Civic activist, engineer, and first-time candidate Cary Moon isn’t much of a political brawler; during the 2007 campaign against the waterfront deep-bore tunnel, when most Seattle voters first got to know her, Moon’s style was more “convince them on the merits” than “bury the opposition.” But this year, aided by her pugnacious consultants at Moxie Media, Moon has come out swinging, accusing her opponent, Jenny Durkan, of knowingly accepting “illegal contributions” claiming that Durkan wants to protect “profiteers and Wall Street interests,” and issuing a celebratory press release when the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce declined to endorse her. At the same time, Moon (who is white) has aggressively courted supporters of Nikkita Oliver, a black activist, poet, and attorney who finished third in the primary, by pledging to “share power” with Oliver’s supporters. In carving out an ideological niche on the left, Moon has earned enthusiastic support from the Stranger, which mocks Durkan as a status-quo Hillary clone who will say anything to get elected, but has yet to win an endorsement from Oliver or the candidate who ended up in fourth place, former state legislator Jessyn Farrell.
When we sat down at Moon’s temporary office at Moxie Media HQ in September, I started out by asking Moon about her early support for a tax on foreign homebuyers, which Durkan (who has some pugnacious consultants of her own) has portrayed as a racist attack on Chinese investors.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Your opponent argues that your proposal to tax non-resident property buyers is an attack on Chinese people, because a large percentage of foreign investors in the Northwest are from China. How do you respond?
Cary Moon [CM]: It feels fairly desperate and way off target.
ECB: How so?
CM: Our housing market used to be local—local buyers, local builders, local bankers. That’s how housing markets worked for decades and decades. When we have a housing market that’s hot because of our growth, and because tech workers are moving here, and we’re building more housing, and prices are going up because of natural demand, We’re attracting outside capital and we need to understand that dynamic. How much of it is private equity firms, real estate investment trusts, or LLCs? How much of it is wealthy Seattleites buying second, third, and fourth homes for rental properties? How much of it is global money that is looking for a safe place to park capital that they need to invest somewhere and they’re like, ‘Oh, look, Seattle’s a nice city with escalating property values, so let’s put our money there’? We need to understand exactly the dynamic of, what is the activity and what would be an effective way to create a disincentive to block it.
“Could we do a special real estate excise tax or a capital gains tax on the sale of that property that was a non-primary residence? We need to look at the whole dynamic of what the problem is and we need to look at what is legal, but I think a foreign buyers tax was never the right approach or the right question to ask.”
ECB: I know there’s no definitive data on this, but the indication seems to be that foreign investment is not a huge reason for rising housing prices in Seattle right now.
CM: We need to look at the data. Something’s going on. It could be that because of our condo code and the problems around liability [Washington State law exposes developers and builders to significant legal liability for actual and potential construction defects], we aren’t building very many condos, which are the starter homes that people can usually first buy. [There are conflicting accounts about whether liability really represents a significant barrier to construction.] We have an Airbnb issue and we don’t really know how big it is. Maybe homes are coming off the market for use by commercial Airbnb operators. It’s just shrinking the available supply of homes for people who do want to live here. And even a fairly small number in each of those categories can have a big, dramatic effect, because it affects price levels at every single tier. So if you take luxury homes off the market and you take starter homes off the market, everything shifts up and it just becomes more and more desperate. The more money there is chasing fewer homes, the more that encourages [price] escalation.
ECB :The city attorney has argued that taxing foreign buyers or vacant homes is illegal. Do you disagree?
CM: I don’t think that’s the right approach. It’s not the foreignness of the buyers that’s the problem–it’s the activity. So maybe if it’s a corporate or nonresident owner and a vacant property. Could we do a special real estate excise tax or a capital gains tax on the sale of that property that was a non-primary residence? We need to look at the whole dynamic of what the problem is and we need to look at what is legal, but I think a foreign buyers tax was never the right approach or the right question to ask.
ECB: Vancouver has a tax on home sales to nonresident buyers, and it doesn’t seem to have stabilized prices.
CM: It did for a while. For the first six eight months, it stabilized prices and sales dropped dramatically. But what happened there is there is so much capital trying to get out of China right now that even at a 15 percent fee [on sales], it’s still better than leaving the money in China. They’re so motivated to get it out that they’re willing to pay the 15 percent fee.
ECB: What are some other measures you’d support to increase housing supply and reduce housing costs?
CM: We have to keep funding flowing to nonprofit housing production. Get the housing trust fund back up to $200 million, like it used to be before the recession. Look at using surplus city land for very low-income affordable housing production. Look at how do we get more community land trusts going, because that is an excellent step toward homeownership for so many folks. There’s a lot of infill, like multifamily lowrise, that we could be doing in neighborhoods. We need to restart that conversation again, on a more constructive note, about how can we grow in each neighborhood in a way that welcomes people from all income levels and all ages and stages of life into the neighborhoods, so it’s not exclusive by economic class.
ECB: Tell me what do you mean by ‘on a more constructive note.’ Because a lot of the stuff you’re talking about seem very much like things that were on Ed Murray’s agenda.
CM: So HALA had identified 65 different strategies, and we got hung up on the [Mandatory Housing Affordability] upzones because of the way it got leaked. [Ed: Seattle Times reporter Danny Westneat published a column in 2015 that claimed Murray was planning to “get rid of single-family zoning,” prompting a homeowner backlash that ultimately led Murray to walk back a proposal to allow modest density increases, such as duplexes, in single-family areas.] I think we still need to have those conversations, and I’d like to hit the reset button and start those conversations over again.
“We can’t do what San Francisco did and falsely limit supply, because that escalates prices. But I also want to recognize that only expecting the free market to solve this is not going to work.”
ECB: Would you eliminate exclusive single-family zoning, as Murray initially proposed?
CM: I would really look at all the zones and say, would it makes sense for a Single Family 5000 zone, for instance [where housing is restricted to detached single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots] to allow backyard cottages or clustered housing, and look at, how do we add row houses, duplexes, or low-rise multifamily in some places? How do we add a little bit more density at each level? So, yes, I would like to take another look at all the zoning and find a way to add infill development in all zones.
ECB: I’m trying to get a better sense of how you differ from your opponent on affordable housing and the need for more housing supply, because I hear her saying very similar things.
CM: I have a very firm belief that the free market is not going to be the only answer. Yes, we need to keep up with demand for people who want to move here. No question. We can’t do what San Francisco did and falsely limit supply, because that escalates prices. But I also want to recognize that only expecting the free market to solve this is not going to work. We have to have a strong component of public and market and affordable housing to balance the volatility that will happen in the housing market. We need rent stabilization.
ECB: What do you mean by rent stabilization? Do you have a proposal to restrict rent increases?
CM: Not yet. I have to look at best practices and what’s working in other cities. You hear the stories that most of us live, of having to move year after year, having to be more and more downwardly mobile, because apartments are increasingly unaffordable and you have to just keep moving to find a place you can afford. It’s causing tremendous housing insecurity. For folks who can afford to keep an apartment, it’s stressful, and for folks who can’t, it’s toxic. So we’ve got to do something, and rent stabilization looks like it’s part of the answer, as well as increasing tenants’ rights and making sure that everybody facing eviction or a huge rent increase has access to a lawyer. It makes a really big difference, because the folks who are getting taken advantage of can get help.
ECB: You’ve said that you think “rapid rehousing” with temporary vouchers, which the city is emphasizing as a key solution to homelessness, is inadequate. Can you elaborate on that comment, and what are some other solutions you would support?
CM: I think the starting point for that set of solutions was that the housing affordability crisis and the homelessness crisis are unrelated, and we all know that’s not true. That’s just stupid. That’s not reality. We have to come up with solutions that acknowledge that two of the main drivers of the homelessness crisis are the defunding of behavioral health services and addiction services, and the housing affordability crisis.
So the solutions I would put forward are: how can we get more funding into those services? How can we build more low-barrier shelters? How can we get more funding for long-term supportive housing, because a lot of the folks in shelters now really do need long-term help? How can we look at some of the emergency solutions, like the RV parks that Mike O’Brien’s feeling out how to implement? How can we build more tiny house villages, because for folks who are currently on the streets, having a roof over your head and a door to lock is pretty much essential?
“I think the starting point for [Pathways Home] was that the housing affordability crisis and the homelessness crisis are unrelated, and we all know that’s not true. That’s just stupid. That’s not reality.”
ECB: Some of the changes the city is implementing, like requiring that all providers go through a competitive bidding process that emphasizes permanent housing, could move city funding away from providers that focus on more temporary solutions, like low-barrier shelter and tiny houses. Do you think the city is moving in the right direction with this new bidding process?
CM: I want to be careful here, because I have never worked at a homeless service provider and I am not sure really how to talk about it, except that there always is room for more efficiency in any organization. So if we can figure out a way to get more program delivered for less money, we should definitely be doing that. I think we’re in the middle of the process, so we should continue with the process and see where it gets us.
ECB: One aspect of the new bidding process that has been controversial is that it’s performance-based—meaning, providers get ranked largely on whether they get people out of shelter and into ‘permanent’ housing. There’s a concern that this will result in service providers focusing on the people who are the easiest to serve, rather than the hardest to house.
CM: That’s a good point. Some of the supportive housing for folks in need—for survivors of domestic abuse, for kids coming out of foster care, for people coming back from the criminal justice system—they need more supportive help. If we can afford it, permanent supportive housing is the right approach, but there are certain populations that do need transitional housing, and I don’t want to move way from it completely for those populations.
ECB: Nikkita Oliver has declined to endorse you. How did you feel when you heard about her decision?
CM: The People’s Party [the organization that ran Oliver as its first candidate] is a really important movement in our city, and I want to honor everything that they’ve done and will do, because building black and brown power and building black and brown voices is an essential part of turning the corner and becoming a more just and inclusive city. I feel patient. I don’t question that it’s going to take some time to figure out if and what to do in the mayor’s race. So I honor the process that they’re going through, and I have faith that we’ll reestablish dialogue.
ECB: So you haven’t actually spoken to Nikkita since the election?
CM: No, just texting and voice mail.
ECB: How do you respond to the criticism that, as a wealthy white woman, you can’t adequately represent low-income black and brown people?
CM: I mean, the reality is that too much power is held by wealthy white people who have access to privilege like I have my whole life. So they’re not wrong. My commitment to building a more just world is true, and I know that means tackling systemic racism. It means changing who has power. It means including the voices of the folks most marginalized and most impacted by inequality and centering their needs and their power as we make the transition. I’m ready to help do that work from this position, but I own my privilege. I know I’m in a position where I had a lot of doors open for me, and I have a lot of advantages. It’s okay for them to call me out on that.
ECB: Beyond calling you out on your privilege, Oliver and her supporters raised a lot of issues during the campaign that just might not be top of mind for you, like displacement, gentrification police violence, and restorative justice. You’ve talked a lot about wanting to focus on those issues and ‘share power’ with people who have been marginalized. What will that look like in practice?
CM: What it looks like to me is, the campaign cabinet I put together is majority people of color, women, and LGBT people.I’ve made commitments about my leadership team and boards and commissions. I believe that’s the right path to get there. [Ed: Moon has pledged that her “leadership team will be at least half women, LGBTQ and people of color.”] And using a racial equity lens in the budgeting process is really important, [as is] continuing the Race and Social Justice Initiative within the city departments and expanding that and resourcing it so it really can be meaningful in terms of changing how the city operates.
ECB: This is another privilege question, and it’s about your campaign funding. Between campaign contributions and spending by PACs, Durkan is going to be able to raise far more money than you. You spent more than $110,000 of your own money getting through the primary. How much are you planning self-finance to win in November?
CM: I’m hoping not at all anymore. I’m hoping to raise all the money I need for the general from donations, and I’m working my ass off to do that. It’s hard with a $500 limit, and most of the people on my side are not $500 donors. So I’m working really hard to raise as much as I can, because you’re right, we will be outspent two to one, if not three to one. So we need to make up for it in people power and smarts.
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