The race for citywide council position 9 pits a white business owner and former city council aide, Sara Nelson, who wants to turn back the clock on how Seattle addresses homelessness, crime, and housing, against a progressive Black nonprofit director, activist, and attorney, Nikkita Oliver, with ambitious plans for addressing displacement, institutional racism, and the broken criminal justice system. We support Nikkita Oliver.
While we endorsed longtime city council staffer Brianna Thomas in the primary, we took time in that endorsement to make it clear how impressed we were with Oliver’s history of activism on behalf of their community and their commitment to funding community-based alternatives to policing, prosecution, and jail for low-level crimes.
Oliver is an abolitionist, a term that has caused some voters to balk in this hyper-polarized election year. But the steps they and other abolitionists call for represent an expansion of the kind of diversion programs the city already funds, including Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, Choose 180, and Community Passageways—not an abrupt divestment in police and jails without any alternatives in place. Meaningful change always happens at the local level when voters elect people whose ideas are outside the status quo—and right now, the status quo at the Seattle Police Department is one that requires more radical change than the meaningless “reimagining,” “rethinking” and “reform” of the past four years.
Speaking of the need for radical change: Oliver wants to end exclusionary zoning in Seattle, allowing more apartments throughout the city, including in areas where racist whites-only covenants were eventually replaced by exclusive single-family zoning. For decades, this invisible covenant has preserved generational wealth for white homeowners while driving renters and homeowners of color out of the city as effectively as redlining once kept Black and brown home buyers out of many Seattle neighborhoods.
Oliver’s opponent Nelson, in contrast, generally supports the current system, which segregates people who live in apartments from those who live in suburban-style single-family enclaves, arguing that the mere preservation of “naturally occurring affordable housing” (code for crappy apartments where tenants feel disempowered to complain) is a meaningful anti-displacement step.
Nelson often cites the “neighborhood planning process of the late ’90s,” as she put it recently, as a shining example of the city “pay[ing] attention to the differences and nuances in all neighborhoods.” But the neighborhood planning process of the late ’90s contributed directly to most of the city’s current housing problems, including high housing costs, gentrification in historically Black and brown neighborhoods, and the segregation of all new housing in the city into a tiny sliver of Seattle’s residential land.
Meanwhile, Oliver’s approach to homelessness is as multifaceted as their positions on criminal justice and housing, and more (to borrow a term) nuanced than the one-note Compassion Seattle model Nelson parrots. (In a bit of near-perfect symbolism, Nelson’s business, Fremont Brewing, installed massive concrete barricades in the public right-of-way to prevent unsheltered people from parking their vehicles there). Oliver—noting, correctly, that the root of homelessness isn’t addiction or behavioral health problems but a lack of housing—wants to “tax the wealthy,” using one of the mechanisms identified by the city’s Progressive Revenue Task Force in 2018, to expand access to rental and ownership housing through co-ops and community land trusts, and public housing for very low-income people, including those experiencing homelessness.
Oliver would make life a little less miserable for people living in encampments, by ending sweeps and providing restrooms and hygiene stations for people who currently lack access to both. Nelson has mocked this concept, which Oliver calls “radical hospitality,” but it actually would address some of the problems Nelson has put at the center of her backlash campaign, including the presence of trash, needles, and human waste in parks and neighborhoods. Unlike Oliver, Nelson would maintain the failing status quo: moving people from place to place while raiding the JumpStart payroll tax, which is supposed to pay for housing, equitable development, and small-business assistance, to pay for vaguely defined “services.”
These divergent approaches to homelessness define the dramatic choice in this contest. Oliver’s transformational plan may be a long shot, but real progress on homelessness will be an even longer shot if voters give in to Nelson’s fear-mongering. Calls to double down on policies that have failed will only exacerbate the homelessness crisis. It’s time to embrace new approaches that both acknowledge the realities of inequity and seek to address them.
In the race for City Council Position 9, PubliCola picks Nikkita Oliver.
The PubliCola editorial board is Josh Feit and Erica C. Barnett.