This afternoon, state Rep. Jessyn Farrell (D-46) will formally announce that she is resigning her seat to run for mayor full-time, freeing her to start raising the funds she’ll need to stand out in the 21-person race. Farrell is popular in her North Seattle district but relatively unknown outside it, and she told me last week that if she wants to expand her support base, she’ll need to raise at least $250,000 for television alone. State law prohibits legislators from raising money while the legislature is in session, or for 30 days before session convenes, which has restricted both Farrell and another mayoral candidate, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, from raising money. “I take my duties as a legislator very seriously, but in getting into this race, I want to win and it’s important to put skin in the game and put something on the line,” she said. “I’m willing … to walk away from a job I really love to do what it takes to win this race.”
Prior to running for state house in 2012, Farrell was a senior advisor at Pierce Transit and, before that, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.
I sat down with Farrell last week at Fuel Coffee in Wallingford.
The C Is for Crank (ECB): If you’re elected, you’ll be the second former state legislator in a row to hold the office. One early criticism of Murray was that he lacked experience as an executive. How do you think your experience in the legislature will translate into the job of running a city with 11,000 employees?
Jessyn Farrell (JF): On the one hand, there are a lot of really good things about being a legislator. I have had the experience of making a lot of decisions that people don’t like, and I think there are a lot of other people in the race who do not have that experience of having to explain sometimes to your base—hello, MVET vote—why I did that and why it’s the right thing to do. [Editor’s note: Farrell, along with other House Democrats, voted for legislation that changes how Sound Transit calculates the motor-vehicle excise tax on newer vehicles, after car owners and Republicans complained that the fees—authorized by the legislature and affirmed by the voters—were too high. The reassessment will cost Sound Transit around $2 billion.] There’s also, though, that art of being willing to listen and have your views on issues impacted by what the community is saying. There has to be a degree of openness, because you’re a representative of the people and that really matters. That is something you only get through the experience of being an elected official.
ECB: So what about that MVET vote? Why did you vote for a measure that cut funding to Sound Transit, even though the legislature itself approved the valuation before it went to voters?
JF: The politically easy thing to do would have been to just vote no, but my role as a legislator is, I really believe, to be a steward of our tax system. People really have to believe that there’s fundamental integrity in the tax system. So if there’s a valuation system on your car and it’s not really reflective of what you could sell your car for, that’s a problem. If it were your paycheck and I was taking taxes off, like an additional five percent, and you didn’t even actually get paid that, you would have a real problem with that.
ECB: If I voted for it, then I would say, ‘I think I need to look at what I’m voting for more closely next time.’
JF: That’s what makes it tricky. There were a lot of eyes on that 2015 vote and [the MVET valuation schedule] did not come up the way it should have and that really stinks. I really wish that we had just fixed it in negotiations quietly. Nobody would have cared and it would have been the right thing to do, but we didn’t, and if we’re going to ask voters to raise their capital gains, or an income tax, or do a major tax reform, and people don’t trust that the underlying integrity of the system is in place, that is a real problem. I know it stinks, and what I would say is, I don’t take a hit to Sound Transit lightly, and I am totally committed as a mayor to making Sound Transit whole and delivering on those projects. And I definitely have some ideas about how we do that.
ECB: If you’re elected mayor, then you’ll be on the Sound Transit board, and you’ll find yourself in the opposite position as you do as a legislator.
JF: Yes, but what I would say is it’s really a benefit to the city to have as a mayor someone who knows who to work with Olympia. One of the obviously frustrating things about being in Olympia is that so much of what we’re doing is trying to minimize harm to Seattle constantly. The good news is, I’m a pretty good legislator and I know how to talk to Republicans. I think that’s in part why Ed has been effective as a mayor too—he’s been able to quietly work behind the scenes in Olympia and minimize ham and get some good things done, and that’s definitely been a benefit for the city—having his savvy around. He was a very good legislator.
“If there’s a valuation system on your car and it’s not really reflective of what you could sell your car for, that’s a problem.”
ECB: Distinguish yourself for me, as a voter, from the other two pro-transit urbanists in this race, Cary Moon and Mike McGinn.
JF: I would say the big distinction is that I’m the one who has actually delivered on the stuff that we care about—whether it is helping pass Sound Transit 2 when I was at Transportation Choices, or authorizing ST3 [as a legislator]. It was no sure thing that we were going to be able to authorize that legislation, and then doing it in a way that had lots of really interesting, progressive things in it, like that $500 million amendment that I forced through at midnight in the transportation budget. [ECB: Farrell’s amendment, a last-minute response to Republicans’ efforts to hold some of Sound Transit’s taxing authority hostage, dedicated $518 million in tax revenues to future education-related projects in the three-county Sound Transit region]. I think that in a negotiation, you can get to yes when you fundamentally understand what’s in someone’s heart and what’s driving their values on an issue. I’m not scared of being bold and taking risks, but I’ll do them in a way that actually gets the job done. I adore [Moon and McGinn], but think that’s just a key difference.
ECB: There’s been a lot of debate over the payments developers will be required to make under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program; some social justice advocates say they’re too low to make a dent in displacement, while some urbanists, including the Sightline Institute, say they’re so high they discourage development. What do you think? Would you change anything about MHA, or the mayor’s larger Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA)?
JF: I am fundamentally supportive of HALA. I deeply believe that Seattle needs to increase its housing stock and housing options across the economic spectrum in a really significant way. I think the zoning changes, though, are only one piece of the affordability puzzle, and I would like to go much beyond that.
HALA is really about private-sector incentives, and that’s a really important piece. We have to have incentives to increase private-sector housing and to push affordability in that area. I would argue, though, that because of the major pressures that Seattle faces from the tech boom—which is a great thing—and international investors and a whole host of bigger global issues, we need to get beyond the traditional debates around zoning. We need to have those debates, but we need to know that those debates alone aren’t going to solve the affordability crisis. I believe that there are a few more really important pieces of the puzzle that we need to put together. One is that that [aforementioned] $500 million amendment is going to start coming to the region in 2020. That’s money that we can bond against, and that’s money that can be used to provide founding for wraparound support for homeless and vulnerable youth. Surely, with $500 million, we can figure out how to house every kid near their school, and that would take a big chunk out of homelessness. And we don’t even have to raise taxes to do it! The money’s already coming.
“I am fundamentally supportive of HALA. I think the zoning changes, though, are only one piece of the affordability puzzle, and I would like to go much beyond that.”
Second, and I’m really kind of stealing an idea from [House] Speaker [Frank] Chopp here, we need to inventory all the surplus property in the city—whether it’s WSDOT, Sound Transit, Seattle Public Utilities—all publicly held property, and land bank it as the cornerstone for a major new investment in public housing. That has traditionally been a really important strategy for providing housing stability and economic mobility for people, especially in Seattle. With the city’s property, you would need to have city staff and city technical resources really dialed in and really focused on putting together those deals. And it then becomes an effort around matchmaking, so that you find the nonprofit or private developer resources to do the development.
And then the third piece—and this is my really radical but super-wonky idea—is: Just as we allocate population growth across the region through [the Puget Sound Regional Council’s] 2040 plan, I think we need to set a target of $1 billion in affordable housing and allocate affordability targets across the entire city, so you’re not really letting any neighborhood off the hook. Then you create neighborhood-based plans that use an array of affordability tools, so some neighborhoods are going to focus more on rental vouchers so that people who are living in current housing can stay there; some neighborhoods are going to focus more on [accessory dwelling units]; some neighborhoods are going to have more traditional density. We need a strategic plan for the city that allows us to hold ourselves accountable, and then we can create programs within every single neighborhood.
That, obviously, is not easy. There are neighborhoods that aren’t necessarily going to want it. But here’s what I see: There are people in every single neighborhood who are worried about affordability, whether it is their kids not being able to buy into Seattle, whether they’re worried about property taxes or whether they’ve been in their houses for 40 years and now they’re on a fixed income. Clearly, renters are worried. And I think that you appeal to people from that perspective: Look, we are all in this together. We cannot solve this problem in traditional ways. Our traditional frame in Seattle has been around zoning, and that is a piece of the puzzle, but it cannot be the only piece. We need major public-sector investment, and then we need to really open up all of the different tools. And I think it becomes really micro, property-by-property, arterial-by-arterial planning. Part of that is preserving cultural spaces in neighborhoods and preserving environmental spaces in neighborhoods. Upzoning certainly has a role, and there are places where we need to do it, but there are so many other affordability tools that we can use and that I think neighborhoods would embrace.
“We need to inventory all the publicly held surplus property in the city and land bank it as the cornerstone for a major new investment in public housing.”
ECB: Don’t you think that a lot of people who object to upzoning will also object to other tools that would increase affordable housing in their neighborhoods?
JF: I think that the only way you deal with that is by literally going into the neighborhoods and having dialogues with people. There are loud people who don’t like change. I am not that candidate. Don’t vote for me if you don’t want any change. On the other hand, my own sense of environmentalism comes from a very place-centric notion, which is that the places we live in, we have to steward. And so I get that kind of knee-jerk reaction around being averse to change. Part of that is saying, let’s do some of these things in steps, and I would want to get feedback from neighborhoods about how to do that. There is a diversity of opinions around housing in the city, and the folks who are really nervous about changes are the ones who are really weighing in loudly right now. I just know from my own neighborhood and my own constituents that there is really a diversity of opinion, and people really understand the crisis.
ECB: Do you support the mayor’s current policy on clearing homeless encampments?
JF: I think that they have done some things well, and they have done some things that have been really harmful. On the one hand, the Navigation Team [a group of police officers and outreach workers that removes encampments and offers services to people living there] has been a really important effort. On the other, the sweeps have been really harmful, and we should not be doing that. So the question becomes, how do you allow for people to have access to services, sanitation, and public safety, while recognizing hat we do not have enough shelter beds for all the people who need them? So that’s why we’re talking about encampments. For me, the homelessness conversation has to be embedded in the affordability crisis. Those two things are very related to each other. If you are a mom with kids and living in your car, that is very much because of the affordability crisis in the city.
“There are loud people who don’t like change. I am not that candidate. Don’t vote for me if you don’t want any change.”
ECB: Given that there aren’t enough shelter beds or permanent housing for the whole homeless population, do you support sanctioned encampments?
JF: I do believe in sanctioned encampments. The trick, though, or the core issue is, you have to have services available to people. You have to have public safety, so that those places are safe for women. You have to have mental health services and sanitation available. I really do think you need to do it in places where a lot of those services are. I don’t think unsanctioned encampments in parks and public places are where we want to be going with this. If I were mayor, I would those kinds of things in place before the next rainy season.
The second thing is that there is more experience now with tiny homes. They’re not a permanent solution, but in terms of having a drier place to sleep where you can keep your stuff safe, I think they’re a good investment. There are a lot of unions and other non-governmental entities that really want to step up and provide that kind of housing, and I would think that we would want to do that in a significant way.
And the third is that we need to inventory the shelter space that the city has access to. I don’t support shelters in community centers, in part because those have other uses, but there are other buildings that King County has, that Seattle has, that other entities have, that even the private sector has, that could serve as shelters. We need to do that because the homelessness issue is, in part, because there just aren’t enough shelter beds.
ECB: Have you read the Pathways Home report that the city is using as the basis for its homeless housing plan? What do you think about the focus on rapid rehousing—providing short-term rental vouchers—instead of more service-intensive or long-term solutions?
JF: You have to have a degree of stability. You can’t make those changes in your life if you are having to be out of a place in three months—that’s just not how that works. Even six months isn’t long enough. People really need housing stability as a fundamental piece of mental health and recovery. In the longer term, we need a significant reinvestment in public housing for very low-income people. The feds are not going to do it for us, and the state is not going to do it for us, so we need to get creative really fast about how we do it.
“The way our housing incentives work is that when you put that all the tax credits together, that equals one to two bedrooms. So what if the donor community step in and says and we’re going to fund that third bedroom in these buildings?”
ECB: If you win, you’ll be the first female mayor in 91 years. How will that translate, if at all, into the kind of issues you prioritize and the policies that come out of your office?
JF: I’m 43, so I think having a Gen X mayor might actually have a greater impact than necessarily gender. So for example, I’m in the heart of raising a family right now and I think there are a lot of people across the city, across races, across economic lines, who are very fearful of their ability to stay in the city and fearful of the ability of the public school system to deliver a fair and equitable education to every kid, and that kind of conversation has not entered into typical mayoral politics. I will be talking about a city for families in a really different way than other candidates have and other mayors have, and surely that is because I’m raising a family here.
ECB: The mayor’s office has historically been a bit of a boy’s club, and there are issues specifically related to gender—like pay equity and paid family leave—that previous mayors haven’t really advocated until women brought them to their attention. Is that something you’d change?
JF: There is no doubt that who is in leadership, and their life experiences, impacts their priorities, so I will answer really definitively that having women at the top and having women in leadership positions absolutely matters, and I see that in the legislature all the time, with things as simple as what is the expectation around the work flow. I know the mayor is a 24/7 job. I would absolutely anticipate being able to handle that. But when you are a parent and have to make sure that you’re also prioritizing your kids, you get really strategic about priorities. You cannot do everything, and a city cannot do everything.
There are a whole bunch of questions that start to get asked when you have women in positions of leadership, because women are still traditionally on the front lines of raising a family—and the same goes for having women of color in particular. We need a great deal of diversity around the decision makers. That absolutely matters, and we have to reflect the fabric of the city in that way.
“I think we should have impact fees on developers to support public school infrastructure. Most jurisdictions do that and I don’t think that is something that is at all unreasonable.”
Affordable housing generally tends to be one and two bedrooms, so how do we get that third bedroom? The way our housing incentives work is that when you put that all the tax credits together, that equals one to two bedrooms. So what if the donor community step in and says and we’re going to fund that third bedroom in these buildings?
So yes, because I’m a woman, I’m thinking that way. Because I have kids, I’m thinking that way. And I think that it would make life a lot easier for women with kids if we were asking those questions and delivering services with how to make the city work for families and kids in mind.
ECB: Advocates against youth incarceration have argued that King County should reconsider rebuilding the youth jail in favor of programs that support restorative justice and other alternatives to incarceration. What’s your position on that project, and on youth incarceration in general?
JF: It’s kind of like the old transit/transportation debate—why are we spending our money on old infrastructure that only makes the problem worse? Congestion begets more congestion. I think there is a similarity—why are we spending precious resources on facilities that are meant to jail youth, instead of those supports that keep kids out of jail and out of the criminal justice system?
We need to make investments to make the current jail whatever it needs to be, but then we need to ask, what if we were using that money to build preschools? What if we were using that money to provide high school students with summer opportunities? I think there are really three specific things that we could do that would have an impact. One is summer programming. Middle-class kids, wealthy kids, have access to all sorts of awesome things all summer long that poor kids don’t have access to. They may lose access to transit, and they lose access to a lot of enrichment activities and academic activities. So I think the city should take a really robust role in making sure that kids have those supports all summer long.
The second piece is, I think we should have impact fees on developers to support public school infrastructure. Most jurisdictions do that and I don’t think that is something that is at all unreasonable. Then the third thing is, to the extent that we’re going to be doing another Families and Education Levy, we should use that levy to address some of the serious racial and economic inequities in our system—things like not having school nurses and mental health counselors and other things that kids need in poorer schools.
There are both monetary investments that we need to make, and some really important systematic changes that we need to make around criminal justice. We need to be really reorienting our investments so that we’re focusing on kids and youth in positive ways, and I would also say the city needs to take a stance of listening to communities about what they need, because they know best about how to support their kids.
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