Photo depicting a headshot of Tanya Woo in a yellow jacket against a backdrop of the Seattle skyline.

Meet the District 2 Seattle City Council Candidates: Tanya Woo

by Lauryn Bray

To help our readers make more informed voting decisions ahead of the Nov. 7 general election, the South Seattle Emerald interviewed both candidates for District 2 of the Seattle City Council Race. Each candidate’s Q&A portion presents their perspectives in their own words.

In addition to candidate Tanya Woo, the Emerald interviewed candidate Tammy Morales. On Thursday, Oct. 5, at 7 p.m. the Emerald will also host a debate between the two candidates at the Rainier Arts Center. The debate is free, open to the public, and will be livestreamed on the Emerald’s Facebook page.

District 2 candidate Tanya Woo has lived in Seattle for her entire life. Woo’s family, who immigrated to Seattle from China in 1887, has owned property in the Chinatown-International District (CID) for decades.

Woo, who grew up in Beacon Hill and now lives in Rainier Beach, says her deep rootedness in these neighborhoods and the CID is fueling her run for the City Council. “This is really personal for me,” she said.

Woo’s grandfather opened a restaurant, and in 1963, Woo’s father, Paul, was able to acquire ownership of the historic Louisa Hotel using money from the family restaurant.

In 1970, after a string of fires deemed the building unsuitable for use as a hotel, Paul Woo continued to operate businesses out of the first floor, including a pet shop and Seattle’s first Chinese bakery, the now-closed Mon Hei Bakery. Paul Woo died in 1997 when Tanya Woo was just 16.

After another fire devastated part of the hotel in 2013, Tanya Woo helped transform the building into workforce housing. The building now provides affordable housing and office space for small businesses.

Because of these experiences, Woo has seen how South Seattle has changed over the years.

“Displacement has kind of been ravaging my entire life,” said Woo in an interview with the Emerald. “I remember growing up in a really diverse neighborhood. [I remember] playing with the kids in my neighborhood and getting to know their parents. Now, since there is so much movement, it’s kind of hard to replicate that.”

Woo has a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Washington. She also volunteers for the Chinatown-International District Community Watch (CIDCW), a neighborhood watch and community advocacy group with over 700 members, and she used to run its Facebook page. The group is mostly known for its “safety walks” through the CID, where it provides meals, supplies, and other resources to people in need.

In addition to community organizing, some of her other hobbies include dancing and playing video games. Her favorite thing to do in Seattle is eat and try new restaurants. Woo’s favorite song is “My Shot” from the Hamilton soundtrack, her favorite film is Star Wars, and her favorite animal is a peacock.

South Seattle Emerald: If you were stuck in a 30-second elevator ride and a person asked you to describe District 2, what would you tell them?

Tanya Woo: Oh, my goodness, that’s tough. I would say, District 2 is home. It’s where family is — I grew up here. It’s a diverse community full of gems and jewels of small businesses, nonprofit organizations, museums, and there’s just so much to do and so much to be proud of. We have amazing restaurants, we have people who really care about their communities and each other. We have really unique neighborhoods — some are historic, and some are still developing. This is definitely a place for everyone and a place that is welcoming of everyone. And it’s someplace that you can fall in love with and not want to leave for a long time.

SSE: Why are you running, and what makes you uniquely qualified for this position?

TW: I’m running because this is really personal for me. I grew up here in Beacon Hill — I now live in Rainier Beach — and I have a small business in the Chinatown-International District. My family has deep roots in the restaurant business and the bakery business, [and I grew up] devoid of that intergenerational wealth to be able to purchase the building that we’re [currently] in. In 2013, we faced a huge fire that brought this building down, and [in the process of] learning how to rebuild, [we were] able to offer affordable housing. So we now have four units of workforce housing, which only charges people a percentage of their income as rents. Then, during the pandemic, I started an alternative-to-policing group to help fill the gaps in lack of services that we were seeing in our community. And now, with fentanyl being so deadly, [vulnerable individuals are] not getting a great response out there on the streets regarding this crisis. There was a high-impact project that was going on near the CID about a year ago without any community inputs or engagements, and this brought a whole line of high-tech projects that have really harmed the community without meaningful engagement or input. And so we were fighting for a seat at the table, and that’s why I’m running. I want that seat at the table, and this is how we’re gonna get it.

SSE: What is your strongest skill or superpower and expertise that you would bring to the City Council?

TW: I think [it’s] coming from a journalist background [with a] love of stories, and — [though maybe] not a skill or expertise — just being able to listen to try to understand people’s stories, and then being able to retell them. I feel like all of our stories are very unique in a way, but they have those universal components of caring about community, wanting to come together to go out there and solve some of these problems that we’re seeing. Many of our neighborhoods and communities have and do come together with plans. People are really great at talking about solutions and working towards the greater good, and so we need to listen to these neighborhood plans — [we need] to try to fund them and enact them. Instead of having government bodies dictate what they want to happen, we have got to bring it back down to communities and just really listen and incorporate the solutions going forward together. And I think one of the things I love to do is bringing people together and amplifying voices to make sure that people are being heard and considering all sides of an issue, before trying to figure out which one may do the greater good. I know many of our communities are divided when it comes to a lot of issues, but we have to find some kind of middle ground. We all want the same things: We want safety, we want more housing, we want to help our unhoused neighbors. So [we need to] come together and look at all the different ideas to be able to combat what we’re seeing out there and put action to words. And if [governing bodies] can’t fulfill some of these roles, then how do we incorporate them on the community level in our neighborhoods and nonprofit organizations to fill these gaps? How do we support everybody in this work?

SSE: The recent spate of violence in the South End this year has put public safety on the front burner as an issue for the South End. What’s driving this, in your opinion? What solutions will you advocate for to increase public safety in the South End?

TW: I think there’s a short-term and a long-term solution. So let’s start with the long-term solution: It starts with our youth. It starts with our schools and programming for our schools. So how do we work in collaboration amongst all the departments in the City of Seattle, as well as all the committees, and with the Seattle school district to have these programs available for children — Seattle Parks and Rec late nights, teen rec programs. And how do we put together things where we can create an income engine and help kids have access to jobs? [And access] to what they love to do, like night basketball? How can we make sure that these programs are available?

[We need to] focus on how we roll out these programs to our children. I think we need a committee to work together and come up with a plan that [forces] all of our different state departments to collaborate to find something to help our youth get connected to each other. I was at the Back2School Bash at Rainier Beach Community Center, and a parent had came up to two police officers to say, “I’m a little worried my kids are getting into trouble and running with a group of kids that [I’m] concerned about; how do I find these programs to put our children in to keep them occupied?” So [we need to find out how we can] work together with all departments to put together these programs, and also with our schools as well, to create the economic engine where people are empowered with jobs, and not with having blues (fentanyl pills) for $1 each on the side of the corner.

It’s a broken system, in a way, where if you’ve been convicted of a felony, that [creates] a cycle where you just can’t get a job. So how do we find people connections to job training and then keep them connected to good jobs? We need a reformed police department that is culturally competent. I think hiring people who grew up here, who lived here, who have that knowledge of who we are is really important. I love the Before the Badge program, which takes cadets who are about to go into the police department into our neighborhoods to chat with different committee members, formerly incarcerated people who were formerly addicted, people who are former gang members, to get a holistic view of what’s happening. [Finding] people who really care [about] being allowed to serve the communities they grew up in is going to be really important. Unfortunately, with officers [in this program], it takes a year or two to get them through training, so we’re not going to see the fruits of this program for another year. So I think the police department is heading in a better direction, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of accountability. It’s really tough now, but when it comes to violence, [it’s going to take] making sure we have good officers out there to help deter, but also having caseworkers out there as well, doing that work in developing trust and also developing connections and community to help people find resources. And making sure that these officers cannot respond to a lot of things that caseworkers can respond to and vice versa. So how do we get the alternative to policing in place that we talked about for so long? I think that’s going to be key.

SSE: How much will that cost, and how do you propose funding those ideas?

TW: So, as with all budgeting, it’s a holistic view. There are no actual measurements for different departments in the city for [effectiveness], so how do we hold departments accountable for results [so we can] look at what programs are working or programs are not working? And then, unfortunately, for the ones that are not working, we’ll have to cut [them]. We’ll have to apply for funding, and for many of us who have gone through the grants program with the City or the County, [we know] it’s quite an arduous process — we have to name every single line item, and then we’re held accountable for making sure those items are carried out. Then, we have to show our results for the money that we requested before we can get any more funding. And so I think holding all government departments to those same standards would also be helpful in seeing what our money is going to. And are there results? We give a million dollars to REACH, the homeless authority, and while we do need it and it does important work, I would like to see what our success rates and the results are. And I think we’d hold all departments accountable for those statistics.

SSE: It has been tough for small businesses coming out of the pandemic — what tangible ways would you propose to help South End small businesses thrive?

TW: Most importantly, we need investments in public safety and infrastructure. This will relieve a lot of the burdens that many small businesses face. Many businesses cannot hire because of the perception of safety in certain areas, and many feel that people also avoid certain areas.

I would also propose expanding financial assistance programs, like continuing business assistance grants, to ease some of the restrictions for them; offering low-interest loans specifically tailored to small businesses in the South End. I also think that we need to provide small-business owners access to workshops, training, and mentoring programs to improve skills in areas like digital marketing, accounting, and business management in language of choice. Those resources should also include access to digital training for sales, marketing, and operations to help optimize websites, online ordering systems, and social media.

We need to launch marketing campaigns on behalf of our businesses for not only some of the major sporting events, like 2023 NHL Winter Classic and 2026 FIFA soccer, but shop-local campaigns to encourage residents to support South End businesses. I think that streamlining and expediting permitting processes for small businesses will not only reduce fees, but make it easier for entrepreneurs to start and operate their business. The City needs to encourage shared workspaces or incubators to promote creativity. Support and encourage community events; for instance, maybe a farmers market in the CID. The City needs a good working relationship with and [to] work in partnership with groups like the local Chamber of Commerce. We should also start to think about ways small businesses can collaborate when it comes to crisis management.

SSE: Homelessness has affected all neighborhoods in Seattle. What are some ways as councilmembers that you will solve this issue in the South End?

TW: My group, the CIDCW, we go out into the encampments. And we go to 12th and Jackson — we used to be out there every single day, but we’re only down to two days a week now — and we try to build trust amongst our unhoused neighbors and try to connect people to resources. We see there’s this huge gap of resources, especially in the evenings, which is when my group walks. We walk anywhere from 7 to 10 p.m., and we used to walk up until like midnight, or 2 a.m. in the past, and we’re seeing that there’s actually no resources. If someone needs emergency shelter at 9 p.m., they are out of luck.

I love the Health One program, where there’s a caseworker involved, but [it’s unfortunate] hearing that the program can only work between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., because that’s the only time service providers are open. So how do we expand these programs to serve evening hours?

And I really feel like the system’s broken; a lot of people who are unhoused have been through the system and it just didn’t work for them, so they’ve lost trust. We need an ambassador program — caseworkers who are out there, building trust amongst our unhoused neighbors, finding out what the root issues are, protecting people, and bringing people in. I think that’s going to be key — making sure we have case workers out there who are partnering with people to build up that trust, which is that alternative to policing that many organizations are already doing.

SSE: How would you act to prevent gentrification and displacement and to build affordable housing in the South End?

TW: We need more housing, and we need it all over the city. And I feel like it has to be mixed, but with an emphasis on “affordable.” My building is workforce housing, and I think there needs to be more of that in the city. And if a family like mine was able to do it, I think everyone is able to do it. So how do we offer more of those incentives? Really looking at new market tax credits, looking at how we can refine MFTE [Multi-Family Tax Exemption] and other programs to make sure that housing is being built and a fee is not being paid for housing elsewhere. In terms of gentrification and displacement, I absolutely agree that it’s distressing to see. South Seattle is the last place to go in order to be able to afford housing. Otherwise, if you can’t afford in South Seattle, you’re going down south to Renton or Kent.

But in terms of gentrification and displacement, we have a comprehensive plan coming up soon — really looking to make sure that there isn’t predatory home-buying practices by large or international developers who are buying homes from our Communities of Color, small-property owners, and then coming in building luxury condos and selling those for millions. How do we stop that?

And I think it will have to look at our racist zoning policies. The legacy of segregation and redlining is still really evident. And I think it has to be done on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, because all the neighborhoods are very different. And Puget Sound Sage put out a disaster gentrification map, which outlines all of the areas in South Seattle that are in danger of gentrification. How do we look at those areas and have meaningful developments? And that means looking at zoning, because many times when you upzone a neighborhood, it makes it very attractive for international developers to come in to buy property at cheap rates and then turn around and build to the maximum, charging millions to live there. So how do we discourage that by looking at our zoning, while making sure that our neighborhoods have the opportunity for commercial spaces as well? But how do we keep the soul and spirit of our neighborhoods in place? And I think that’s looking at our neighborhood plans, which have not been updated since I think early 2000.

SSE: A recent national public health study found a correlation between historically redlined areas and higher incidences of pedestrian deaths. Traffic safety continues to be an increasing issue in the South End. What are some ways you’d make streets safer?

TW: There are a lot of neighborhoods that don’t have sidewalks, and that’s a huge concern. I feel like we really have to look at the built environment. There are a lot of projects that have been promised these last couple of years that have not been fulfilled. We need to look at those neighborhood projects, and see how we could make them happen by talking to neighborhoods to see what they want. Every neighborhood is different, but everyone acknowledges that car pedestrian deaths are really high and there are a lot of safety issues regarding traffic. Most people want speed bumps, better sidewalks, repaired roads with no potholes. [People want to know why] bicycle projects have been put on hold these last couple of years, and how do we get them to work? [We need to] look at how we work with SDOT, and hold our government agencies accountable for what they had promised.

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

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