Mar 31, 2021
This week Seattle mayoral candidate Andrew Grant Houston chats with Crystal about his plans if he becomes mayor, including: rapid housing in tiny homes for our unhoused population, restoring transit up to pre-covid levels, and public safety efforts becoming less than 50% police focused. He also covers how he - an architect who has not been in elected office before - will be able to overcome the “Seattle Process” and get things done.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Learn about Seattle’s response to unhoused folks last summer during the fires: https://crosscut.com/focus/2020/09/wildfire-smokes-health-impacts-have-only-just-begun
Read about our rising carbon footprint here: https://www.kuow.org/stories/climate-leader-seattle-s-carbon-emissions-on-the-rise
Learn about cuts to public transit during the Covid-19 pandemic here: https://crosscut.com/news/2020/08/will-king-county-public-transit-survive-covid-19
Check on the status of the eviction moratorium here: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/seattle-mayor-jenny-durkan-extends-eviction-moratorium-city-council-delays-vote-on-providing-lawyers-for-those-facing-eviction/
Learn more about the public safety alternatives to policing here: https://crosscut.com/2020/07/seattles-arrest-alternative-lead-moves-beyond-police
Find out what folks mean when they reference the “Seattle Process” here: https://crosscut.com/2015/01/seattle-process-working-together-make-ourselves-du
Learn about Andrew Grant Houston’s priorities on this Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/AGH4SEA/status/1349904763576492036
Find out more about Andrew Grant Houston - and many other mayoral candidates - in this interview series from the South Seattle Emerald: https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/01/22/qa-mayoral-candidate-andrew-grant-houston-shares-his-vision-for-seattle-starting-with-housing-and-climate-justice/
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind the scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Welcome to the show today. I'm thrilled that we have Andrew Grant Houston, also known as Ace, here with us today.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:01:00] Hello!
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:00] Yes! Welcome. And you are running for mayor of the City of Seattle.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:01:05] Yes I am.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:07] How did you decide to do that?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:01:10] Well, it came down to being extremely angry at the response during the last wildfires where the City said we have 95 shelter beds for 5,500 unsheltered people. Going to my friends, who I organize with, asking some other people if they were going to run because I would have loved for them to run, and them saying that they have decided not to. And so it was during those conversations that I felt that the response that we need at a time of crisis, where we're dealing with multiple crises, is that we need a new type of leadership in City Hall from the executive. Because what has become extremely clear to me in the past year is how much power the mayor has, and the ability to stop any type of regression and improvement in the city that even City Council, if they're all aligned together, is trying to push through.
And so, I am bringing my project management experience as an architect, as someone who manages multi-million dollar construction budgets to a city that needs to build a lot of housing, fix its streets, and deal with public safety in a very short amount of time. We basically have less than 10 years to solve a lot of crises, and so I'm bringing my systems-based thinking, my design eye, to truly come at our issues from a different point of view. And so that's why I'm running.
Crystal Fincher: [00:02:55] Well, and that makes sense. And I think I certainly heard from a number of people - there've been names out there who have made it very clear for years and years and years that they have had their eye on higher office, different office, the mayor's office. And so, as soon as Mayor Durkan announced that she wasn't running again, there were a list of names that popped into many people's heads about - All right, well that means that so-and-so is going to run and the other person who had signaled that they were going to be running. And a number of people were surprised to hear that you were interested in getting into the race. So without having that kind of history and background and signaling that you had ambitions to be in office, do you think that puts you in a better position, worse position, unique position? How do you think the public should read that?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:03:47] I think it is definitely a unique position. And to give some more background as to why I even got into the position of saying that I was interested in doing this, I have been a housing activist and organizer since I was in college. And so, I've been doing this now, I want to say, for nine years - really just trying to get more housing built. I definitely am from the YIMBY camp, for sure. So when people talk about NIMBYs versus YIMBYs, I'm definitely YIMBY. I have -
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:23] Yes, In My Backyard - bring it on.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:04:25] Yep, exactly. I'm looking at this from a point of - tying to my experience as a Person of Color, as a lifelong renter, born and raised by my single mother who was a public school teacher back in Texas. And so, part of my frustration in last year in those wildfires was knowing how hard myself and other people have been fighting to try and get housing built in the City.
And knowing that if I was going to do anything with more impact, it's basically take the reins and address the crisis we're in. Especially when we're also talking about not just the housing prices, but how it's tied to the climate crisis, where we have less than nine years now to cut our emissions in half. And so, when you look at what the City has done so far in the past roughly two mayors, three mayors, who have all been career politicians and lawyers, who try to always come to consensus and we see minor changes. We see maybe a 4% reduction or a 3% reduction, when we need to see a 50% reduction. As well as the promise that Council has made to effectively eliminate emissions as part of the Seattle Green New Deal, so we're talking not just 50%, but close to 100%. We actually need someone who has a working knowledge of the technical steps that it takes to actually do that work. And so that's why I am definitely a unique perspective and why I'm running in this specific moment.
Crystal Fincher: [00:05:59] So it sounds like you're saying you are bringing a lot of relevant experience and although you may be new to some people, you aren't new to this area or these issues and are bringing a unique perspective to them. So, and hear you're saying that there needs to be an urgency that you don't feel is currently there. And a lot of people may say, Okay, but there's a reason why we haven't just slashed it by 50%, and that the process dictates that we can only implement incremental change and you just don't understand. What do you say to those people?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:06:43] I don't think you understand just how bad of a situation we're in. It is - I think more than even I can truly comprehend. And I don't necessarily just want to instill fear in people, the fear of God and say, Oh boy, it's coming. But we are on track currently to - or let me rephrase this a bit. So we have the Paris Climate Accords, which everyone is very happy that we're back in. They always talk about, they're like, oh, especially in policy circles. Yay, we're back in the Paris Climate Agreement. So that is supposed to commit us to a 1.5 degree centigrade increase in heat overall, average. Currently if Seattle, and this includes us, but also other cities, if we do what we're doing currently, we are on track to hit a plus 3 degree centigrade of warming, and so double where we need to be ideally.
And it's not to say that it's impossible, but we need to be doing every single thing that we can to get as close to that number as possible. And that means really rethinking the way that we - one, pass legislation - pass and make progress. But also use our City and use what we have. And so in that way, really making it clear that, especially with all the things we've done during the pandemic to allow for people to walk in the streets, people to use and operate cafés outside, and how quickly that happened, that we actually can do this really quickly and we have the ability to do so. It's solely from political will. And I am running to say, Okay, we're taking all of that will, and we're throwing it aside and we are doing the things that we know that we need to do.
Crystal Fincher: [00:08:49] So with those things, I guess, how do we achieve that? What are the policies that you would implement to accomplish that? And what are you also looking to get accomplished in other areas?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:09:03] Yep. So I am definitely going to come up with a lot of policy plans. I definitely come from a vein of being a Warren Democrat, and so yes, I have a plan for that. And I started with my first three, which will be coming out ideally this week, if not next week - about more details of the 2,500 tiny homes. So the short term solution to our housing crisis, because we know we simply need to build more housing and we need that funding, specifically from the federal government. The income tax, which I am now framing as the Just Transition tax. So creating a more progressive stream of revenue that can then be turned over and put into green jobs, into apprenticeships so that we can actually train people in the City, our own residents, to help build the communities that they're a part of. And so I'm really excited about that.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:59] And so that's a City of Seattle income tax-
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:10:03] Yep.
Crystal Fincher: [00:10:03] Okay. Gotcha.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:10:04] And the last one is to put buses back on the ballot in 2022. And so, what that's really looking at - as restoring service to what it was before COVID, and then being able to go even further with a county-wide initiative, either in 2023 or 2024. Because once we improve bus service and get people excited about being able to imagine that you go outside of your home to the nearest bus stop, and you don't even have to think about the bus coming, it just shows up - that is how we get people to ride the bus and to shift away from cars.
Crystal Fincher: [00:10:50] And do you feel like there is the capacity to get that accomplished from the seat of the mayor? Or do you need the Council and other partners? You think you can do that and get that accomplished in the mayor's seat?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:11:07] Well, I think part of it is that if you are following a lot of the, not necessarily ambitions but the desires of Council, then they are already on board with a lot of the things that I'm proposing and they have tried to fund these things. But like many things that have been funded by Council, that have been prioritized by Council, it is the current mayor that has stopped them from happening, solely because the mayor is the only person that can spend the money.
And so we've seen this time and time again. The one that comes to mind, just in this moment right now, is spending money to put people in hotels. It has been so difficult and you've seen this from both sides and it's very public, as to getting the mayor to just spend the money. The money is there. The money is essentially free money from the federal government. And so the question is, what is taking so long? What is keeping the mayor from not acting? And so the one thing that I can commit to 100% is working with Council and not being a mayor of inaction, but being the mayor of action.
Crystal Fincher: [00:12:19] Well, and you raise a really good point. And we have not had a city where the Council and the mayor have been in agreement on policy for quite some time. Now we have a Council that is certainly more progressive than the mayor. And before this, it was flipped. We had a mayor with Mayor McGinn that was more progressive than the Council at the time. And so, for the past, what, 12 years we've seen this tension. Or even longer going back to Nickels, we've seen this tension between the Council and the mayor where it seems like, Well, that's just a relationship that is tense, period, and that's just how it is. But you bring a good point that it doesn't necessarily have to be, and what if the mayor and the Council were aligned?
Now, obviously we're going to have some competitive races for Council this year so the composition may shift. But there are certainly, even for the other council members that aren't up for election, as you said, they have certainly signaled that they support a number of more progressive policies - more transit, more housing, getting more homes for people who don't have them right now.
So as you're looking forward, when it comes to certainly taking care of transit, trying to move the needle on the climate goals that is there - know a lot of people are concerned about, Hey, we're still in the middle of a pandemic. We can see light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps, but we're still very much in it. More people are un-vaccinated still than are vaccinated and new variants are passing around. And we still hear news of restaurants closing, and very beloved neighborhood businesses closing, and people losing work. So there's a very real need for still - help for people who are impacted by - things weren't great in the first place and the pandemic made it even worse. And now there are a lot of people out of jobs trying to figure out what they're going to do when this eviction moratorium ends. What do you think needs to happen to help people who are on the edge of crisis once there's no moratorium and there's no more support for the effects of this pandemic? And also for businesses who have closed or who are on the brink right now, what needs to happen and what can people expect from you as mayor?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:14:59] So I think you're bringing up some really excellent points. And it is, in some ways, almost my frustration with the fact that I'm running now, knowing that I won't step into office until January of 2022. And that's a lot of time between being able to truly drive the conversation in the driver's seat, as opposed to just being in the back as a backseat driver saying, Hey, you might want to do this. But if we're looking at what is happening right now, myself and my campaign are definitely taking the approach of what we are calling "organize everywhere." And so, in that way we are pushing for the eviction moratorium to be extended both in the City and at the state level, because it should be until the end of the year. And that includes both - for renters, as well as landlords and owners.
It's really the need for grace in this time where we are seeing aid come through, which is something that is extremely helpful, especially from a new government. Our new federal government is actually acting and responding to the need in crisis. And that's really where the money is going to come from, because again, at the end of the day, the City Council budget has to be fully balanced. That's something that definitely limits what we can do. And we also have money coming from the State, from the governor, which is fantastic. And so we need time in order to get that aid to the people that need it, especially so that they can still be able to keep their homes and keep their businesses. Because one of my biggest fears is that we get to end of June, people are evicted, and then our aid is able to go out July or August, but those people aren't there to receive it.
And so if there's one thing I can do, it's really pushing on that. And also in terms of that organizing, really driving the conversation about, okay, when we see more aid come through, when there are discussions about the infrastructure bill happening at the federal level, what are the plans that we're talking about now? What are the ways that we can actually have those community conversations now? So that when I step into office, I am able to say, we've already had the conversation, we already know what community wants to see, and we're able to act on day one. That is definitely what I am very interested in, is doing all the background work now, so that once I'm able to step in, I can just say, Look, we've already had our community conversations, we've already gone through the Seattle process. Let's go.
Crystal Fincher: [00:17:39] Well, and that makes sense. And you talk about not taking office until January 2022. Certainly the election will be in November of 2021. And in the meantime, some of these conversations that we're having will signal and shape the conversations that lead to the policy that you'll be able to implement. And I know one that is on the front of a lot of people's minds is that around policing and public safety. So I guess, as you evaluate the current situation, what does public safety mean to you and what is your plan for moving forward?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:18:16] So, public safety, for me, means one very clear message. 100% public safety, less than 50% police. We are currently operating in a system where it is a complete understanding by many individuals in our community, but across the nation, that when we talk public safety, we're immediately talking about police. We're not talking about first responders, we're not talking about fire, we're not talking about mental health responses to crisis. And so, part of that is going to take some re-education, some re-imagining within our own minds. And so that's not everything that I can control. But what I can control is how we invest in what our response to crises looks like in the future.
So for me, that's a number of things - that is really being led by community, especially movements like the Black Lives Matter movement, the King County Equity Now movement, the No New Youth Jail movement, the Decriminalize Seattle movement. Movements that have been happening for many, many, many years before George Floyd, before Breonna Taylor. And so, these are conversations that have been happening for a very long time as to the over-policing of communities, especially communities of color.
But also on the flip side, that we are expecting too much of our police in terms of what they're supposed to be responding to. And so we need to invest in community alternatives. We need to expand our types of responses. And as one of my biggest focuses, we need to start doing preventative care and harm reduction so that people never end up in crises in the first place. And so that is why housing is such a big part of my plans and why I am a housing is a human right, and even signed onto the Homes Guarantee, which is something that is a national movement to really get people housed. Because I believe that a lot of the situations, especially related to the homelessness crisis that we've been dealing with that has been declared an emergency since 2015, and yet we have not seen the response that has to be necessary in order to meet the scale of that crisis - that a big part of it is just giving people homes. And so that's what we need to focus on.
Crystal Fincher: [00:20:46] Well, and bouncing back to the policing, specifically, and public safety conversation, what became apparent was that some of the progress that even the Council signaled that they wanted to make was not going to be possible without a change in the SPOG contract, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, their union contract. And that is going to be up for negotiation coming up, depending on the person, either later this year or next year.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:21:20] And of course, even now, there are conversations between a number of different individuals as supposed to - when that negotiation is supposed to start. So I'm definitely keeping track.
Crystal Fincher: [00:21:29] Yes. And so really, certainly in the seat of the mayor and in concert with the Council, it's going to be up to you to determine what is ultimately acceptable in that contract - with the understanding that right now, that contract has hindered the ability to instill, to deliver discipline, to have accountability and to maintain the values of the residents in the City. It is tied the hands of the police chief and reversed decisions that they've made. And certainly has brought about outcomes that were counter to what the Council and residents in the City have wanted to see. And there is a broad feeling, I certainly am one of those, who feels that it is a hindrance, that it does go too far in allowing police to police themselves.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:22:36] And it's one of those tough discussions, because having been here and having lived here during that time, where in 2017 Council passed new ordinances to try and create more accountability. But then in 2018, they approved the SPOG contract, which walked back a lot of it. It's, I know in most people's minds, that they don't want to see that happen again. They don't want to put their faith in Council to actually keep the police accountable and then walk it back again through this contract. And so, I am committed to hearing the voices of community, and specifically those who are most impacted - people who look like me, who are Black and Indigenous, and other People of Color, and to really get at the heart of what this is. And knowing that negotiation is going to take a long time. But the last contract took about four years and I am a extremely stubborn person, and so I got all the time in the world to get that right.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:43] So as mayor, would you sign a contract that didn't incorporate the 2017 Accountability Ordinance?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:23:51] No.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:53] That's a bright line.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:23:55] We really need to get to a point where we actually have true accountability for the police, because if we don't have that, then it doesn't really matter what we try to do. And in many ways, unfortunately, it almost puts too much power into the police. And not even the chief, this is just into SPOG itself as an entity, that you then have to question who they're accountable to. And when you provide that much power in any individual's hands, that is-
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:27] And so you talked about issues of public safety being much broader than police, and talking about how housing issues are critical to keeping people safe in our community. Certainly this is a huge conversation - both housing affordability and people being able to afford a home, and for people who do not have homes who can't afford any shelter, and getting them into shelter. Right now an immediate issue that the City is dealing with has been sweeping homeless living areas, whether they're encampments or otherwise, that is against CDC guidance.
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:25:15] Again, similar to the conversations we were having earlier about that disconnect between the executive, meaning the mayor and those departments, and then the Council. The Council has defunded sweeps and said, No more sweeps. And yet the executive has continued to do those. And so that, I think, is a very clear line and something that I want to make people aware of - in that the choice to truly address our homelessness crisis, it solely lies with the executive in terms of the on-the-ground action. And so, I just wanted to make that extremely clear, because I hear from a lot of people, they're very frustrated. They're like, Oh man, the City is doing this. I'm like, No, it's the executive.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:04] It is. And we've heard a number of justifications for a number of different things. And so, I guess I just wanted to know, do you ever see any justification for doing a sweep? Do you ever see that as a viable tool or tactic?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:26:19] No. We are asking people, currently, to pick themselves up, and when we sweep them, we are kicking them back down. If we give people permanent housing or even just permanent shelter, they know every day where they're coming back to. And something that I think a lot of people don't know - but they can actually go to the latest King County Point-in-Time Count that was done. And it was just released, if I remember correctly, at the beginning of this week - if not, it was last week. That about 70-80% of people who are currently unhoused are working, and most of those people are working full-time. And so, when you are working full-time and simply cannot afford to live in the City, but you're still connected to our community, we need to be able to support those people. We need to be able to provide them shelter, to provide them that permanence so that they can improve their own standing.
And I do recognize if there are people who are dealing with either drug abuse or other health considerations, and we do need more services and response for those people. But again, like I said before, we really need to address some of the other issues that can prevent people from falling into homelessness. Because what I'm looking at in terms of the numbers right now, what it's saying is that, what we're doing is helpful to prevent the number from going up too drastically. In other words, the overall amount of people every year is roughly the same, but we're not doing enough to actually get to functional zero. And so, as we lift people out of homelessness, other people are falling in.
And so addressing things like rent, which I am already talking about rent control and going to push that. And that's definitely going to be a legal challenge, but I hope Pete Holmes is ready. I am looking at raising the minimum wage, because if we just give people more money in their pocket, that's actually going to make them be able to afford their rents. And of course, as I said, focusing on 2,500 tiny homes - this is a short-term solution that we can build more permanently affordable housing. Because housing, even if we want to talk about, let's go and do a ballot ordinance and get more money for housing. If we were to cut every single piece of red tape right now, it would still take roughly three years to build more apartments. And so, we really need a short-term solution, and that knowledge and experience about how long it actually takes to get a building built, and designed, and through permits - I have that understanding. And so, that is part of why I'm running in the first place - is to make it that much easier for us to build the housing that we need.
Crystal Fincher: [00:29:14] Well, and that's a really good point and useful to know, especially since so many of our conversations have been about - obviously, there's a need for short-term immediate shelter, but also needing to transition people to permanent stable housing, and just that context is useful.
Also, I wanted to just point out, and we've talked about unhoused people on many different shows - I just wanted to also clarify on last week's show, we had a conversation with Councilmember Lewis that covered a lot of this ground and talked about tiny homes, his plans for those. In there, he mentioned that he had heard, and I don't know whether it was at a Council briefing or not, that there was some justification for doing some sweeps of encampments potentially because of human trafficking. I just wanted to point out that we have not seen or encountered any evidence of that happening anywhere. And so I just wanted to be clear that that was brought up and we are not aware of that happening at all. Certainly he said that - even if that were to be the case, that would be a tiny minority. At this point, it appears to be 0%. So just wanted to bring that up.
And then kind of circle back, you talk about your experience helping with the knowledge of timelines and just how to approach how we need to just functionally address with providing homes and building and shelter. And that gets back to the question of your experience outside of government and not having experience in government. You're running against people who have held office before. There are a couple of former City Council members running, people who have held other office. And certainly after years of Trump and other public officials who have no idea what's going on, some people are a little hesitant to say, Okay, maybe we need to be careful when we hand over the keys to someone who hasn't driven this car before.
And that management of just the departments - that the City of Seattle is a big organization at its core that needs to be managed and that's a big task. So, as someone coming from the outside who doesn't have the background of how the sausage gets made within the City of Seattle, how do you think you're positioned to lead the City, to implement policy, to make sure things actually get done as you intend?
Andrew Grant Houston: [00:32:00] So I'm going to touch on this a couple of different ways, and I'll say it's probably three. So the first one being I'm currently the Interim Policy Manager for Councilmember Mosqueda. This was a position that I was offered, I actually did not apply for it. She basically just called me up and said, "Hey, I need someone temporary. Are you available?" And I think if anyone just looks from the outside and kind of sees the work that's going on with the office, there have been no blips. And so clearly I'm doing something right. And so that makes me feel good, and knows that one, not only am I getting that inside view as to how the sausage is made, I'm actually being able to contribute to an excellent team. And I will say that I love my team a lot, and that's all I'm going to say about that because probably shouldn't be talking too much about that.
Second item is I have not worked for - inside the government, but I have worked in collaboration with governments in the past. So outside of being an architect, I am also an urban designer and I'm a planner. So one of my former positions was as actually a land use code writer. And so we would go do community engagement, engage with staff, and actually write the rules to the game of building housing. And so when you're talking about someone who has extremely technical knowledge as to exactly how codes should or should not work, I am your person.
And the third thing that I will add is - I think being an outsider is exactly what we need at this moment. Especially, as I said again, that we need to make significant, drastic changes in the next nine years, basically in the next two terms for mayor. One thing that I have made very clear is that I'm committed to serving two terms, because I know that's been an issue with mayors in the past. And I'm not a career politician. I'm not looking at this office, at this open seat as, Oh yeah, it'll be a great stepping stone on my way to a statewide position or even a national position. No, I am committed to making housing and improving the City, not just for myself, but for everyone here. That is why I call my campaign The Rising Tide. It's about being a new movement. It is about building a rising tide that lifts all boats, but specifically the way that water works is that it starts with those at the bottom first. And so in that way, we are progressively improving the City in a way that has never been done before.
Crystal Fincher: [00:34:34] Well, I certainly appreciate that. That was a quick little 30 minutes that went by and were able to cover a lot. Appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation with us today, and we'll be keeping an eye on you as you continue throughout the campaign.
Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. And now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.
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