The C Is for Crank Interviews: Cary Moon

Cary Moon, a civic activist and urban planner best known for leading the fight against the downtown tunnel (read my 2004 story about that effort here) is an unlikely candidate for mayor. A wonk who recently cowrote a four-part series about neoliberalism and gentrification for the Stranger, Moon has never made herself the center of attention, and seems more comfortable debating the granular details of housing policy than she does speaking directly into a camera, as she did in the video announcing her candidacy. She’s running, she says, because she wants to address the growing divide between Seattle’s “haves and have-nots,” with progressive taxation, a crackdown on speculative property buyers, and by having a conversation with Seattle residents about “what kind of city we want to be.” I spoke to Moon by phone on Thursday.

The C Is for Crank: A lot of people seem to be jumping in to this race because they perceive that Murray is newly vulnerable. Do you have a specific critique of Murray’s record and positions?

Cary Moon (CM): I think he has done quite a bit and he deserves to be proud of that. He’s made a lot of good changes for the future. [But] I feel like we have had a lot of big, transformative changes in the city. We’ve become a city of haves and have-nots, and I don’t think he has the right analysis of why that’s happening. I feel like in a time of change, we need a really strong vision and idea of what we’re aiming for, and we need an action plan to get there, so people feel like they have a voice on housing affordability, and on building a local economy that circulates [wealth] back into small businesses and local businesses. There’s things the city and state could and should be doing to increase the ability of the city to share prosperity.

“Housing used to be local. It used to be local players, building housing for local people. Now they’re acting more and more like Wall Street, where outside predators are piling on just left and right.”

ECB: Can you give some specific examples of times when Murray has used the wrong analysis to inform his policy choices?

CM: I think we missed some opportunities with HALA. There’s some good things in it. I like the mandatory affordability proposal. I like the proposals about what to do in single-family zoning to add townhouses and duplexes and accessory dwelling units—building the missing middle. But I think we’re missing some good opportunities. We’re not really understanding everything that’s driving up demand. So yes, let’s build houses for everyone who wants to live here, but there are other causes that are escalating housing prices that the city is not considering. We need to figure out what to do with those.

ECB: Like what?

CM: If you look at what’s happening in other world-class cities, you see this phenomenon of outside investors piling on and taking advantage of everyone wanting to move here. It’s just like Wall Street—when Wall Street sees a stock go up two days in a row, all of Wall Street piles on to that stock. That same phenomenon is going on in our housing market.

Housing used to be local. It used to be local players, building housing for local people. Now they’re acting more and more like Wall Street, where outside predators are piling on just left and right.

ECB:  You’ve mentioned this theory before—that foreign investors from places like China are snapping up properties here as investments and leaving them vacant, which helps drive up housing prices. But all the available data seems to show that while this is happening in Vancouver, it isn’t happening here. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen in the future, but what evidence do you have that so-called hot money is driving up housing prices now?

CM: I don’t have any secret information that nobody else has, but the dynamic is there. I’ve read enough articles that have said that investors that have been in Vancouver are now looking at other cities, and Seattle is one of their choices. It’s not just hot money, it’s not just foreign investors, but everything has changed in the last 10 years. It used to be, you buy property, you build a building, you get a certain rate of return, and you get your money back, maybe 7 percent in 20  years. It’s completely different now. Now, you buy a building and sell it right away, and the return on investment comes not from the slow, long revenue stream of rents coming in, but from the quick turn of selling at a higher rate and doing the same thing again and again and again and again. Our development world is behaving more like Wall Street than it used to. It’s developers leaving buildings vacant, it’s people buying investment properties, it’s Airbnb, it’s people building second and third and fourth homes that might not have anybody living in them for most of the year. Real estate is a great place to put your money, if you have money.

“It’s very attractive to anybody that’s trying to find a place to live that’s affordable, so everyone piles on. ‘We can live in the Central District. It’s close to downtown, close to work.’ It’s escalating.”

ECB: Isn’t the bigger problem that a lot more people want to live here, and that housing supply isn’t keeping up with demand? Wouldn’t the obvious solution to that be just—build more housing?

CM: I think people are moving here because there are jobs here, and that’s great—I don’t want people to stop moving here—but there’s additional pressure on neighborhoods that have been traditionally redlined, where society and government and banks and the real estate industry kept prices low and kept segregation happening, and now those prices are different than the rest of Seattle. It’s very attractive to anybody that’s trying to find a place to live that’s affordable, so everyone piles on. ‘We can live in the Central District. It’s close to downtown, close to work.’ It’s escalating. We need to take a very careful look at what can we do to preserve access to the neighborhood for people from the community, with cultural ties and family ties in the community, so that we’re not blasting out those people and filling the neighborhood up with a bunch of wealthy white people.

ECB: So what do you propose to prevent displacement from those communities?

CM: Strong tenants’ protection rights are a part of it. I think looking at rent stabilization—not rent control, but are there things you can do to dampen rent escalation, to slow it down? Are there things you can do with the community to benefit the people from the community that already live there? There are a lot of subtle things that you can do that are going to benefit folks from the community.

I think [HALA] wasn’t enough. I think it was a good step. But where we were three years ago when HALA started—that was as far as developers were willing to go. I would like to revisit and look at some of the solutions we proposed, things we didn’t do yet in single-family-zoned lands, like townhouses and duplexes and accessory dwelling units. I want to have that conversation.

ECB: Those things were all originally part of HALA, and they all got shot down during that process. How would revisiting HALA change that outome?

CM: I think it’s a matter of leadership and vision. The way I think people perceived HALA was that it was a power struggle between stakeholders, and everybody fighting for their own interests. I would like to set aside that way of operating for a minute and ask the people of Seattle what kind of city we want to be. How do we want to welcome young families? How do we want to welcome all communities and restart this debate towards a constructive goal around what kind of city we want to be? We need to change the framework, change the context, and talk to  people about what kind of city we want to be.

ECB: Homelessness has become a huge issue during Murray’s term. What do you think of his approach to homelessness—from the ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments to Pathways Home, which focuses on rapid rehousing and rebidding city contracts with service providers?

CM: The proposal that was put forward by the organizations involved in homelessness and Mike O’Brien and the ACLU—that was much closer to what we should be doing. I would like to go back to that proposal and figure out the best way to do this in a way that respects people’s human rights and dignity.

[In general] ,my feeling is that there are a few things we need to do differently. First, we need to get better data, a better sense of collaboration, and a commitment to those values across city agencies and the nonprofit community and providers. It feels like Barb Poppe was possibly right that there was a lot of duplication of effort and a need for efficiencies. I like the idea of housing first—people need shelter to get back on their feet, and you can’t really accomplish anything if you don’t have a place to sleep. I like low-barrier shelters, and I like the idea of looking at the shelters where people are staying for months and months and months and not moving. I like the idea of figuring out what those folks need to do to move on.

I’m concerned about the voucher system. Unless we address the root cause of affordability, vouchers are not going to do it. Vouchers might work for a family that just had a temporary crisis and lost their job and had a fairly easy time getting back on their feet. But for people whose incomes are low and are going to stay low, the voucher system is very impractical. We need to figure out how to build more affordable housing or people are going to be back out on the street.

“Low-income people, middle-income people, have been generous enough. They pay, as a proportion of their income, seven times more than wealthy people do in taxes.”

ECB: You and ex-mayor McGinn hold a lot of the same views, support many of the same policy positions, and seem likely to draw support from the same set of progressive young urbanists and social justice advocates. What distinction would you draw for voters who are torn between you and him?

I’m wondering what he’s all about with his slogan of Keep Seattle, because it’s signaling, like, a direction I don’t quite understand. We might have a lot more policy differences than I thought we did. Definitely, our style of leadership is different. I want to build will and momentum toward a common vision, and I think he loves the street fight of scrappy power struggles. And I believe I have a much deeper analysis of how to tackle the affordable housing crisis and how to build affordable housing. I’ve spent the last two years working on that as well as democracy reform—how to spread power across spectrum, not just to wealthy white people.

ECB: Do you agree with McGinn that people in Seattle are overtaxed, and that the city should adopt an income tax, even one that’s unlikely to hold up in court?

CM: I see the same problem as he does. Low-income people, middle-income people, have been generous enough. They pay, as a proportion of their income, seven times more than wealthy people do in taxes. I want to have a big, broad conversation with the city and all the most creative lawyers in the city about how do we do this. Wealthy people should be paying their fair share, and a lot of wealthy people believe that too. We have to build the public will and the right legal strategy. I’ve heard that a capital gains tax is a better place to start [than income tax] because it’s more likely to hold up, but I need more information on that. I would say yes, I’m for finding new sources that are more progressive.


ECB: When they were teasing your candidacy before you announced, Moxie Media described you as a “well-resourced” candidate. How much of your own money are you willing to put into this race?

CM: I don’t know. I’m fundraising like hell, because that’s important to building commitment and credibility and expanding the movement. I’m going to do that first.

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6 thoughts on “The C Is for Crank Interviews: Cary Moon”

  1. Great interview. I appreciate your exposing how little evidence she has for the “hot money, vacant homes” she seems so attached to.

    Of course, the best way to prevent that money from coming here, since we don’t have Vancouver’s recently exercised legal option, is to simply put in place policies that ensure supply rises with demand, which make investing in Seattle real estate while forgoing any rent income insufficiently lucrative, because property values won’t increase excessively without artificial scarcity.

    I don’t understand why she’s fixated on a problem that, a) by her own admission here she has no compelling evidence currently exists on any kind of significant scale in Seattle, and b) has the same solution as the much better-evidenced “there’s a housing shortage” theory.

  2. I think it should say “CM:” before “I’m wondering what he’s all about with his slogan of Keep Seattle”. It looks like Erica said that part but I think Cary said it.

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