South Seattle Emerald contributors met with candidates running for Seattle City Council’s District 2 seat. Incumbent Bruce Harrell announced in January he would not run, and seven candidates filed to take over his vacant seat. This week the Emerald will publish interviews the candidates talking about their campaigns in their own words. Today, Emerald contributor Carolyn Bick speaks with Ari Hoffman. Click here to read all of the candidate interviews published so far.
by Carolyn Bick
Ari Hoffman is a local property manager and is running for the Seattle City Council’s District 2 position, which encompasses Southeast Seattle and the International District. A transplant from New York, he moved with his wife to Seattle shortly after the two married. He’s on the board of his synagogue and volunteers there as a youth director. He is also on the Jewish Cemetery Board.
Carolyn Bick: What’s your background, and why are you running?
Ari Hoffman: The way I decided to run for office — and, if you Google this, it’s pretty readily available — what happened last year around April time I got a phone call that the cemeteries were having problems, because the RVs moved in next to the cemeteries, and were dealing drugs and running prostitutes, and creating all kinds of damage at the cemeteries to the tune of $300,000. The groundskeeper had been assaulted a few times. He’d gotten pricked by needles out there. And I just had enough, and said, “I’m going to take care of this,” and I raised a public awareness campaign to bring attention to what was going on in the cemeteries. The police started taking their breaks at the cemeteries, during the day, just to keep people away from them. It was pretty crazy there for a while.
Three years before that, I had been involved in trying to get the city to not proceed with their initiative to put campers in the public parks, and I got the community involved in that, too, because I believe that people should be in shelters; they shouldn’t be in parks. I believe we should have housing for them, have treatment for them, and putting them in parks is a pretty bad idea.
CB: And that prompted you to run for office?
AH: Yeah, prompted me to go digging in what was going on [in] Seattle politics. And the more I uncovered, how things are running, and how much money is being spent on the homeless problem, and how little effect it’s had, and how the problem is only getting worse, I said we’ve got to try something else. There’s got to be a better way to do this, because nobody should be sleeping on the street at night.
There was a point in my childhood that was pretty important for me — and this is just a little background — my mom — and this was before my parents got divorced — used to make challah rolls for the Sabbath. And she would make extras, and my dad would take them to Grand Central Station, and hand them to the people who needed them in the station. And, one day, one of the guys rolled over, and my dad bumped into him, and my dad brought him home, and he stayed with us, for a little while. That’s the kind of family I come from.
CB: Over the past decade, we’ve seen skyrocketing rents and housing prices lead to displacement of many people, and homelessness, particularly here in the South End. What solutions are you running on to address this issue?
AH: I believe that we need to get people who are capable of having jobs, we need to get them jobs, so we can get them back into society, and work with effective organizations like the Millionair Club, to make that the reality.
We also need to address the housing problem. When Boeing came to town in the 1930s, ’40s, they grew at an astronomical rate, but we didn’t have a housing crisis. One of the problems with the housing crisis is supply and demand issues. We don’t have enough housing. And that’s a part of the permitting office and the codes, because, for example, one house I am trying to build right now, it’s been three years, and I still don’t have a permit on the place. That’s crazy. The place is so backed up, it’s so inefficient, there are so many ridiculous regulations. I’ve some contractors who won’t work in Seattle anymore, because the regulations are just so intense that they can’t get anything built. Because of that, we can’t develop these areas. So, we need to solve that.
And because I know this is going to come up: I am not in favor of a mass upzone of the whole city. While I recognize there is a lot of things that are zoned single-family and shouldn’t be — like my synagogue area; every time I want to do a project there, it’s a nightmare; and the school across the street from it, and the synagogue across the street from that. They are all single-families; it’s crazy. But, at the same time, I don’t want to displace neighborhoods by upzoning entire neighborhoods. That [has] killed the Jewish community in Vancouver. They upzone the area of Vancouver, and what happened was developers came in and said to these people in single-family houses, “Your house is now worth five or six townhomes,” paid them $5- or $6 million dollars, and they all moved to Israel, or whatever, before they moved anywhere else. So, the community up there is dying. What I would rather do is upzone and build higher density near transportation hubs, and underdeveloped areas, to get more housing out of it that way. And, finally, is the reformatting of the permitting process to make it more efficient, to allow for new construction.
With regard to the people on the street — that’s not going to work for everyone. We need health services, we need treatment options, we need treatment for those who are drug-addicted and mentally disabled. We need to make sure that our hospitals, especially the mental health ones, are the best in the country. And what happened with Western State Hospital is just a travesty. We need to make sure we have the best facilities for people, so we can solve that issue. In the short-term, though, we need to have a way to deal with this. You can’t just snap your fingers.
There is no magical way to solve all of this. It’s a combination of factors. And, right now, we need to get people off the streets now, because every day they are out there, bad things are happening to them in the elements. There’s criminal activity that’s integrated itself into the homeless population, with the people who need our help.
I was at a convention, a while back. They have these trailers with bunks built into them. You can have four or five people in a room, plus they have showers and bathrooms in them, too, and I think they have four or five units in these trailers. So, we can bring them somewhere, set them up, like Harbor Island, or somewhere like Terminal Five, and get them all set up, and at least get people off the streets temporarily, until we solve these bigger, real homeless issues.
We also need to defund nonperforming agencies and put the money into agencies that are performing, because, when a billion dollars is spent on something, and it only gets worse, something’s not right. So, I want to know what. I want accountability for where all the money went.
CB: How do you plan to improve educational equity and access for people in the South End?
AH: A lot of the money and the control rests with the School Board, and the Board of Education. And what we need to do is make sure that money is going towards schools and not towards overhead, that the money is being spent in the classroom, and that we have the best services, the best teachers, the best everything available for kids. And I know that I hire a lot of teenagers, I work with a lot of teenagers, and we need to get them way, way better quality of education. But a lot of that control comes from the School Board, and what they do, what they don’t do. A lot of people think that’s in the City Council realm — there are a lot of things that people think are in the City Charter, and that is really a grey area, when it comes to that.
CB: A portion of the educational equity and access issue comes from the fact that Seattle’s history of redlining has essentially made sure that a lot of folks who live in the South End are distinctly poorer than the people who live in the North End. Therefore, the PTAs in the North End are so well-funded, versus the South End, if PTAs exist in these schools at all.
AH: The Jewish community is in Seward Park because they got pushed out of the Central District. It happened in the 1950s and ’60s. So, we are living proof of exactly what you are talking about, and this needs to be solved and addressed.
CB: So, do you have any solutions?
AH: That’s something I’d have to do more research on.
What I would rather do is address it with the neighborhoods. I can say this all I want: “I want to do this to your neighborhood.” But I’d rather address it with the neighborhoods. Who knows better than the people who are there? I’d rather talk to the teachers, talk to the parents, individuals who are affected, to say, “What can we do to make your neighborhood better, make your school better?”
CB: What’s your take on the school-to-prison pipeline?
AH: This is something I’ve had experience with, because of the kids I’ve worked with. One thing I’ve noticed changes kids a lot is mentors. We need more mentors. We need more people who are looking after these kids, so they don’t fall through the cracks. Some of the kids I’ve worked with, there is a very thin line between them going completely off the rails, or them living a great, productive life.
I know that I am the way I am, because there were some very rough times in my childhood, where I am very glad I had those mentors and teachers available to help me, to help my life. And that is something I am very passionate about.
A lot of our city services are so underfunded and so understaffed, with something like the GI Bill — and I thought of this originally for first responders — that if we could figure out a way, like the military does, where, the more certifications you have, the higher you get paid, they pay for some of your schooling, they pay for all of your schooling. And then I thought, “Why not expand that to teachers? Why not expand that to social workers? Anybody who works for the city?” We could have the best staff. What it is is, if you serve the city for X amount of years, they will pay for whatever. And that’s the idea I am playing with.
CB: How would you fund that?
AH: Right now, the problem is not the money we have, it’s how the money is being spent. The city coffers are pretty solid, and the money is going wherever, and I want to know where it’s going. I’d do audits of departments, especially with regards to the homeless. I want to find out where this money is going. So, before we start making things more expensive, with more taxes, we need to make sure that the money is being spent correctly right now. I want accountability for where that money is going.
CB: Are you running with a party? What groups are you making sure you’re accountable to?
AH: I am not running with any party, specifically because Seattle City Council is nonpartisan position. To run with a party is a problem, in my mind, because then people say, “Oh, you’re with this camp, you’re with that camp.”
CB: I also noticed you’re interested in term limits. Can you explain your reasoning on that?
AH: Number one, my wife said she would kill me, if I did more than that.
I am big on term limits, because I want to be able to say, “You’re going to get a fresh face, and I think the people should be doing what I’m doing.” I’m stepping up to serve my city, so that afterwards, I can go back to work. I don’t like these politicians who are sitting there for years and years and years. I want to go back to work. This is already affecting my business. I want to make the city better for everybody, but I don’t want to be a career politician. That’s not something I have aspirations for. I am doing this, because it needs to be done. Also, you get the same voices, after a while, and you need to get new blood on the City Council.
CB: What is something you want community members and voters to know about you or your platform that isn’t readily apparent?
AH: I am willing to meet with anybody, I am willing to work with anybody. I’ve even reached out to people who hate my guts on Twitter.
If a person can have a conversation — and I reach out to everybody, and I try to reach out to everybody, I talk to everybody, I invite everybody to my events, because I want to have the conversation. If they just want to rip on me — there’s always going to be those. But I am happy to talk to anybody, because people are passionate about what they care about, and it’s better to be having the conversations, because the City Council has been ignoring me for so long, and I know exactly how that feels. And I don’t want anybody to feel that way.
Featured photo courtesy Ari Hoffman.