PubliCola Questions: Colleen Echohawk

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.

Colleen Echohawk has said she decided to run for mayor to address the “humanitarian crisis” of homelessness. As director of the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit organization that works to address and prevent homelessness among Seattle’s Native community, she has tried to navigate between advocating for Native people living outdoors while working within systems that often fail people experiencing homelessness. After Mayor Jenny Durkan’s election in 2017, for example, Echohawk served on Durkan’s transition team and received a mayoral appointment to the Community Police Commission, one of the city’s three police-accountability bodies; she also served for many years as a board member for the Downtown Seattle Association, which has proposed a charter amendment that would require the city to redirect existing funds to pay for 2,000 new shelter beds. After initially supporting the amendment, Echohawk came out against it, saying it isn’t “grounded in the lived experience of people who’ve been experiencing homelessness.”

The centerpiece of Echohawk’s agenda is a 22-point plan to reduce homelessness by, among other actions, hiring 100 outreach workers with lived experience of homelessness and ending the 72-hour parking rule that allows the city to impound vehicles, including cars and RVs where people are living, if they stay in one place for more than three days.

Here’s what Echohawk 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?

First, I would not cut programs. We would prioritize funding from the JumpStart tax to fund additional shelter as well as a capital campaign I will initiate as soon as the election results are certified. I just want to also emphasize that bringing people living outside inside is not just a matter of finding shelter or housing spots. I will also immediately begin hiring 100 outreach workers needed to do the outreach work necessary to work with our homeless relatives while securing additional housing, which will require an “all of the above approach” meaning: tiny homes, hoteling, pallet homes, safe lots for RV camping, modular housing, etc.

“Activation is also critically important in our neighborhood business districts for recovery and revitalization which is why as mayor I will invest in artists and cultural activity, and in particular in BIPOC artists and previously underinvested and marginalized cultural communities, to lay the foundation for a more equitable and inclusive creative recovery.”

I have years of experience of working with the homeless provider network, the Office of Housing, builders of low-income housing as well as the leaders in the Regional Homelessness Authority. I will work with these leaders to identify the real estate that is necessary to get emergency housing up and running in 14 months. Here is my plan to bring the roughly 5,000 people living outside inside in the first 15 months.

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?

Every neighborhood in Seattle is unique, including downtown Seattle. The City of Seattle can play a key role in supporting the recovery of our diverse neighborhoods, but needs to look to the expertise already in place to help lead neighborhood appropriate efforts. Just as I am committed to listening to community and lifting up the expertise of those closest to our biggest problems and challenges, I am committed to the leadership of those organizations charged with the care and trajectory of our most valuable assets.

As Mayor I will encourage investments in programs that are led by the neighborhoods they serve with the city providing for events and programs. I will also seek to significantly expand the impact of Small Business support efforts currently housed in the Office of Economic Development. This will include increasing capacity for Small Business Advocates and empowering lead staff in the areas of business development and construction impacts to take action to address issues quickly and respond with the agility Seattle’s dynamic economy demands.

Multiple neighborhoods in Seattle don’t currently benefit from the strong, dedicated organizations like the DSA. With Downtown Seattle as a standard bearer, I will seek to forge partnerships between downtown and our most underrepresented neighborhoods to build strength in organizational and neighborhood governance. This could take the form of new [business improvement districts], new neighborhood associations or new Public/Private stewardship of vital assets like the Pike Place Market [public development authority] and [Community Roots] Housing.

Activation is also critically important in our neighborhood business districts for recovery and revitalization which is why as mayor I will invest in artists and cultural activity, and in particular in BIPOC artists and previously underinvested and marginalized cultural communities, to lay the foundation for a more equitable and inclusive creative recovery. In Seattle I have seen our arts and cultural communities taking this year’s existential issues head-on. The centering of BIPOC creatives in the programming and leadership of many Seattle arts organizations this year has been a welcome, if long overdue, shift.

“Much like how the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 demonstrated why a public water supply should not be left up to private industries who exist to make a profit, internet access and online connectivity should be no different.”

The degree to which arts and cultural organizations have invested in the economic survival of their staff and artists this year has been inspiring. Brand-new modes of distanced, safe arts presentation were invented almost immediately and refined into a new form overnight. In the arts, as in all things, we need to take with us the best of what we’ve built in this past year, these tools we’ve used to transcend the solitude and distance, as we reimagine our new Seattle.

And finally, I will work with the City Council to create a new utility on municipal broadband. An estimated 250 public employees will be needed to run and manage this utility, creating positive jobs for the City. Much like how the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 demonstrated why a public water supply should not be left up to private industries who exist to make a profit, internet access and online connectivity should be no different. Just like how electric power, water, drainage & wastewater, and garbage utilities are created, run, and used by the residents of Seattle, broadband can and should be a basic public utility.

More than 750 cities across the country have already invested in municipal broadband services. It is time Seattle does too. Stable and reliable broadband offered and significantly lower prices than current for profit providers will be a significant help to small businesses across the city.

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?

We must devote resources that actually address the need for public safety across our City. Innovative programs like the Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Mental Health response unit Health One pilot program and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) [now known as Let Everyone Advance with Dignity] take public health approaches to violence prevention by strengthening evidence-based strategies at the local level.

An armed response is almost never required for mental health crises. I want to go one step further than the City’s current crisis response team by creating a 24/7 mobile team of community paramedics and trained crisis workers. The gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network will be addressed by our plan for a crisis response team. Mental health response has been inadequate for years in Seattle but post-pandemic it is reaching a breaking point. An Echohawk administration will prioritize funding for mental health and work with our local experts and community leaders to find real solutions that meet the needs of the community.

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.

I will issue an Executive Order to stop the removal of RVs and find spaces with access to food, case management, and services including on-site utilities such as restrooms, running water and garbage pickup. We will work with the Lived Experience Coalition to direct the outreach and help lead the coordination of RV and car safe lots.

“My first move will be to issue an executive order to [the Office of Planning and Community Development] to develop a timetable and legislation to take all needed steps to break up exclusionary zoning.”

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?

My first move will be to issue an executive order to [the Office of Planning and Community Development] to develop a timetable and legislation to take all needed steps to break up exclusionary zoning. Because a zoning change cannot be approved unless it is consistent with the future land use map in the Comprehensive Plan, the timetable would include a plan to either accelerate the required update to the comprehensive plan, or develop a comp plan amendment before the update that will allow the elimination of single family zoning.

My executive order will also direct them to undertake and to promptly complete all needed environmental reviews. While that process is underway, the order will also direct OPCD to identify any interim steps to increase housing access in single family zones. This could include identifying obstacles to adoption or construction of [accessory dwelling units] or [detached accessory dwelling units] and to develop regulatory or legislative approaches to overcome those obstacles. I will work with the council to gain their commitment to the timetable and plan. As we saw with backyard cottage legislation, needed zoning changes can be delayed by litigation and appeals, so it is critical to get the process right to reverse the legacy of exclusionary zoning as fast as practical.

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

We are excited to get started and get things done. We have 12,000 homeless in King County. We have to hire a new police chief and reset our police department. I want Seattle to be a true leader on climate change. We have work to do on transportation, affordability, access to the internet and much much more. I’m glad we are having this meeting because you can make a huge difference on these issues. But we need to forget the politics of the past and figure out how we can solve these problems that have gone on for too long with no action.

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.

My top priority for Sound Transit is finding revenue to maintain the original schedule as well as eliminating delays which ultimately saves the project money. The value of the system is in the entire system—that is what boosts ridership everywhere, and builds public support. In contrast, failing to complete the system as promised will undercut public support from the voters who have enthusiastically supported it, and who we need to continue voting to support and expand it. We know people want to make it Seattle vs. the region, but the urban centers of West Seattle and Ballard and the area around Graham Street station have also been paying taxes and waiting for light rail like Everett. The success of Sound Transit has not been making this a zero sum game, but one with multiple winners.

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?

For the past seven years I have served the homeless Native community as the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club. I have experienced first hand being largely ignored by City government. In 2017, I initiated the Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness (now the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness) and four Native-led agencies applied for homelessness funding. Together we received nearly two million dollars. Today these same agencies hold contracts for rapid rehousing, outreach, day center services, mental health and most importantly, culturally attuned services to meet the needs of the Native community.

As Mayor I will further support these and other Native agencies and actively engage with Black led community based organizations to ensure that they are receiving equitable access to City resources. I will offer specific resources to help build capacity and ensure that our BIPOC communities are provided with services that meet their needs. Equity in the homelessness system also demands for us to listen and follow the leadership of folx with lived experience of homelessness. One of my first actions will be to begin the process of hiring 100 outreach workers led by those with lived experience through REACH. We will also hire someone with lived experience to work directly in the Mayor’s office to help lead and coordinate our plan.