PubliCola Questions: Bruce Harrell

As PubliCola prepares to endorse candidates in the August 3 mayoral and council primary elections, we reached out to the leading candidates for mayor and City Council Position 9 with questions about homelessness, housing, police accountability, and economic recovery.

Their answers to these questions, which we’ll be sharing over the next several days, will help inform our endorsements, coming out next week. Endorsements will be based on each candidate’s record of action, public statements, interviews with PubliCola and other media outlets, and responses at the many candidate forums that have taken place over the summer.

Former Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who left office 2019, is a consummate insider who’s running as an outsider. In 12 years on the council, he didn’t pass much landmark legislation—his sponsorship of “ban the box” legislation to bar employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal history was a notable exception, as was his early advocacy for police body cameras—but he did often use his position to speak out against police brutality, including a tense exchange after a melee sparked by what he called an “idiotic arrest” during May Day protests in 2017. Harrell’s off-the-cuff approach to lawmaking sometimes frustrated colleagues, although former coworkers have noted recently that he was easy to get along with and never let political differences harm working relationships.

On the campaign trail, Harrell has promised to create open data portals to improve the transparency of city spending, expand participatory budgeting on a geographic basis, and solicit corporate and charitable donations to solve problems like the homelessness crisis. He is often vague on details: At a recent event near an encampment on Seattle School District property in North Seattle, for example, he said his administration would help unsheltered people by providing them with “housing and services,” which isn’t far from saying you’ll end homelessness by ending homelessness.

Here’s what Harrell had to say in response to the eight questions PubliCola posed to every mayoral candidate.

Assuming Charter Amendment 29 becomes law in Seattle, what city programs would you cut or deprioritize in order to dedicate 12 percent of the city’s general-fund budget to human services, and how would you go about adding 2,000 new shelter or housing spots by the end of next year?

We will look comprehensively at our current spending and budget to determine how we should best allocate our resources and where we can make improvements and increase efficiency. I do not believe in blindly cutting public services, and I’ve been a strong advocate for a thorough review of our budgeting process to ensure increased community involvement and input.

Homelessness is the major challenge of the day, and regardless of whether Compassion Seattle passes, I know we must urgently invest in thousands of new units of supportive housing and shelter. Hotels, tiny homes, and other stable suitable housing options are the best way to ensure unhoused neighbors actually get the care and support they need to thrive.

“I’ll also expand participatory budgeting, and propose allocating each of the seven council districts $10 million for projects specifically in those neighborhoods. This will require council members to work alongside their communities, investing in localized priorities.”

I am calling for the majority of funds from the second round of American Rescue Plan Act distributions next year—at least $70 million—to go toward homelessness services and support. Those additional dollars—in contrast to the approach taken by the current council—would make an immediate impact when coupled with my new approach and plan. I’ve also called for improved regional solutions, philanthropic and community support, and, most importantly, a clearly defined and accessible plan, available to all, so we can unite our city and rebuild trust that the City of Seattle is headed in the right direction on this issue.

Local elected officials and candidates have often emphasized the need to revitalize downtown Seattle as the primary focus of post-COVID recovery. What is one specific action you would take in Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods to promote economic recovery and neighborhood vitality?

I’m proud to be the only candidate for mayor visiting neighborhood business districts, and meeting with voters citywide—more than 100 small businesses so far and more to come—to listen, learn, and begin the process of collaboration and rebuilding trust with city hall. I have a long history of assisting small, local, and BIPOC-owned businesses get off the ground and turned into thriving job creators and community pillars because I show up and help out. This is the same attentive approach I will bring as mayor and in our Office of Economic Development. Small businesses deserve a champion and a seat at the table.

I’ll also expand participatory budgeting, and propose allocating each of the seven council districts $10 million for projects specifically in those neighborhoods. This will require council members to work alongside their communities, investing in localized priorities: small business recovery, homelessness solutions, parks and open space, pedestrian and public safety strategies, and other projects that create jobs and better our city.

“One thing is for sure in the immediate—we need to stand up and provide more equitable, public, 24-7 access to bathrooms, showers, water fountains, and other critical personal hygiene resources, for all unhoused residents.”

I’m also proposing a Seattle Jobs Center that will connect businesses and job seekers with the opportunities they need: positions and careers, training and workforce education, and more. This will be especially important for small businesses staffing up as recovery ramps up.

There is general consensus around the need to replace some functions of the police department with non-policing alternatives, such as civilian crisis responders. What gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network can be filled on the shortest timeline, and which are the most pressing priorities?

I strongly support rethinking our approach to public safety and critically reviewing every scenario that involves a gun and badge.  We saw how the mad dash to defund the police failed—it wasn’t approached thoughtfully or with a plan, especially given the majority of current funding for public safety are in people related costs.

Perhaps the most achievable urgent priority is the need to develop a 9-1-1 alternative system, where people can report emergencies and urgent needs that aren’t violent or life threatening, and don’t require the police. The results of the city’s Health One unit are encouraging, and demonstrate how a multidisciplinary team with specialized skills and focuses can better approach certain kinds of emergencies or crises. In the long run, this will require a significant analysis of all police and emergency responses, review of whether police were needed or effective, and then the thoughtful development of a model and system for well-calibrated and well-deployed emergency response teams.

Not only do our neighbors deserve fast response times from emergency services, they deserve effective services prepared to address the challenges at hand. By better optimizing our services, by building fine-tuned teams, and by reducing our reliance on police for every problem, we can better deliver effective, timely, specific responses.

According to the latest Point in Time Count of the county’s homeless population, about half the unsheltered people in King County live in their vehicles. Yet there are very few programs or resources available to vehicular residents, and little public awareness of the size and circumstances of this population. Name one action you would take to specifically address the needs of vehicular residents in Seattle.

It’s true that while the bulk of attention goes to those living in tents, there are many suffering from homelessness living in vehicles who may not be as highly visible but share similar needs. Those living in vehicles deserve real housing—an RV or car is not a place to thrive. One thing is for sure in the immediate—we need to stand up and provide more equitable, public, 24-7 access to bathrooms, showers, water fountains, and other critical personal hygiene resources, for all unhoused residents.

“Our solutions must alleviate the tension between businesses, neighbors, and those who are just trying to find a safe place to park and live. Arbitrary parking regulations and uncertainty around where it is acceptable for people using their vehicles as housing to park benefits no one.”

Two weeks ago I toured the SoDo neighborhood with small business owners and learned of a city-sponsored RV dumping station that is both inadequate for the number of RVs seeking to use it, resulting in illegal dumping in alleys and adjacent parking lots, and ancillary issues like garbage and dumpster contents emptied into sidewalks and rights of way. This is an example of good intentions gone wrong. We must bring programs like this to scale, with adequate garbage and other sanitation facilities, or create housing options so we don’t create additional public health and safety challenges in our neighborhoods.

Further, this is an example of securing not only the right facilities, but the right locations. Our solutions must alleviate the tension between businesses, neighbors, and those who are just trying to find a safe place to park and live. Arbitrary parking regulations and uncertainty around where it is acceptable for people using their vehicles as housing to park benefits no one.

Permitting and focusing parking to distinct areas will be helpful for providing streamlined services and resources where they are needed, and clarity to businesses and homeowners, helping prevent unnecessary and unfair intrusions and aggravation toward those who are homeless. If we can place parking in close proximity to transit lines, we can also help RVs stay parked, further reducing the strain of large vehicles coming and going, hunting for adequate parking spaces and locations.

Most importantly—while these kinds of lots will provide stability, they should not exist permanently. We need to be urgently creating the kind of real supportive housing so we can offer demonstrably better housing options to those currently living in vehicles.

Nearly every mayoral candidate this year says they support allowing more types of housing in Seattle’s exclusionary single-family areas. As mayor, what’s the first piece of legislation you would send to the council to move toward the goal of eliminating or modifying single-family zoning?

Early in my City Council tenure, I recognized the importance of increasing our housing supply, voting in support of efforts to expand backyard cottages and upzoning areas around transit near Downtown, Roosevelt, West Seattle, and more. While I have not called for the immediate elimination of single-family zoning, I am committed to increasing density and building out affordable housing, especially in delivering development in areas that have already been upzoned. Every neighborhood will have to embrace additional housing if we are going to meet our goals and ensure everyone has an affordable place to call home, especially as our City and region grow over the next several decades.

Without a plan and community engagement, broadly and quickly eliminating single-family zoning could lead to serious negative consequences: Significant and racially-disproportionate displacement as the cheapest locations, typically in communities of color, are flipped and developed; negative climate effects by not focusing development along transit lines; and an antagonistic public that feels left out and driven to disrupt progress.

We know the solution to the affordable housing crisis is more housing, and I want to make sure we develop that housing in an intersectional, equitable, and thoughtful manner. I made it easier to build ADUs, a commonsense housing solution, and I helped pass and continuously update the MHA program to significantly expand density and affordable housing across the city. That’s why, as we determine the future of single family zoning and consider the possibility of its elimination, my first act will be to work with Council to convene a community and stakeholder-led process to guide us forward, similar to the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee.

From there, we can define a plan informed by experts, understood and molded by community, and implementable with both bold and practical solutions.

Congratulations, you’ve been elected mayor! Your first meeting is with Jeff Bezos. What do you say to him?

My message to him would be simple and clear: We are bringing a new approach to city government and especially to homelessness—driven by evidence-based solutions, data, accountability, and urgency. We know Amazon is a critical institution in this city—there’s no two ways about it. If we’re going to make progress and ultimately solve the homelessness crisis, we can’t afford anything less than their full participation in our plan. Just like we need the support of other major city businesses, of housing and homelessness advocates and providers, of labor unions, of philanthropic organizations, and of our community.

You and Amazon have an obligation, given the vast resources you have attained as a result of the current system, to also invest back into those who are adversely affected; systematically excluded; culturally overlooked; and otherwise disadvantaged. Not only must you and Amazon pay your fair share of taxes, you must invest back into the communities described above. One cannot extract, without giving back in return.

We will demonstrate to you and others that our homeless plan is measurable, outcome based and a humane approach to treating other human beings. As that plan goes into effect, and as we see results, new tax revenue certainly may be needed. I’ll be upfront from the beginning that if we do pursue new revenue, corporations like Amazon, who have achieved record profits during the pandemic, will be asked to pay their fair share in order to maintain our efforts and ensure progress on the homelessness crisis.

The divisiveness and the finger-pointing, the siloing of resources and of communication—that’s not effective and it’s not fair to those suffering in our streets. No more delay, no more inaction. Let’s bring everyone together, collaborate and compromise, agree on a clear plan, and get to work helping people into housing with services now. I am a proven unifier—that’s how I approach problem solving and that’s what this challenge demands.

At the end of our conversation, I would also wish him well in “retirement”, bid him safe travels in space, and ask that Amazon refrain from interfering with union organizing.

What’s your top priority for Sound Transit realignment? Make your best case for this project to a fellow Sound Transit board member who wants to prioritize getting light rail to Everett.

We absolutely cannot accept proposals to delay light rail expansion to Ballard and West Seattle by years or decades—we need to be working on moving that timeline up and expediting delivery—for all lines, for all stations. This should not and cannot be either/or—instead of pitting projects, cities, and counties against each other, and in order to meet our transit and climate goals, we must continue light rail development urgently. And, if we want to build support for future transit expansion measures, we cannot fail to deliver for voters on these important projects.

I am hopeful given the President’s embrace of transit, infrastructure focus, and commitment to climate action that we will be able to receive significant funding for this necessary expansion, and I will direct staff and expertise to securing these resources. I will also push the state to shift investments from highway construction to transit infrastructure and investment. We must move full steam ahead on ST3, and I’ll identify, explore, and exhaust all potential funding options.

When responding to people living outdoors, the city has historically focused on large or highly visible encampments, and reserved resources and enhanced shelter or hotel beds for people at encampments removed by the city. This focus on large, visible encampments tends to exclude many unhoused people of color, such as Native Americans, from access to the most desirable services. What would you do to improve equity in access to services for unsheltered people of color, particularly the Black and Native homeless populations?

I was the Councilmember who introduced and championed the Race and Social Justice Initiative—requiring all Seattle policies to be viewed through a race and social equity lens. That’s the same approach we need now to equity in homelessness services. As Mayor, one program I’m very passionate to implement is the race and data initiative, which will—for the first time in Seattle’s history—daylight and organize behavioral data to help determine how Seattle can best address institutional and historic racism. This will be critically important for tracking how our housing system and homelessness services can be better designed to ensure equity, fairness, and opportunity—for ALL people.

For communities of color, we know it can be difficult to identify large, representative populations, and that distrust can make collecting perspectives, ideas, and experiences difficult. That’s why we must engage through communities and community leaders, and by consulting closely with service providers who specifically serve Black and Native communities to make sure we collect this data in the most meaningful and effective way, and then act on it in a manner that is effective and culturally responsive. We will further develop specific strategies and services to meet their needs, based on lived experience and input, not assumptions and stereotypes. There are no two same paths to homelessness—so we must ensure outreach efforts are robust and appropriate.


2 thoughts on “PubliCola Questions: Bruce Harrell”

  1. I live in Bruce’s old SC district. I was always underwhelmed by his lack of public comment. The answers above are great and show what a great staff he has. But.. the last 12 years that Bruce was on the SC I wanted a leader, we wanted a person on SC that spoke openly and honestly about what is happening in South Seattle- shake it up a bit- and I feel that he was just too silent. I also feel that I speak for many that unfortunately his track record is not enough to get him elected as mayor.

  2. Summary: Let’s flush someone else’s money down the drain in an attempt to solve problems which cannot be solved by flushing more money down the drain. Seattle: Had enough yet?

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