After years spent in anti-homeless advocacy and social justice activism, rarely does Joshua Farris allow designations branded on him by someone else to cause much consternation. The exception is the one label that has consistently been associated with his name since announcing his campaign for District 2’s city council seat: “longshot”.
Farris believes this word has limited relation to reality, despite both The Stranger and The Seattle Times attaching it to his attempt to become the district’s first representative. The Iraq War veteran chalks this dismissiveness up to a system where “[one’s] seriousness as a candidate is measured by how much money you have in the bank, as opposed to how many feet you have in the streets”.
The reluctant candidate points not just to the grassroots support he’s received as evidence of his campaign’s viability (Farris says the vast number of signs dotting Rainier Avenue for miles attest to that), but also the obstacles he has had to overcome during his run, which have included eviction, homelessness and a perceived misinformation campaign by local media – plights he feels resonate solidly with the constituency of South Seattle, putting him in a more relatable position than that of his two opponents, twice-elected Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell and food policy planner Tammy Morales. The Emerald spoke with Farris at Columbia City’s Flying Lion Brewery, a setting affirming his “everyman-ness” as Farris put it, and evoking one label he held in wide regard: the candidate you could envision yourself having a beer with.
South Seattle Emerald: You’ve been an advocate for the homeless and those being displaced for the last several years. Why did you decide to run and step to the other side of the ledger, so to speak?
Joshua Farris: If you read most of the stories published about me, they comment on the fact I haven’t raised the same kind of campaign funds that other candidates have. Can we only elect people supported by millionaires? Is money the only measure of a candidate? Well, I’m used to running grassroots campaigns with no money. I know that people-power is the only way to counter the big money interests in power.
As you may know I entered the race a little late. The reason I entered the race is because I didn’t see a candidate I could support and people asked me to run. We needed an activist to run in South Seattle. We wanted somebody who could represent our interests and somebody we could trust to fight in City Hall.
People in our campaign have worked with SAFE (Standing Against Foreclosure & Eviction). I was a co-founder and the lead organizer before I resigned in order to run. We’ve been advocating for policies that would have helped people in the South End, such as strengthening Just Cause Eviction Protection, so people could pay to stay in their home. In effect, this would have been a kind of moratorium on foreclosures for former homeowners and tenants in Seattle.
This year housing is the number one issue for Seattle District 2. Our city is becoming unaffordable for most people. Last year we began the process of raising the minimum wage which I supported. The incumbent fought against the $15 per hour minimum wage every step of the way. Oddly now it’s the incumbent who is taking credit for it. It’s that kind of opportunism in politics that turns people off.
People are being displaced from the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for most of their lives. I’m not running to be everything to everyone, like Bruce, but to actually bring solutions. Seattle has major problems that have been neglected and made worse by the current city council. City Hall only seems to hear the voices of the moneyed class and is turning this city into a playground for the rich. Their agenda is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. People on the ground feel the effects of that agenda and it’s pushing them out of the city.
What I will do is hold the doors to City Hall open and allow people to have a voice after this election. I will go out of my way to engage people every week. I won’t do some token thing where I have office hours in the district every week. I want to have a weekly town hall forum over a radio broadcast where we explain what our office did last week, what’s coming up, and let people call in to discuss the issues on a weekly basis. I want there be transparency and direct democracy for the people in Southeast Seattle. That’s why I’m running.
Emerald: What would your approach be in attempting to create greater economic parity between South Seattle and its northern counterparts. This area has one of the lowest median incomes in the city. How do you attack that as a city council member?
Farris: We need more investment in small businesses and targeted economic development along Rainier Ave S. and Martin Luther King Way would make it a destination area and not just a through way.
I will work to enact a vacancy tax on commercial real estate that’s been sitting empty for more than six months to encourage landlords to lower rents so that small businesses can afford to succeed here. I will fight to restore affirmative action so more people in the South End can get jobs.
Emerald: In terms of affordable housing, everything has been bandied about in terms of linkage fees and other options. What do you support in terms of making sure this area stays the same and there’s less displacement?
Farris: There are still poor working class people of color who work in Seattle, but a lot of them are forced into Renton, Federal Way, Kent, and south of the city. One of the ways we can preserve the diversity of the city and broaden it is by building more affordable housing. I strongly support Kshama Sawant’s plan to build 50,000 units of affordable public housing.
We need affordable housing that’s based on the metric of 30 percent of your salary, even if you only make $10,000 a year or don’t have money coming in at all. In addressing displacement, we also need recognize the fact that Seattle has the fastest growing homeless population in the country. We need to recognize housing as a human right. We should emulate what Phoenix is doing for veterans and what Salt Lake City is doing for everyone. Put everyone in housing. It turns out that it costs dramatically less, nearly 50 percent less, to put people in homes first. That will be my number one priority to end homelessness.
We have more than two thousand empty houses in South Seattle. We need to establish a vacancy tax to discourage banks from keeping empty homes off the market, prevent banks from refusing to negotiate loan modifications, and establish a means to recover the social costs of their greed.
What we need is a regulated housing market. The city council is primarily responsible for Land Use policies. The city council can do this, but it takes conviction and it takes political will; something I don’t think the other two candidates in South Seattle have. I can say our campaign has already been successful. The other candidates have been parroting our proposals since the day after our first debate.
It is difficult to believe Bruce on housing. He’s had eight years. He could have studied what’s been happening in other cities. He could look at Los Angeles and see that they sued Wall Street to recover money. He could have looked at Salt Lake City. He could have looked at Phoenix to see what they’re doing to combat veteran homelessness. He could have looked at the vacancy tax they’re applying in Oakland. He could have looked at all these things, but he didn’t. Further, he has a staff of people to explore these problems and could rapidly come up with policy recommendations that the more liberal council members could sign onto. But, Bruce did nothing.
For 7 ½ years, Seattleites lost millions and billions of dollars of hard-earned equity they had in their homes. The African American community was hit the hardest. Our history and our dignity are under attack as we face displacement. That is what’s at stake here; human dignity. This housing issue is number one. I’ll sponsor a tenant bill of rights and rent control.
Emerald: Speaking of housing, you’ve been in the unique position of actually being evicted from your home recently. You’ve said this is an experience everyone running for city council should have?
Farris: Being thrown out of your home is a visceral experience. It was poetic to be evicted as an anti-eviction organizer while running for city council, on a housing justice platform. We could have continued to fight our eviction but it would have distracted us from the campaign. Our primary purpose is to help build the movement and unseat Harrell. On the last day before an unlawful detainer could have been filed, I moved out. We demonstrated and drew attention to the issue that landlords have all the power in this town. There are no tenants’ rights. You can basically be evicted with only twenty day notice which my wife and I were given. In some cases, tenants can suffer no-fault evictions without any notice. Not to mention the economic evictions from rent hikes people can’t afford.
Emerald: In turning to transportation issues, let’s first talk about the proposed road diet along Rainier Avenue. Are you supportive of SDOT’s proposal to narrow the lanes from four down to two lanes to curb accidents on the street?
Farris: I don’t believe these transit plans should be imposed on the neighborhoods. We need to have support from the community councils and neighborhoods before we move ahead with anything. The way it is now, Department of Transportation comes to a community meeting and says: This is what we’re going to do. Any questions?
The city has a tendency to design and build new transit projects in an unsafe manner and then criticizes those same designs for their serious flaws. Such “bold and visionary” designs have a very short shelf life before another huge money-pit of a proposal comes along that will solve all of our decades-long problems and revolutionize the use of the targeted locality. Having witnessed how such projects are developed and executed in Southeast Seattle, like many people worried about their skyrocketing property taxes, I admit to being skeptical.
I know some people in the South End like the idea of a road diet and some people don’t like it. Rainier is a major arterial. Our energy future requires that we reduce carbon emissions. We need more trolleys, light rail, and more walkable neighborhoods. I believe the road diet is where we’re headed, but let’s get real community support for it first.
Emerald: What are your feelings on the proposed Graham light rail station attached to Mayor Murray’s “Move Seattle” levy in November?
Farris: It’s around 28 blocks to walk from Othello station to Graham. That’s an impossible situation for people who want to take transit. They end up walking to Rainier and catching the number 7 bus. That’s dumb. Metro took out bus routes because they want to force people to take the light rail. We need a Graham street station. I’d also like to see more east to west transit options as well. It’s ridiculous that all of our mass transit flows into downtown when so many people work in SoDo and Georgetown. It’s just over the hill. Fares have doubled in the last ten years for crying out loud. I’d like to restore and expand the ride free zone downtown as well as roll back the fare hikes as soon as possible with progressive funding sources.
Emerald: In terms of education. How do we push towards a more equitable system for South End schools?
Farris: We have an issue where Olympia has basically screwed Seattle with rent, screwed us with taxation, screwed us with affirmative action and screwed us with education. Jesse Hagopian (a Garfield high school teacher) went down to Olympia a few years ago and tried to carry out a citizen’s arrest of the senators down there because they were in violation of the Washington State Constitution which says that education should be funded equally. The Washington State Supreme Court should hold the entire State government in contempt. I think the schools in the South End need just as many resources as those in the North End.
I support data and reality. We have proof that something like the International Baccalaureate program works in Rainier Beach. Why is that only for another year? I’m in favor of low cost solutions that have been proven to work to educate our kids. As an activist I’m very aware of the school to prison pipeline. African American students are three times as likely to be suspended from school than their white peers. What does this say to those kids?
Emerald: There have been some things published about you in recent weeks in various publications, including that you have DUI charge, and that you punched a homeless man out of a fit of anger. Would you care to address any of these stories?
Farris: I don’t spend my time spreading whisper campaigns about Bruce. The stories I’ve read in the Stranger and Crosscut are utter nonsense. Once you put people in a situation where they’re saying, “I did not kill that person,” the question becomes, “well, did he or didn’t he kill someone?” I’ve heard plenty of nasty rumors about Bruce. I don’t know if they’re true or not. Articles about me say things like: “Do you know he doesn’t have as much money and he’s not a valid candidate?” Then somebody comments, “By way he also had a D.U.I. and he’s nuts.”
You don’t have to be an investigative journalist to look up my criminal record. If you did, you would see that I don’t have a DUI. I have a charge where I was sentenced to a fifty dollar fine, and it was dismissed.
I have been arrested because of my work as an advocate for civil society and social justice. I’ve committed civil disobedience plenty of times. All of that has been dismissed.
The Crosscut story of me punching a guy sprang from me organizing down at Nickelsville. A vicious guy attacked me and I defended myself. The guy reported me to police after he attacked me. When I found out about it, through the sensational Crosscut piece, I filed a complaint with the police in order to tell my side of the story. I’m sure nothing will come of it.
Emerald: You continue to take offense with people labeling you the “fringe” candidate. How do you combat the constant refrain that your campaign shouldn’t be taken seriously?
Farris: Yes, we are a serious campaign. I know I feel serious after working all day to put my campaign signs in the ground. I know I feel serious when the issues I’ve brought up during the forums are parroted by my two opponents. I also know I’m dead serious when I say I’d fight to make sure developers pay their fair share; they’ve had a free handout in this town for long enough.
Emerald: Let’s say you win the District 2 council seat, at the completion of your first term, what would you want your South End constituency to say about you?
Farris: I want them to say I’m the Councilmember that cares about people before profits. Mine is a true grassroots campaign and you shouldn’t have to be a millionaire to run for office.
I want to demonstrate that Kshama Sawant is not an anomaly. We can elect normal people, including socialists, organizers, plumbers, and janitors. They don’t have to all be city planners, corporate lawyers and bureaucrats. Quite frankly, those are the people who got us into this mess. We don’t really need any more of the old guard running the city.
Emerald: Finally, a question from Mohammed a local middle schooler in the Youth Tutoring Program at Lake Washington Apartments: If Batman fought Superman, who would you want to win?
Farris: I would root for Superman, mainly because I wouldn’t want to support the billionaire do-gooder Bruce Wayne and Superman is an immigrant from space. He’s a working class guy. He’s a starving journalist who doesn’t get paid much. I have to go with the working man.