The 2017 mayoral election comes at a pivotal time for the urbanist movement. The most contentious parts of outgoing Mayor Ed Murray’s keystone achievement, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, remain unfinished, and conservative anti-density advocates have made common cause with anti-gentrification activists on Seattle’s far left, a potent alliance that could thwart efforts to address the city’s housing shortage.
Three candidates in the race for mayor—Jessyn Farrell, Cary Moon, and Mike McGinn—like to be considered urbanists. But only one, former state legislator and ex-Transportation Choices Coalition director Farrell, has a record of translating pro-transit, pro-housing urbanist values into policy. From her advocacy as TCC director for policies that changed the way the state thinks of road “capacity” (not just for cars anymore), to her work leading the 2008 campaign for Sound Transit 2, to her successful efforts to secure $500 million for Seattle during the debate in Olympia over Sound Transit 3, Farrell doesn’t just talk—she makes things happen.
Experience, a quality that’s frequently belittled in national politics, is crucially important in a mayor. Mayor of Seattle is not an entry-level job. As a longtime advocate and negotiator who has worked in government for many years, Farrell understands the need for negotiation and compromise. In a race where other candidates are promising to tax foreign investors and force developers to build affordable housing, consistency and competence can seem like unexciting qualities. But in a mayor, they’re crucially important.
In our conversation about her candidacy, Farrell rattled off a list of concrete policy ideas that seemed both innovative and achievable. (Of the six mayoral candidates I interviewed at length, Farrell was the one who had me scribbling furiously in my notebook, highlighting ideas I had never heard before.) For example: Farrell supports the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which increases density across the city and funds affordable housing, but wants to expand it by spending some of the $500 million she secured for Seattle as a legislator to house kids and their families near their schools (as Sightline has documented, the vast majority of Seattle’s high-performing schools are in segregated single-family areas), creating a land bank of surplus public property as the backbone for a major new investment in public housing, and allocating $1 billion in affordable housing throughout the city on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Under Farrell’s plan, no neighborhood would be allowed to veto affordable housing, but each area could use different tools (such as rental subsidies for existing residents, detached backyard cottages, or apartment towers) to achieve its mandate.
Seattle hasn’t had a female mayor in nearly a century. This isn’t a bit of historical trivia; it’s a stain on our “progressive” city. Our priorities are determined by the people who lead us, and when those people are exclusively men, policies that have the greatest impact on the lives of women—paid family leave, equitable access to affordable day care and preschool, policies that promote pay and hiring equity in the private sector—take a back seat. In our conversation, Farrell demurred when I asked if she would have different priorities than her male opponents (and predecessors), then rattled off a list of ideas that would specifically benefit women and families—like partnering with private donors to supplement existing housing tax credits so they can build family-size housing instead of one-or-two-bedroom apartments and spending some of the city’s $500 million Sound Transit windfall on preschool facilities near major employers.
Two other candidates, Cary Moon and Mike McGinn, have strong pro-transit and environmental bona fides. Moon, an urban designer and civic activist who fought against the downtown tunnel ten years ago, has never served in public office or worked in government. McGinn has the opposite problem. Look at McGinn’s record (rather than his rhetoric)—as mayor, he failed to accomplish crucial elements of his agenda, because he couldn’t get along with the city council and surrounded himself with yes-men; we don’t need to go back to the days when the mayor alienated the governor by calling her a liar, repeatedly flubbed the search for a new police chief, and managed to come up with a transit tax that even Seattle voters wouldn’t support. Now he’s cozying up to neighborhood NIMBYs, signing a gimmicky no-new-taxes pledge, signing on to a neighborhood campaign against a public-private partnership to build a new Green Lake Community Center, and vowing to “revisit” the HALA plan—code for surrendering to demands for interminable process and delay.
Jenny Durkan—the hyper-competent Hillary Clinton grownup in the race—is almost certain to make it through the primary, but will have trouble overcoming her establishment label to appeal to Seattle’s populist left. Bob Hasegawa, a state legislator who has partnered with Republican legislators to reduce Seattle’s influence over Sound Transit and reduce the agency’s authority, has proposed bringing back and re-empowering the anti-development neighborhood councils and thinks virtually every problem can be solved with a public bank.
Nikkita Oliver, a civic activist, attorney, and poet, has tapped into the Black Lives Matter zeitgest, galvanizing communities that have been underrepresented in Seattle politics and shining a race and social justice spotlight on issues like property taxes, law enforcement spending, and development. Fittingly, her focus has been on the city’s lack of affordable housing, which drives displacement and promotes gentrification. But for a candidate whose primary issue is housing, Oliver was surprisingly unfamiliar with recent efforts to build affordable housing in Seattle. During our interview, she was unable to say whether she had supported last year’s housing levy, and said she didn’t remember the details of the proposal. (Oliver has since claimed that I misrepresented her quotes; I’ve reviewed the tape and confirmed that I transcribed her responses verbatim, and in the order in which they appeared, with no deletions; the only edit I made to that portion of our interview was to condense my questions, which went into more detail about the content of the housing levy and the fact that Mayor Ed Murray has touted the levy as one of his primary achievements.)
Oliver has proposed policies—like requiring developers to set aside a quarter of their units as affordable housing—that would make gentrification and displacement worse. “Make developers pay” is a popular rallying cry, but it doesn’t create affordable housing any more than increasing business taxes improves wages; in a city where housing prices are rising faster than anywhere else in the nation, the solution isn’t to restrict growth but to encourage it. The only city that has imposed a 25 percent affordable housing requirement on developers, San Francisco, is also the only city on the West Coast that is more expensive than Seattle, thanks largely to restrictive housing policies.
Much has also been made of Oliver’s voting record (as Danny Westneat at the Times reported, Oliver voted in just seven of the 24 elections since she registered in 2008); although I don’t think frequent voting should be a litmus test for people seeking public office, her explanation—that structural barriers such as lack of Internet access and rising rents prevented her from voting consistently—was defensive and less than credible. Pointing out structural racism, an overlooked and legitimate issue in Seattle politics, is misleading in this case: African American women turn out to vote in huge numbers, outpacing white men even in 2016, when black turnout declined. (She also accused Westneat of “degrading character assassination”—before he had even published his story.) Half of Seattle’s residents are renters, and many of us move often but still update our voter registration, which you can do online, in person, or through the mail.
Farrell doesn’t have a flawless record. She voted for a bill that rolled back Sound Transit’s taxing authority after Republican light-rail opponents (and Hasegawa) complained that the taxing schedule they approved in a previous session was unfair. She defends that vote by calling it insurance that will make it possible to pass other progressive taxes in the future, but acknowledges that “it stinks.” I’m more inclined to have confidence in a politician, like Farrell, who owns up to her own controversial decisions and missteps, over one who responds to coverage and criticism by lashing out at journalists and critics.
Nearly 90 years after the end of Bertha Knight Landes’ two-year term, it’s beyond time for Seattle to elect a progressive woman as mayor. Of the four women at the top of this year’s ballot, one—Jessyn Farrell—stands out as a pro-transit, pro-city, pro-housing big thinker who will bring new ideas to Seattle’s fight for an equitable and sustainable future. Farrell’s impressive record of accomplishment is a sign that she can actually deliver on her ambitious agenda.
The C Is for Crank endorses Jessyn Farrell.
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