talk a little bit about what you’d do on as a city council member to promote gender equity, in terms of pay and opportunities?
JG: We’ve made some tremendous gains with the paid family leave legislation that got passed at the state level. The next thing I would work on is ensuring pay transparency. It’s kind of remarkable that we don’t already have this on the books. As I’m sure you know, women are paid 73 cents for every dollar a man makes. [Ed: 80 cents, and 78.6 cents in Seattle], and even less for women of color. One of the big perpetuators of that is the fact that when you get a job, you have no idea if you’re getting paid as much as your male counterparts. And part of that is because when you get offered a job, they ask for your salary history, but because of the existing gender pay gap, it just perpetuates that cycle into the next job that you get. So I would support putting penalties on employers [who penalize] employees who ask what their colleagues’ salary is so that they can see if they’re getting paid at same level, and prohibiting the disclosure of your salary when you apply for a job.
And then, secondly, I think that we really need to take into account child care. Right now, you have to pay as much as a college tuition for just getting basic child care services for your family, and that disproportionally impacts women. I agree [with Mosqueda] that we shouldn’t have families paying more than 10 percent of their income toward child care. We need to do some investigation into how it gets paid for, whether it’s borne by employees or a more progressive tax. I haven’t heard from my opponent about how she plans on financing it.
ECB: She’s talked about paying for it out of the next Families and Education Levy.
JG: Again, it’s a regressive tax. So I think to the extent that we can actually get more progressive revenue sources to pay for these programs—seeing whether or not the [city] income tax pulls through in court, imposing a progressive corporate tax, or implementing impact fees—I think that’s another thing we haven’t talked about enough.
ECB: You’re describing to me what it’s like to be a working woman, and I’m sitting here going, ‘Yeah, I know what it’s like to be a working woman.’ Isn’t it important to have more women, more people with that lived experience, on the council? As a white guy, how do you sit here and say, ‘Vote for me—I will represent the interests of women and women of color better than a woman of color’?
JG: I think this comes down to values and theory of change. Very early on in this race, I sat down with my opponent. I talked about the concerns that I was hearing from the community, from women, from women of color, around police accountability, around housing affordability. And we had a conversation about our policy differences and how far we were willing to go to achieve the most robust outcomes for many different communities of our city, and it was really clear to me that we represented different visions for the city. I decided to stay in the race because I think that for those communities that are impacted, we have a platform that’s going to do more to advance social equity and to advance social justice.
1. Depending on your perspective, a meeting tomorrow night to discuss efforts to prevent displacement and gentrification in light of a proposed upzone in the Chinatown/International District is either: a) A “special meeting” of the city council’s planning and land use committee, with a “focus on Chinatown/International District” (the city’s version) or b) a “town hall” to “Save the Chinatown – ID—Stop Displacement Now” (the Interim Community Development Association’s version). “WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED! Come and make your voice heard to City Council!” Interim’s announcement urges—and if that use of a Civil Rights-era slogan didn’t put a fine enough point on what the activists think is at stake in the upzone, these flyers, which appeared around the neighborhood in the past week, certainly did:
And here’s the source material:
The second poster is a notice posted during World War II, when the US rounded up tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and sent them to internment camps. The (very slightly) coded message is that if the city upzones the Chinatown/ID, the gentrification and displacement that result will have a similar impact on its residents as the forced removal of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.
2. The Chinatown/ID meeting will actually be the second contentious meeting in one day for the land use committee. Tuesday morning, they’ll take up a proposal related to the design review process—ostensibly a process to consider the design of proposed new buildings; in reality an opportunity for anti-density activists to stall projects they don’t like—that could make it easier for development opponents to file appeals. (In August, the council will consider more sweeping changes to design review that could streamline the process for developers.)
The proposed change would remove one step in the process that opponents of new projects must go through before filing a formal appeal to stop a proposed development. The step, called a land-use interpretation, costs $3,150 and is required before a project can go before the city’s hearing examiner, the judicial official who ultimately decides whether contested projects can move forward. According to a council staff analysis, removing the interpretation step could “facilitate judicial appeals of land use decisions for projects that may be considered locally undesirable by near-neighbors, such as low-income housing projects, work-release centers, and homeless shelters.” According to the Livable Phinney website, the group “with other activists in West Seattle and Council member Lisa Herbold” to eliminate the interpretation requirement.
Endless appeals are a common tactic used by neighborhood groups to prevent new housing near single-family areas. For example, a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners has successfully stalled a four-story, 57-unit studio apartment building on a commercial stretch of Greenwood Avenue for more than a year by filing appeal after appeal; although previous complaints have involved everything from the lack of air conditioning and washer/dryer units in the apartments to the size of the units, they’re now arguing that Metro’s Route 5, which runs along Greenwood, is inadequate to serve the 57 new residents. Ultimately, like many such battles, this argument comes down to parking—the opponents believe the new residents will all own cars, which will make it harder for existing Phinney Ridge homeowners to park their cars on the street.
3. Just weeks after issuing a statement denouncing “the politics of personal destruction” after a man who had accused Mayor Ed Murray of sexual abuse in the 1980s withdrew his lawsuit, mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell reversed course, saying last night that the mayor should resign instead of serving out his term. Farrell said newly disclosed information in a separate sexual abuse case “severely undermines our confidence in his ability to carry out the duties of his office,” according to Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman. On Sunday, the Times reported that an investigator with Oregon’s Child Protective Services concluded that Murray had sexually abused his foster son in the early 1980s. Murray denied the allegations, noting that the case was withdrawn and no charges were ever filed.
Farrell’s dramatic reversal (dramatic in part because there was no reason she had to weigh in at all) makes more sense in light of events that transpired after she defended Murray the first time. Back then, Farrell was still seeking the mayor’s endorsement, and believed she had a real shot at getting it. Since then, Murray has endorsed Jenny Durkan, saying the former federal prosecutor “has the best chance of winning.” While Farrell may be relieved that she lost Murray’s endorsement to Durkan, the snub had to sting—and it’s hardly a stretch to see Farrell’s denunciation as payback.
4. If you still aren’t sure which mayoral candidate you prefer, there are at least two more chances to see the candidates debate before you fill out your ballot. The first, a live debate sponsored by CityClub, KING 5, GeekWire, and KUOW, is sold out, but a viewing party from 6:30 to 9pm at the nearby Flatstick Pub will also offer a post-debate opportunity to meet the candidates. And on Tuesday, LGBTQ Allyship will sponsor its own debate, featuring candidates for mayor and council positions 8 and 9, focusing on LGBTQ issues. That forum will be held at the Southside Commons in Columbia City from 6 to 9 pm.
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Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, spoken-word poet, and educator who works for Creative Justice, a program that provides arts-based alternatives to youth incarceration, announced she was running for mayor back in early March, a month before allegations of sexual misconduct sidelined incumbent Ed Murray’s campaign, and two months before he announced he will not run for reelection. What once looked like a relatively simple choice between a popular incumbent and a social-justice advocate who promised to shake up the system has since become a free-for-all, with 13 candidates—including a former mayor, two state legislators, and an ex-federal prosecutor—in the race so far, with five more days remaining for other candidates (such as city council member Lorena Gonzalez, who would have to give up her council seat to run for mayor) to jump in.
Oliver is running as a representative of a new group called the People’s Party (city races are nonpartisan), which aims to “break down barriers and open doors for collective leadership that is willing, able, and experienced in divesting from practices, corporations, and institutions that don’t reflect the values and interests of our city,” according to its platform. Oliver argues for rent control, larger mandatory affordable housing contributions from developers than what is mandated by Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) and Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) programs, and restorative justice practices like mediation and restitution over incarceration. I sat down with Oliver at the Creative Justice Office at Washington Hall, in the Central District.
The C Is for Crank (ECB):Given that you aren’t raising money or hiring staff, some have raised questions about whether you’re actually hoping to win, or if you’re just running to lift up issues and raise questions. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re running and what you and the People’s Party hope to accomplish?
NO: Absolutely we’re running to win, but there’s also multiple lenses here. To become mayor would be incredibly transformative in and of itself. I’d be the first woman mayor in 91 years, the first woman of color mayor ever in Seattle, and I would certainly be someone who very progressively and honestly speaks to substantive issues, and I’m very well acquainted with the community.
But there are also all kinds of other wins. The conversation around housing and homelessness, around what economics looks like in our city, the gap between the rich and the poor, what does racial justice and equity actually look like—those conversations have been substantively pushed to a place that they would not have been pushed to if the People’s Party and myself had not joined in the race. And I think that’s an essential place for us to be. It’s challenging the unwillingness of our electeds to actually engage in talking about the substantive issues. They tend to talk about these things at the 30,000-foot level, and then they get into office, and what they promised doesn’t really happen.
ECB: You’ve focused on the issue of displacement, particularly in the Central District. What is your policy plan to prevent displacement? If you could erase HALA and MHA today, what would you replace them with?
NO: I don’t think it’s about erasing HALA and MHA. I think the real problem there is that the Grand Bargain [between social justice advocates and developers] really created a developer incentive to just build as much as they want to at whatever cost they want to, because they don’t have to actually invest in the communities that have been impacted by the very fast change that’s happened in our city.
The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’
What HALA and MHA does is, one, it doesn’t ask for enough in investment from developers in the city. It makes us very reliant on the private market to develop enough housing to meet the needs of the people who are already here and the people who are coming, and we just know from basic supply and demand that that’s going to increase the cost of housing. So yeah, we do talk a lot about displacement, because Seattleites of all colors and ethnicities and backgrounds have actually been displaced from the neighborhoods. So when we think about displacement, there’s making sure we don’t continue to push people out, and there’s finding ways to build enough housing fast enough that people could in theory actually come back.
And I think it’s a multifaceted strategy. It’s not just MHA and HALA. It’s also thinking about market intervention strategies, like looking at who’s buying what, what places are left unused, addressing the conversation about speculative capital and how that’s impacting our overall economy.
And also, if the city truly cares about ensuring that people have the right to stay, the city will get invested in building housing and will expand what our own housing authority is doing around providing affordable housing, as well as redefining what is affordable.
ECB: Did you support the housing levy?
NO: Which levy?
ECB: The one that passed last year, that will bring in $290 million to build affordable housing.
NO: Honestly I don’t remember.
ECB: It was a property tax levy that doubled the amount the city is spending to build affordable housing.
NO: That’s where we’re at, right? Using property taxes to pay for things. If we’re not asking developers to invest at a higher level, we’re going to have to continue to leverage the dollars of people that have already taken on the burden of what development is doing in our city instead of asking the developers to take their fair share of that burden.
The zoning issues do need to be differently distributed throughout the city. The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’
ECB: Having covered the issue for a long time, I think that for a lot of neighborhood activists, the answer would be, ‘Nowhere in my neighborhood.’
NO: And we’re going to have to deal with that, the same way communities of color are often pushed to continue being in conversations until we achieve a consensus or, in our case, typically a compromise. I think asking more wealthy, affluent communities to do the same is important.
ECB: The homeowners who don’t want density have gone so far as to sue the city to stop backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments, which are about the gentlest form of density there is. What makes you think you can work with them to reach a compromise?
NO: I think at either end, you’re going to have people with extreme [views]. You’re going to have people who say, ‘We want density everywhere, as much as possible,’ and you’re going to have people who say, ‘We want absolutely no additional density anywhere. That’s what the media talks about. Rarely do we see stories in the media about homeowners who have sat down and are willing to compromise in some areas, and I know those folks exist because we’ve had really great conversations with them, where what we’ve been told is the three things they want are: Input in the process, connection to the offices that are making the decisions, and preservation of the culture of their neighborhood, of the space, as much as possible. I don’t think that’s impossible. I don’t think it will be a time-efficient process. I think it can be a very effective process.
“I think we need to adjust that approach and trust that when folks in encampments ask for certain services, that those are the exact services that will help them do better.”
ECB: Murray says his approach to homelessness is a compassionate middle ground – clearing encampments periodically but offering people services and shelter while working to rebid all the contracts for homeless providers who that they’re focused on permanent housing. What is your critique of that approach?
NO: I think they’re absolutely sweeps. I’m sure there’s an attempt to offer services, but are they the services that people are asking for? The city doesn’t have any 24/7 shelters or storage spaces. One of the most damaging things about a sweep is that people lose all of their belongings, but also what we’re missing is the personal agency and self determination that is created when people develop an encampment, that they are, together, developing a community that’s self-regulated and is also creating a certain amount of stability for those community members, and when sweeps occur, they disrupt all of that.
These are intelligent folks. To figure out how to survive outside is no easy task. I think that when people see folks who are living in encampments, they tend to think that they don’t know what they need and to assume that their requests are maybe not the solution. I think we need to adjust that approach and trust that when folks in encampments ask for certain services, that those are the exact services that will help them do better. I think the city has to actually philosophically shift, in some ways, the way that we view houseless and homeless folks and also understand that there is a certain amount of self-determination that has to be honored in order for any solution and any services provided to actually be effective.
ECB: Mayor Murray has gotten quite a bit of credit for moving the city forward on police accountability and complying with the Justice Department’s consent decree. What’s your specific critique of the way the city has responding to DOJ’s directives and dealing with excessive use of force and biased policing?
NO: The Community Police Commission has made tons of recommendations, many of which are very good solutions for how to move forward, but the CPC has no teeth currently and can’t actually enforce those changes. There’s a lot of distrust of police in the neighborhoods that are highly overpoliced. We need to figure out how you give people a voice in the actual process. How do we help officers figure out how to better engage with actual community members? How do we get more officers on foot in neighborhoods? How do we get more officers at community events, not just as officers but as community members? A lot of our officers don’t actually function as community members, so then they are just police. The overpoliced communities, the most impacted communities, should get community input into the community policing project.
“In 2008, we saw burglaries go up, we saw more youth snatching people’s phones out of their hands, and it’s because they didn’t have access to resources. We’ve created a system where for some people, the only way to access those resources is to take them.
ECB: You’ve said that you’d like to get to a place where we don’t need police. What would that look like?
NO: I grew up in a place where, if I got in trouble, I literally got in trouble on every block until I got home, which meant that I just didn’t get in trouble too often anymore after the first few times. And that was how me and all my siblings and my cousins grew up. Over time, as communities become gentrified and more policed and there’s less relationships between neighbors, I think what we see is the decrease in that accountability and ownership for each other. So you might see your neighbor’s house getting broke into, but you’re not going to say anything because that’s not your house. That’s not how I was raised. I think gentrification has really began to decrease how much communities know about each other. Most people do not know their neighbors. So I think part of the culture shifting that has to happen in our neighborhoods is, how do we get neighbors to know each other? It sounds kind of corny, but in a lot of places, block parties play a major role in that. Just having resources for neighborhoods to get out and be around each other is very valuable.
I’m not an unreasonable abolitionist. But those things have to happen simultaneously. We can’t just get rid of police. It’s not going to work like that. We do need an infrastructure for how we address harm. But I don’t think police have to be the first resort. I think police can be the last resort. I also think we have a fire department and EMT services when there is an actual physical harm, and there are processes we can go through, first of all, to see if people want to be involved in a restorative justice process.
It also has to be coupled with an economic, job opportunity and education response. Some of the harms that we see are literally a response to not having access to resources, and we know this because when we see recessions happen, like in 2008, we saw burglaries go up, we saw more youth snatching people’s phones out of their hands, and it’s because they didn’t have access to resources. We’ve created a system where for some people, the only way to access those resources is to take them. I think we tend to look at abolitionists and say, ‘Oh, y’all just want to get rid of police,’ but what I really want is to create a healthy, just system where people have a lot of options.
Think about what happens when you put someone in jail for a property crime, and the trauma that jail causes, and the likelihood that they will actually recidivize after being released, but not for another property crime, most likely for a crime that’s categorized as violent. What it shows is that we’re actually using an ineffective system. We’re neither rehabilitating, nor are we getting the retribution that people seem to want, because what we’re doing is we’re actually creating the likelihood that we’re going to end up with more crime, and with more violent crime, from folks who hadn’t actually quite yet reached that level.
ECB: What do you think the media has gotten wrong about you?
NO: I think that they’ve labeled me as a protest candidate, and this is not about protest. It’s about transformation. It’s about, this is a system of inaccessibility and inequality that I’ve lived in my entire life, and other people in the People’s Party have as well, and instead of being complacent and giving in to it we continue to strive to be organizers who are solution-oriented. I think that the media has purposely tied to strip me of my merits and my credentials. It is easier to label me a Black Lives Matter leader, which I’m not. I’m black, so I do advocate for my life and the life of my family, but I’m also a lawyer and an educator, and I have worked very hard to get those credentials. I have done a lot of work in the community that has given me a lot of trust and respect with community members.
When you see the way that [fellow mayoral candidate] Cary Moon is talked about, she’s an urban planner, an engineer, and a civic leader. The term ‘civic leader’ has never been used for me, but I’ve probably been to more council meetings than most of the other candidates in the race. Is that not civic leadership? Is that not civic engagement? I think the media has played into a trope or a stereotypical narrative. It’s an easier box to put me in as a woman of color than it is to actually talk about me as a human being with merits and credentials and substantive work that I’ve done around education and juvenile incarceration and community development. I don’t ever get tied to substantive issues. I think it is an unfair characterization. It’s not unexpected, though.
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