by Will Sweger
Local artist, teacher, attorney and activist Nikkita Oliver has led a dynamic campaign in the short weeks since announcing her candidacy for Mayor of Seattle. She’s been endorsed by Larry Gossett, a King County Council Member, and Macklemore. A recent shake up even included the Seattle Times editorial board asking Mayor Ed Murry, embroiled in the midst of sexual-abuse allegations from decades ago, to step down over the threat of increasingly more progressive candidates.
The Emerald caught up with Oliver on the campaign trail to discuss the future of Seattle’s housing and development. What resulted was a discussion on fellow mayoral candidate Carey Moon, racial equity, rent control and slam poetry.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Emerald: It’s been just over eight weeks now since you’ve announced your candidacy, how has running for mayor changed you and what have you learned about Seattle in the process?
Nikkita Oliver: I think because I’m still in it, it’s hard to say how it’s changed me. I definitely feel more committed to being even more honest and truthful. When we set out to do this, transparency was a big part of our goal—wanting to demystify not just the electoral process but running for office. There are some really seedy sides in terms of folks who contact us for meetings who have vendettas against other folks. Those are not the kinds of dealings I want to be involved in at all. Or secret polls that happen that some people running can pay for to see where they are and how they compare, not just in terms to other candidates, but depending on what narrative gets spun about those other candidates. Learning about super PACs where they will most likely pay to create hyperbolized oppositional material about another candidate. So there are some parts of running for office that you know exist, then suddenly you’re in it.
Emerald: It’s a different thing to deal with it directly.
Nikkita Oliver: You’re just seeing how it’s really structured against cash-poor folks and people of color in a lot of ways. Even just the way I’m constantly characterized as a Black Lives Matter leader and yeah, I’ve participated in the movement, but I’m also black. What choice do I have but to advocate for my life and the lives of people I care about? To tie it to transparency, there will come a time when we’re even more transparent about some of the things we’ve experienced. As a party and as a candidate, I think people deserve to know the way electoral politics actually works in our city.
Emerald: To anyone observing it’s obvious Seattle is changing and, fittingly, some prominent parts of the debate so far have centered on Seattle’s housing affordability and density. What do you see as the way forward for making Seattle more affordable for cash-poor people and working families?
Oliver: I think strategy matters. Seattle is at this place of having an existential question of who has the right to be in our city. With the way things have been going it’s really about corporations and people who are on the wealthier end of things. In order to have an equity lens around it, we’re going to have to think strategically because that’s not the system that has been set up for us. It’s also not the way decisions have been going. We live in a very corporate-leaning city right now where the grand bargain that was made around housing basically gives a free ride to developers and corporations. I think we really need to push back against that.
The three to six percent that HALA, MHA, the upzones and the whole strategy around it doesn’t necessarily take into consideration the actual impact on the city. The amount of density that’s happened and where it’s happened has not necessarily been strategic or thought out either. What we really need is a consensus-driven model instead of a compromise-based model. The grand bargain was a compromise where the brunt of the impact went on the folks that HALA is actually supposed to serve. The way that we’re going to create equity for cash-poor folks and people of color is going to be by expecting those corporations and developers who want to be in our city, and I believe they want to be in our city, to invest in our city and the people who have made Seattle what it is.
The approach has to be multifaceted. We can’t actually wait on the private market to build all the housing we need. If we do that, we’re never going to stop the push-out. We’re never going to build enough housing for people to stay, let alone enough housing for people to come back. It certainly won’t be affordable because the market is going to continue to increase in cost. The city has to be willing to intervene at this point, especially since HALA and MHA didn’t meet the needs and really didn’t actually ask for what is needed to make our city affordable. Some of those intervention strategies include the city being willing to build housing and leverage its bonding capacities. Dealing with speculative capital, there are a lot of folks who are able to buy property in our city but they don’t actually live in that property. They’re either renting it out or using it to protect their assets.
Also, continuing the work with non-profits is a good move in the right direction. But if we wait on the private market and non-profits to be the only responses to building affordable housing we’re not going to get there. I accept density is going to be a part of the way this city develops, but it’s going to be geologically constrained because you can’t put density everywhere. There is a culture and a beauty to each of the neighborhoods in our city, how do we preserve that while simultaneously building enough housing for people to stay there?
I think it’s a multifaceted strategy that we need, but we also need a long-term vision. Who do we want Seattle to be in the next 50 to 100 years? That doesn’t mean that vision will be organic, but if you don’t have a vision, everything we do will continue to be reactionary, which are the responses we’ve had now. They’ve been more property tax levies or ‘let’s do this tax’ and ‘let’s not do that tax.’ We just lack vision. I think vision will really help put us a step in the right direction that allows us to better serve people.
Emerald: You mentioned people who come in and speculate, who buy a place and don’t inhabit it or try to turn it over for more money. As mayor, which ways would you look into to discourage speculation in housing from driving prices up?
Oliver: I don’t have the specifics of this outlined because it really is a market intervention strategy, which means it need to be done very thoughtfully. We’ve seen in Vancouver that it has had a positive impact. But it was also hard to pass because of the narrative they created around it. In Seattle, we need to do some research on it. We need to look deeply into our market. We need to work with economists. But I do believe some market intervention strategies, coupled with multiple strategies for building housing will lower the cost of housing. Alongside that has to be a redefinition of what ‘affordable’ means in a city where the median income is over $80,000. 60 percent of the median income for AMI is not going to serve the folks who most need housing. We’re looking at the people who are at 30 percent of that. That’s a lot of our city, it includes a lot of our teachers. A lot of our actual workforce is in that.
But in regards to this speculative capital, I think it’s an important response. Because Vancouver has already put that into motion, it’s actually pushing that market further into Seattle. So more people are going to be buying that sort of capital here and it’s going to continue to push our market values up. I don’t know what kind of tax we’ll put on it, I don’t know what percentage we’ll ask, but I do think it is the right direction to move in if we’re going to ensure folks have the right to stay in our city. For people to come in and make incredibly high bids on places they’re not going to stay in while we have 4,000 plus homeless people in our city, those folks should have to invest in our city because they’re actually contributing to a problem that is making our city less safe and less healthy. I think it’s important that we start to address that.
Emerald: One of your opponents, Cary Moon, has advocated a tax on corporate and non-resident buyers of real estate in Seattle similar to Vancouver’s 15 percent tax. She’s also advocated for a vacant property tax, to be levied on properties owners who refuse to sell, occupy or rent out. What is your position on taxes of this nature?
Oliver: The 15 percent is reasonable when we talk about speculative capital. Understanding why certain properties are vacant is going to be important before we start taxing those properties. I’m interested in incentivizing those landlords to rent their properties out affordably. One of the things we’ve seen in the south end especially that is causing problems with housing is that we have people who have Section 8 vouchers and landlords are not willing to take those vouchers. How do you incentivize those landlords to rent their properties out to people who already have vouchers who need housing?
Those landlords who are choosing to keep their properties vacant, it’s going to be much better if we incentivize them than if we tax them. Having a multifaceted response to our housing crisis is really important because no singular strategy is actually going to move us in the right direction. We also support rent stabilization, which is essential for keeping people in their housing now. We also support getting vouchers for our seniors who have moved into their homes on a fixed income, but the continued leveraging of property taxes is actually going to push them out of their homes. Some of those property taxes were to respond to the housing crisis and now we’re creating a cyclical problem of we’ve raised your property taxes too high and now you’re pushed out of your home. We have to find a way to keep our seniors in their housing.
The way we’ve been talking about it is short-term, intermediate-term and long-term. That’s why I keep talking about that vision. In the short term there are some emergency responses we have to have now in order to meet the needs of homeless people. The affordable housing crisis and the number of folks who are homeless and houseless, though interconnected, require drastically different responses because they’re on different ends of the spectrum, but at some point they intersect. That’s the short-term emergency response, and then our long-term is a way of ensuring we have enough housing. There are thousands of people a year coming to Seattle, the market is not going to change without having enough housing.
Emerald: Many people are hoping the race will come down to you and Cary Moon for the dialogue over equity, inclusiveness and prosperity it would invite. Which issues do you feel you share common ground with Moon and which issues would you like to debate?
Oliver: I think Cary and I both are trying to come at this with an equity lens. The difference between Cary and I is I am a renter so I have been deeply impacted by the market. I work in schools and one of the indicators of how bad the problem is are how many homeless youth we see in schools. On a regular basis I see hundreds of homeless youth in schools which means there are hundreds of homeless families. I think we come at it from a different place, a different sense of urgency. She is able to look at it solely as urban planning with an equity lens. I see it in a lot of ways as a justice issue. Because our city has a race and social justice initiative, not because we’re super progressive, but because it was found that there’s a problem, there’s an equity issue in our city.
Housing isn’t the only area that I see that equity issue. I see it in a lot of areas from human services to the criminal legal side of things, what people have access to, our education system, the police under consent decree, there are so many areas where there’s an equity issue. While the folks who get labeled “urbanists” are excited to see Cary, because they think she’s 100 percent for density and I’m asking for a strategic planning process while I support density and I’m anti-displacement. We need to be strategic about where it goes because lets be real, the water is rising, the planet has gotten hotter. There are going to be places where if we put density now it’s actually going to be underwater later.
The difference between Cary and I though is that I’m always going to have the equity lens on everything. I’m a lawyer, I’m an educator, I’m an organizer, which means I come from a systems transformation perspective. Cary is an engineer and an urban planner. I have the deepest respect for her, I just think the city has to ask itself, who is actually going to help us bring forward an equitable progressive vision that is long term and isn’t just about the buildings that we build? We need to ask the existential question of who are we creating these buildings for and do they actually get to use them? I think Cary is asking a similar question, but I come from a different place of connectedness to the actually communities that are in need of that equity question being addressed.
Emerald: There have been allegations that you’ve advocated for a “pause” in development in the city. Can you comment on that?
Oliver: So Michael Maddux took my comments drastically out of context. Anyone who is interested should read the actual transcript of the conversation I had at the Shadow Council, which is a satirical comedy show that happened maybe a week or two I announced. I’m not advocating that we pause all development in the city, we can’t do that. We have to build housing now. That needs to happen right now. What I am advocating for is strategic development, where we don’t just put buildings up for the sake of putting buildings up in places where those buildings might not be able to last. That goes back to some of the geological constraints in the city, but also acknowledging we live on water. The globe has already warmed enough that it is a statistical fact that the water is going to rise in places in Seattle that we just don’t want to build in.
For me, it’s really about strategy. It’s about consensus. I met with a group of zone single-family homeowners from different parts of the city and different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different age groups and different socio-economic backgrounds. I said to them, “we’re pro density, we’re anti-displacement. What would you like to see the mayor’s office do in order to respond to your concerns?” Their response was, “we understand density is a reality, but we would like to see the preservation of the character of our neighborhoods and input into where the density goes.” And I don’t think that is the worst request they could make. I think pitting urbanists against those who often get called NIMBYs, which they don’t like either, is to not find consensus in our city and force someone to compromise. We can have a consensus-driven model which actually preserves the character of our neighborhoods and builds enough housing. Changing the zoning to allow people to have cottages on their properties allows us to have an immediate response to the housing crisis in some way. It also allows folks whose property taxes have greatly increased to also have additional revenue to stay in their homes.
It’s unfair to say it’s going to be one or the other. One of the people I met is an older black woman who lives in the central district who is very afraid of losing her home. She expressed the city has no way of helping me stay in housing, and that her family had owed that home for 30 years. That’s what really pushed me to see how can get the different constituencies at least to a place of agreement about having density but also preserving the character of our neighborhoods and keeping our seniors in their homes. I think it’s possible and I’m not acting like it’s going to be easy or time-efficient. But I do think could be relationship-effective, which is really important for a healthier Seattle.
Emerald: Your platform mentions increased focus on navigation centers and adequate shelters to assist homeless Seattleites. You’ve also made a point of advocating for public housing available to low-income families and individuals. With the lack of support nationally and state-wide for public housing funding, how can Seattle make sure there are enough homes for everyone who wants to live here?
Oliver: The city actually has a substantial bonding capacity. We are in a crisis, that bonding capacity is to be used in a crisis. We also have a 5.6 billion dollar budget and there is a substantial amount of money that often gets wasted in different areas that could be used or apportioned for housing as well. There are a number of sustainable tax revenue streams that we’re going to have to fight for, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. A progressive income tax could start moving us in the right direction. I don’t think we have to be dependent upon HUD to finance more public housing. We have our own housing division. It’s whether or not that’s where we want to invest our money. To be honest, having more housing where people could have stable lives, look for jobs and go to school makes their community safer and healthier in the long run. Leveraging the city’s bonding capacity to make our city healthier as a whole while it’s providing housing for a specific population is actually good for all of us.
There are problems at the federal level around public housing, but I think there are ways around it within our city. We also three of the richest people in the world within our city, some of the most booming corporations are in our city and they are constantly building. They’re obviously making money if they’re constantly building and constantly hiring. This is where going back and looking at MHA and HALA is really important, it just simply didn’t ask for enough. If we ask for more, if we push those corporations to help make our city someplace they want to be, to actually invest in our city, invest in the people of our city, not just around housing but jobs and opportunity. Imagine what Boeing did years ago around helping move young people from high school and college into engineering roles. If Amazon, Google and Microsoft likewise invested more in the same sort of job opportunity skill-building with young people in our city, people’s incomes would naturally increase.
When we talk about housing, I don’t think we’re just talking about brick and mortar. We are, but we’re also talking about jobs and opportunity, the economics that go into helping people be viable candidates for housing. Again, it’s a multi-faceted strategy of looking at everything from jobs and opportunity to human services to where we’re wasting money in our own budget to what is our tax structure. A progressive income tax, we’re going to have to litigate around that, but I think it’s worth the city investing in that. Murray voted yes at the last forum that he’s going to move towards a progressive income tax so I would say every mayoral candidate as far as I can remember actually voted yes for that. It seems like at some point we’re going to enter into that battle.
Emerald: Do you think a progressive income tax could take some of the impetus out of raising property taxes for home owners?
Oliver: Absolutely. I think that’s essential, especially when we think about our senior populations on fixed incomes who will lose their homes if their property taxes go up anymore. Another tax I’ve heard has had a significant impact on people is the raise on the vehicle tabs. A number of folks have said their tabs increased so much in cost that now they cannot afford their cars. Once you can’t pay for your tabs, you’re going to start getting tickets, start getting tickets you already couldn’t pay for the tabs for and you probably can’t pay the tickets and eventually you’re going to lose your car. We really have to find better ways to find transportation roles and I think a progressive income tax is a step in the right direction.
Also, as we start to deal with some of these human services issues, when we get more people housed, we’ll spend less money on certain types of human services and we can start to transition those funds to other places. We prosecute a ton of quality of life crimes in Seattle and by that I mean crimes just simply for being poor. I heard about a case where a man was prosecuted for plugging his phone in at the Seattle Public Library for stealing electricity. I’ve heard of young homeless folks being prosecuted for putting their trash in private dumpsters. If there’s no trashcan around, where would you like for them to put their trash? To prosecute people for not having access to a trashcan is to criminalize poverty. And there are a ton, public urination, loitering and for folks who don’t have a place to go, don’t have money to spend in a coffee shop to use the restroom, you don’t have and 24/7 shelters so that means there are not places people can access to do the basic everyday dressing and showering. That’s another area where I think we can start to cut how much we spend on the criminal legal end and transfer that to other areas that would actually make our city safer and healthier and we could do less of the sales taxes and property leveraging.
Emerald: You’ve come out as a vigorous advocate for rent control in the city. Noting Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s struggle for rent control for both residential and commercial properties in the face of the state-wide ban on residential rent control, what legal options do you plan to pursue in instituting controls?
Oliver: The city has to get involved in the legislative level. We’ll have to work with our state legislature to make that happen. I know there are people who want to see that happen in the legislature. We have to be thoughtful about rent control and rent stabilization. I say this because I lived in the Central District before I moved to Delridge. My landlord was so afraid of rent control he raised our rent the maximum he could twice so that he could make sure that he could keep up with rent control.
Similar to how 15 Now had some really nuanced exceptions around who would have to meet that 15 dollar an hour minimum, I think rent control has to function the same way. Not all landlords have the same amount of property and the same amount of tenants. We have to be thoughtful about it to ensure we don’t harm our smaller landlords which is important in the process of expecting these larger management companies to avoid raising rents a ridiculous amount because they can. It’s important to protect our renters, but it’s also important to protect our smaller landlords who hold concerns about what rent stabilization would actually do to them. Looking at 15 Now and some of the exceptions and nuances that existed to protect small businesses, we have to think the same way around our landlords with smaller amounts of property.
Emerald: I wanted to quote a great passage from your platform, “The burden of zoning changes and density have been isolated to particular neighborhoods, mostly those Seattle neighborhoods which are historically and presently most marginalized.” It does seem like some areas of Seattle are rezoned while other, single-family dwellings close to the city center remain. How would you address this issue as mayor and what is your message for people living in single-family housing in places like Capitol Hill and Queen Anne?
Oliver: That we want to hear their voices. We want to hear your thoughts about how to preserve the culture of the space while acknowledging we are going to need density in more areas. That’s obviously going to come with implications for people, that’s unavoidable, but I don’t think people’s voices have to be neglected in that process and I don’t think the implications have to be the really awful burden that they have been.
When I first moved to Seattle, not long afterwards they started all the stuff around the light rail. The community, especially in the south end, did not get a lot of voice in how that project went down, at least not on the front end. Then, on the back end, we got a voice in the art that was present. A lot of people lost businesses and homes, there were conversations about eminent domain and that did a lot of damage to the relationship between the city and that community and ultimately ushered in gentrification. Gentrification was certainly happening prior to that when we went from old HALA to new HALA, but because the city didn’t necessarily listen to residents, the impact was far more negative than it had to be.
What we can learn from that is how you sit with communities, listen to them and have a consensus-driven model where you just truly bring the data. The reality is even those who live in single-family homes, as property taxes increase and more people come to the city, housing is inevitably going to become more and more expensive. Your property is going to become worth more every year. So they’re also going to eventually be impacted and some of them are going to be pushed out of their homes if we don’t figure out the housing situation.
Density is strongly connected to the housing situation. It’s also connected to the environment. We live in a beautiful place, it’s green, it rains, for the most part, it’s still nice. Density helped in a lot of ways decrease certain environmental impacts. It’s going to be important that we figure out how stay a green city and density is going to be a part of that. It’s also going to be part of developing a thoughtful transportation system. I’ve heard from a lot of folks transportation simply isn’t working for them. If we look at where the density is going to go, transportation has not always been responsive to that, or it’s not been responsive to the places impacted by the density.
Emerald: Speaking of transportation, with the end of Bertha’s slog, public transit is once again in the spotlight. What would you advocate for in terms of new public transit options in Seattle and would you place public transit as a higher priority over new infrastructure for cars?
Oliver: I think we need a 50 year plan about where we want to see ourselves as a transportation city. So many people have been pushed out to the fringe of the city who most need access to transportation. Many of them are becoming car owners or they’re driving a lot in and out of the city which is causing mass amounts of traffic, and obviously has a huge environmental impact. How do we make sure those folks want to use public transportation or bike lanes have effective, safe access to that?
The goal of ST3 from how I understand it was to make sure we had transportation that went to the far reaches of a lot of places. Unfortunately, that’s not really unfolded effectively and it also means a lot of routes in Seattle have been cut in ways that make transportation less accessible to people who are used to using it. I support having a strong public transportation system, not just because of the environmental impact, but because of what public transportation does to building community relationships. With public transportation people are around each other, people see each other. There will always be people who drive, that’s just reality and we have to be responsive to that, but I strongly support making our city more transportation friendly. Transportation has to move in lock-step with density if it’s going to be an effective city plan.
Emerald: So looking forward to the future, you like to think of the big picture. Besides the stipulation that 25 percent of all new up-zoned housing be affordable, what kind of relationship should Seattle foster with developers?
Oliver: An accountable relationship. If the city had a more effective relationship with those communities most impacted by development it could find ways to get those communities in healthy relationships with developers. For example, on the promenade, there are lots of folks who should actually be involved in what that promenade looks like. It’s an historic part of Seattle, especially for the black community. Vulcan doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to the city to work closely with communities to ensure that remains an accessible place and we don’t lose the historical value of it. I think that’s problematic. What the city can do is help grow positive relationships between developers and impacted communities and by saying to developers, ‘how can we help you talk with these communities in a way that effectively leads to solution building instead of the constant contention we have?’
I’m not just talking about people of color or cash-poor communities, I think all communities in our city are impacted by development. If development is happening in your neighborhood, I want to know if those developers are having conversations with those neighborhoods. We don’t have a good communication structure anymore between neighborhoods and the mayor’s office. I’m not saying that the neighborhood model we had before was the best one, but at least there was one.
Emerald: Your opponent Cary Moon defines gentrification as, “the belief that whoever has the most money deserves to have the most power.” How do you define gentrification?
Nikkita Oliver: Gentrification is money, plus access or privilege that allows people to move into a neighborhood and push out the current residents without concern for whether or not those people have some place to go. The reason I talk about privilege and access is because power is more than money in the context we live in. The fact that gentrification in our city has a very racial, ethnic element to it in terms of who gets pushed out first, matters. People of color, especially poor people of color, tend to take hits first in our city. Those are the first neighborhoods gentrified, those are the first neighborhoods where the push-out happens.
Emerald: What means would you like to see employed to resist that?
Oliver: Through a multifaceted approach. Housing measures like vouchers and incentivize landlords to take Section 8 housing vouchers. We’ve heard many people in the south end have vouchers, but they can’t find landlords to take them. That means people are going to be pushed out. How do you make housing affordable and accessible? That comes down to our definition of ‘affordability’ given what we know about the rising income.
A place where Cary and I very much diverge is Cary often talks about wealth and income inequality, but we have to acknowledge that wealth and income inequality in our city is highly racialized. In the black, latinx and some Asian communities, the way in which the median income is either not raising or has not raised at the same level as white Seattleites. The equity lens has to include economic and income, but if we miss the racial piece, we’re actually missing who’s not getting access. I’m not afraid to talk about the racial inequality and how it’s intersectional with the income inequality that exists in our city. There’s also a gender dynamic to that if we dig a little bit deeper. It’s important to talk about that intersectional issue, especially in a city 70.5 percent white and where a large amount of the wealth in our city actually exists and persists in that community.
Emerald: Okay, one last fun one, anyone who has been to one of your speaking engagements is familiar with your poetry. What is your routine for preparing for a poetry performance?
Oliver: My routine? I’m a very disciplined in practicing. I’ve been very fortunate to work for Creative Justice, an arts-based alternative to incarceration and we have space at Washington Hall so I tend to go there on early mornings or late evenings to practice poems or write. I tend to write out loud, I can’t just write on paper. I’ll talk out a poem, then I’ll write it down as I’m going. I like to have things memorized for stage performance. I’m currently in a new phase where I’m working with a lot of digital pieces like looping pedals, different synthesizers and tracks trying to build a broader experience for my audience. I did slam for a lot of years and I’m kind of moving out of the slam life towards performance poetry.
Emerald: I love that you call it “the slam life.”
Oliver: [Laughs.] It is what it is, you know you slam for a while. As a lawyer, as an educator, I do a ton of writing that isn’t just poetry-based and that’s another aspect of what I enjoy. We’ll see where it goes, being a poet is nice, but I’d like to do other things.
Update 5/9/2017: Oliver also commented on Mayor Murray’s announcement Tuesday morning that he will not seek re-election
Nikkita Oliver and The Peoples Party respect Mayor Murray’s decision not to seek reelection. We have mentioned several times, we respect his right to due process regarding the allegations made against him. However, we hope this announcement does not become a reason to stop talking about vulnerable youth and homeless youth. The bigger conversation cannot go away. The fact is that irrespective of these allegations, there are thousands of homeless and vulnerable young people who could become easy prey without intervention. As Mayor, Nikkita will make sure youth specifically are surrounded by services and 24 hour access to housing to severely blunt opportunities for the exploitation of vulnerable children and youth.
Will Sweger is a Beacon Hill resident and freelance writer. Find him on Twitter @willsweger
Featured image by Sharon H. Chang