by Josh Feit
It’s mayoral election season. And once again, Seattle’s intransigent ideological factions are seeking the candidate who most aligns with their agenda. As candidates vie to consolidate support, this makes for entertaining political contortions.
On the candidate side in recent races, this has been embarrassing (Tim Burgess trying to be cool by setting up headquarters on Capitol Hill in 2013); disingenuous (Mike McGinn assuring people he wasn’t going to fight the tunnel in 2009); or awkward (Cary Moon trying to woo Nikkita Oliver supporters in 2017.)
On the voter side, things can be even rougher. For example, who the heck is a YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) voter supposed to support when Seattle’s dominant factions—KUOW yuppies turned Make-Seattle-Great-Again stalwarts, KEXP Gen-Xers turned provincial populists, and “Seattle is Dying” KOMO voters—frame the debate.
I wrote a YIMBY manifesto last week (short version: Build multi-family housing in single family zones, support small business in every neighborhood, preserve cultural spaces citywide, and establish civic services across Seattle, all overlaid with an accessible, seamless transit and pedestrian network.)
But since urbanist Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda isn’t running for mayor, things are a bit tricky for upzone-infill-Green Metropolis nerds like me, who want a departure from the same old “downtown” vs. “neighborhood” mayoral campaign season script. (And p.s., the Seattle Times vs. Stranger divide isn’t much of a guide anymore; their standoff lost meaning when both publications went for testosterone socialist Jon Grant over Mosqueda in 2017’s citywide council contest.)
Race is going to be a major factor in 2021, which you’d think would help the YIMBY cause. After all, YIMBYs have put exclusive single-family zoning on notice; allowing more affordable multi-family housing in single-family zones is the number one YIMBY agenda item, if not obsession.
But nope. Both the KEXP and KUOW factions (which include Millennials too, by the way) think developers are akin to Trumpists (um, aren’t the anti-development voters the ones with the keep-people-out pathology?) That contradiction aside, thanks to widespread anti-developer sentiment, the pro-housing position that’s central to the Yes-in-My-Back-Yard voter will undoubtedly get suffocated by easy anti-gentrification soundbites.
I don’t know how many times I have to say this: Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods. The NIMBY fear-mongering argument reminds me of Trump showing video of riots that happened during Trump’s presidency and saying: “This is Joe Biden’s America!”
Since the contours of Seattle politics make it hard for candidates to run on the pro-neighborhood-housing, pro-neighborhood-business, pro-transit, pro-rights-of-way (plural), pro-nightlife, and pro-harm reduction agenda, what’s a YIMBY to do?
If there’s one thing establishment and populist candidates always agree on, it’s that allowing development in single family zones is inimical to Seattle’s character. This is your moment YIMBY. Step in and step up for a pro-housing agenda.
Well, there’s conceptual apartment buildings architect Andrew Grant Houston, aka “Ace the Architect,” a young, Black and Latino, queer, 100% YIMBY candidate, who has stunned everyone with his early fundraising ($60K raised, according the most recent Seattle Ethics and Elections reports).
Some of Seattle’s most visible bright lights, big city advocates have contributed (at least nominally) to Houston’s campaign, including: former mayoral candidate Moon, Futurewise executive director Alex Brennan, Share the Cities activist Laura Bernstein, Urbanist blog writers Ryan Packer and Doug Trumm, Seattle disabilities/transit advocate Anna Zivarts, and Mosqueda herself, though Mosqueda donated much more to council colleague and mayoral candidate Lorena González. (Houston is currently Mosqueda’s interim policy manager at City Hall.)
Houston, whose campaign website vision page says Seattle should operate on a 24/7 basis (I agree!) and that personal vehicles should no longer exist in Seattle by 2030 (I want to agree?), is on the board of a revamped Futurewise, the environmental nonprofit that’s leading the cause of urban density in the state legislature right now.
Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods.
There is also recently announced candidate Jessyn Farrell, a former progressive state rep from North Seattle who used to head up Transportation Choices Coalition, the premier pro-transit advocacy non-profit in the state. She currently works for Nick Hanauer’s left-progressive think tank, Civic Ventures (which, full disclosure, is a contributor to this site). As a legislator in Olympia, from 2013 to 2017, Farrell was vice chair of the House Transportation Committee and led the 2015 legislative fight for Sound Transit 3’s authorizing legislation.
For Farrell, an urban planning progressive, transit goes hand in hand with housing. She was instrumental in adding amendments that A) tied the authorizing legislation to a commitment from Sound Transit to contribute $20 million to an affordable housing fund and B) helped activate the agency’s transit-oriented development policy; the TOD legislation has helped create, or put into the housing pipeline, 1,500 affordable units near transit stations to date.
On the YIMBY scorecard, Houston and Farrell are the winners among the current crowded field (15 candidates) of mayoral hopefuls that includes instant frontrunners Colleen Echohawk, the executive director of Chief Seattle Club, Bruce Harrell, a longtime former city council member, and Lorena González, the current city council president. That’s not to say police accountability superstar González hasn’t voted for YIMBY legislation, but it’s far from the focus of her agenda. Certainly, police accountability needs to be top-of-mind for voters, but when it comes to what’s prompting this year’s candidates to run: Farrell (who wants to do “Sound Transit for housing“) and Houston (who wants to “build 33,000 homes a year“) are the two candidates flying the urbanist flag.
Farrell bests Houston on experience by miles. But if you’re looking for a candidate that represents more marginalized voices, Houston bests Farrell: POC, young, and queer.
I won’t recommend either candidate at the moment, and I see both as long shots right now, particularly newcomer Houston, but I will say this: With Durkan bowing out and community organizer Oliver going for González’s citywide seat instead of mayor, the classic Seattle establishment vs. populist contest that typically crowds out full-fledged YIMBYs, has been momentarily set aside, allowing breathing room for an urbanist alternative candidate to emerge.
If there’s one thing establishment and populist mayoral candidates have always agreed on, it’s that allowing development in single-family zones is inimical to Seattle’s character. The establishment candidates don’t want to piss off wealthy outer-tier neighborhood voters, and populists like to give stump speeches against godless development. Quick, this is your moment YIMBY! Step in and step up for a pro-housing agenda while the traditional left and right narrative of keeping Seattle’s character intact is momentarily off guard. It’s time to dismantle Seattle’s “character.”
Josh@publicola.com. For his day job, Feit works at Sound Transit.