by Mark Van Streefkerk
Andrew Grant Houston, AIA, Founder and Design Head of House Cosmopolitan and Board Member of Futurewise, officially announced his run for Mayor on Jan. 12, and he is clear about the cornerstone of his campaign: housing. The queer, Black, and Latino architect and small business owner has a vision for meeting the demand for affordable housing in Seattle, and is eager to share just how housing is directly linked to climate justice and defunding the police by 50%. Houston serves as Interim Policy Manager for Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, and is a member of AIA Seattle, Share The Cities, The Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council, The Sunrise Movement, and the 43rd Democrats. He plans on contributing a portion of the campaign funds he receives to mutual aid groups he has worked with over the last year.
Houston, also known as “Ace,” recently spoke with the Emerald, telling us about his background, and the immediate actions Seattle needs to take in the next eight years to curb climate change. Check out his website at agh4sea.com.
Some parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for brevity.
Tell us a little about your background and time in Seattle.
I first moved here four years ago, and I moved here for a job working for another architecture firm. I moved here from Austin because I knew I wanted to work in housing, and Seattle is one of the few places that is actually building housing. What really attracted me to Seattle is the deep connection to the environment and being so close to the outdoors, as well as being a city that has such a great transit system and is easy to get around.
I’ve come to really love all the local businesses, especially the coffee scene. Part of my goal throughout my campaign, and hopefully when I become mayor, is to really support small businesses and build a culture that prides itself in honoring and supporting each person’s identity and desires. That includes allowing more spaces for businesses throughout the city, more spaces for music venues and cultural spaces. Even things as simple as more libraries and more post offices, just things that allow people to have the resources they need closer to where they are. In that way we become more sustainable socially.
Why did you decide to run for Mayor?
I knew that things had to change back in September when we had that week and a half of smoke and orange skies. The response to the thousands of people living unsheltered in the city was almost nonexistent from the City of Seattle. I started to have conversations with other leaders in activism and asked them if they were going to step up. After having a number of conversations and recognizing that no one was really keen on it, I felt I needed to do so because this moment is too important. The next mayor that serves will be residing ideally over the next eight years, for two terms. In that time, every single city in the U.S. should reduce their carbon emissions, also known as their pollution, by at least 50% compared to levels in 2008. That means the drastic shift has to happen — that ideally would have taken 20 or 30 years — has to happen in 9 years. It’s going to take a different kind of thinking from the standard kind of politician that we’ve had both here and also in other cities. It’s going to take a lot of effort, but I truly believe we have the ability to do so, and that it really is just a coordinated effort between all of us just making a small shift. It’s not something outside the realm of possibility. It’s something where if we all just take a few steps together we will be able to make the change necessary in order to prevent the impending catastrophe.
[During the week of hazardous air quality levels] I did some organizing out there with people providing mutual aid. Hopefully as I raise more funds, a big part of my campaign isn’t going to simply be buying advertisements, it’s going to be mutual aid and helping to prepare because we know the wildfires are going to happen again, and it’s going to happen before the election. My hope in becoming Mayor would be to provide the resources for not only those who are unsheltered but also empowering every single Seattleite to believe they can make a little bit of change, and having the resources to do so.
What are some of the core attributes of your platform?
I believe climate justice is housing justice. I believe when we provide the housing that is needed at every single level of income for every single walk of life, and every single identity that exists in our city, as well as those who want to become part of our city … When we do that we are also providing more sales tax — this sounds very technical and I know people are going to ask questions — because we have our regressive tax system, when we build housing, all of the construction materials, all of the services and the fees that are paid, they actually pay sales tax to the city. That goes to fund all of the other resources and services that we provide. That is one of the reasons we actually had the big budget hole in the past year. It was because we produced 1,700 units, so 1,700 homes, as compared to the year before where we produced 10,700 homes. When we start to build this housing we need, and allow that to happen across the city because right now we’re only allowing it in very specific places. What that means is when those places get built up, they’re displacing those communities and people who simply can’t afford to be there. To minimize that impact, but also do the thing that we know we have to do, we’re going to generate more money to be able to fund more things that everybody wants so that we’re not competing for the same dollars. I want us to be the city of wealth that we know we should be and not be a city of scarcity.
What do you think are some of the most pressing crises that our city faces right now?
Homelessness. We’ve been in a [state of] emergency since 2015. I hope as an architect that I’m able to give this problem a different perspective and be able to make a concerted effort to get to zero unhoused, zero unsheltered.
Our economic crisis, our backwards tax system. I want to focus on progressive taxation, whether that be a corporate income tax or a similar income tax that we might talk to our state representatives in actually pushing forward.
We have the climate crisis of course, and a big piece of that is that a lot of political leaders simply don’t want to talk about is just how much of that is driving. I know people will equate driving to include all the freight that we have. We are still a big port city, we’re a big trade city, but the last emissions report we had showed that if you looked at all of the pollution that was created just by freights and basically 18 wheeler trucks — compared all of the pollution of people simply driving around in their cars, people driving in their cars amounted to five times the amount of pollution as all of the trade and shipping that we do in the city.
What is your plan to house people, and why will it work?
I am very much the candidate of ‘Yes, and — ’ There’s not one solution to the problem. We need to implement multiple solutions to the problem, and also recognize that the problem of homelessness stems from a number of other issues, one of them being simply: people cannot afford to live in the city. I really want to provide opportunities where we have more high-paying jobs. A big piece of that is in order to build all the affordable housing that we know we need, we have to build our workforce. I say this as an architect, who during the height of our building boom here, we had such difficulty finding people to simply do basic construction jobs … I want to invest additional money in building that workforce because not only will it provide really great paying jobs for people so they can actually afford to live in the city, it is something where it is part of the just transition, and something that is enshrined in the Seattle Green New Deal.
I am definitely a housing-first person when it comes to solving the homelessness crisis, but I also recognize the amount of time that it currently takes in order to get that built. There are a number of reasons why, whether it’s where that housing is allowed to be built in the city. Most of the city is only for a single, detached, unit to exist. We really need to rethink that priority when we’re trying to create more housing for people. If we’re using 80% of our land that we allow housing to be built on for only permitting one home per lot, and then use the other 20% to house, in essence, 75% of our city, there are some priorities there that simply aren’t matching. When we say ‘Oh we want more housing,’ but we don’t allow it to happen anywhere, we’re not actually solving any problem.
The current county estimate for King County is that we have to build 261,000 homes for those making anywhere from zero to 80% of AMI (Average Median Income) … What we need to do is create systems where people who already own homes, especially communities of color in the South End who own let’s say, one unit, that they have systems by which they can allow for two, three, four, maybe even six homes to be built on their piece of property. That also includes making the system for financing those types of projects really easy. If someone is able to do one small project on their own, they don’t need to be an expert in order to help us get to where we need to be in terms of providing homes for everyone. I believe that every single person who owns property in the city can provide a little bit of help and maybe do a couple of units and in that way we can eat the whale, so to speak.
How would you incentivize people building units on their property to create more housing?
What is clear from the hundreds of thousands of homes we need is that it’s going to take everyone pitching in a bit to close the gap. I think your question does get at one of the challenges with asking homeowners to add neighbors on their own property, but also assumes that every landowner has the same opinion on housing. Coming from a Latino household, there were a number of times staying at my abuela’s where we had no less than three generations under the same roof. I believe that allowing for more homes opens up the opportunity to let people create the culturally relevant homes that they need for themselves and their families. It’s also a part of building the generational wealth that so many BIPOC communities have lacked for so long.
There are organizations that are already serving their communities in so many other ways, and for them to provide a roof over their own communities’ heads and create something that is culturally reflective of that community, to me is the best kind of housing that you can have. That means I’m going to be working with state representatives to hopefully get a public bank as quickly as possible because my biggest priority when it comes to all the construction we have to do or any of the growth in our economy, is to keep that money here locally, so that we can see it become a positive effect over time.
Your platform talks about community-led public safety, can you tell us about what that means to you, and where you stand on the idea of defunding the police?
I am a Black man. The way I operate in space is very different from a lot of people. When I walk out my door, every single time I have to prepare for the fact that I may not come back. Being in a community like that, we recognize as Black people, as Latinos, as People of Color, that we know how to take care of ourselves best. In having a BIPOC-led solution, you are relying on the expertise of those communities to be able to take care of themselves. I know, especially as part of a member organization that is in the King County Equity Now coalition, which Share the Cities is a member, there are already models for how to create public safety, how to create a thriving community that simply needs more funding, that simply need more resources from the city in order to be that much more successful. I believe in the past there have been a number of times where the city may have purposefully invested just enough to allow something to start, but not enough to be successful. In that case what usually happens is they look at that model and say, ‘Oh well clearly it didn’t work,’ but it’s also because it was intended not to do so. It’s not something that’s unique to Seattle, it’s something that happens all across the U.S. My intent is to make sure that does not happen anymore and to truly respect the best response to a public safety crisis is not always a person with a gun. The best response to a health crisis is not always a person with a gun. I hope to both listen to the community but also educate some members in our community about what public safety truly means. We still maintain 100% of our current public safety if not increase our public safety, that also includes less than 50% of that public safety being police.
A number of calls that police tend to are tied to our unhoused neighbors. When we do the humane thing of providing shelter and housing for those people, we will significantly reduce the number of calls police have to attend to. That tied with the moves done already by Seattle City Council to move 911 out of SPD and to expand programs like the Health One program that the Seattle Fire Department has, those are already great solutions and alternatives that will be successful, have been successful in the past, and we can build on those in order to not only rely less on the police but also require less of the police. I think part of the myth of what police are supposed to do is tied to the fact that we simply don’t fund enough preventative care that can reduce the need for police.
How would you work to create more housing and more economic opportunity for BIPOC in the South End?
Having more people [who] look like me be part of the process. I say that as someone who is already trying to organize with a group called MC2 Equity that’s being led by Michael Darby, which is an all-Black development group. What we’re trying to do is not simply just have a team that’s reflective of the communities that we want to work with, we also are trying to develop a system by which we can educate other people to be a part of the AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) and real estate industries. That’s one piece. Let’s help people that look like me get into this and also build our own wealth in that way. Another piece is to put more money into affordable housing. One of the biggest requirements of affordable housing projects at the City of Seattle, is they have to have a community process, they have to engage with community multiple times throughout the entire design process. I think the best examples of this are the projects that Africatown is leading. I went to a number of those meetings, those meetings were great. I think there’s always a stigma … that a number of people who have not been through the same training don’t have a way of speaking about what they want their community to look like, which is absolutely not the case. I have heard Black people of all ages and gender expressions speak so passionately about their community and what they want to see, so let’s lean into that, let’s really listen to those people because when we agree and work together on these projects, we are able to move quickly. During this decade, in terms of all the crises we have, we have to move quickly. Let’s find our common ground and go.
What are the next steps for you as far as your campaign goes?
Part of the reason I declared [my campaign] in January when we have our primary in August, is that I am fairly known throughout my own communities, but I am not known throughout the city. A big piece of the next three months is me having as many one-on-one conversations with Seattleites and with community organizations, with neighborhood councils, to be able to get in front of them to show them who I am, to explain where I’m coming from, but also to listen to their concerns. I feel like in most cases, people simply don’t enjoy the direction they see the city heading in. I think we can all agree that change needs to happen, but I want to be the person who makes that change happen. In order to be the most educated about that, and to have the most support, I need to go and listen to those communities. That’s the big piece for me this next three months. The other part of it, which I would highly encourage both you, as well as anyone who’s reading this article, is to go to my website. I’ve set up this vision, this vision for how I think the city could look like in 2100, but in order to get there we have to make very strong policy choices within the next eight years. I’ve already set up the vision, and I’m asking people to please submit their policy ideas. In the past 36 hours, I’ve gotten a number of responses, and I’ve been very happy about it, but the responses have been 100% white people, and that is not the city we are. I really, really want people, especially Black and Indigenous people, to go to my website, and please submit policy ideas. Because those ideas are just as valid as every other person who lives in the city.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website at markvanstreefkerk.com and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter.
Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Andrew Grant Houston.
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