Real Change sought to interview each candidate in the five major King County races about their approach to the housing crisis and to the needs of people experiencing homelessness. In this spoken interview, Nikkita Oliver shared what they plan to do if they are elected to City Council position 9. Oliver’s opponent, Sara Nelson, originally accepted Real Change’s interview request but canceled upon receiving the questions.
One of our vendors is concerned about the disconnect between elected officials and folks experiencing homelessness. What personal experiences qualify you to create policies on the unhoused community?
I want to start by saying: I’m not going to create policies on the unhoused community. I intend to make policies with our residents who are living outside, who have lived experience. I think that’s part of the problem with electeds now — they make policies about people without people, and that’s ineffective for actually building a real solution that works. In terms of my personal experiences, I experienced housing instability while I was in college. For about five or six months, I either slept in my car, at my school office or on a friend’s couch. So, I do at least understand what it is like to not know where you’re going to sleep in an evening. Also, like a lot of residents in Seattle, (I) have lived on the verge of constantly not knowing, from year to year, or lease to lease, where I’m going to live (and) whether or not my rent will get increased to a level that it’s too expensive. That is one of the biggest causes of homelessness — a lack of affordability. It’s also folks’ wages and salaries are not at a level to meet the cost of living required to be in Seattle and, as a result, many folks live on the edge of being unhoused.
Also, my father, for about 10 years of my life, lived outside, and I experienced firsthand how near impossible it was for him to get housed again and not for a lack of willingness or a lack of trying, but he had lost his job, he had lost his apartment, he had lost his house, and after living outside for a very long time, being in and out of shelters, dealing with what happens when you’re targeted by a system when you’re living outside. It was just very challenging for him to ever get back into stable housing, and he eventually did, but his health was so severely impacted by having lived outside for so long, and the trauma that comes from that, that he physically never really recovered. In December of last year he passed, and I definitely believe that the trauma and what happens to your body and your mental and spiritual health when you’re living in those conditions had a long-term impact on my dad’s life.
The advocacy arm of Real Change is firmly against Charter Amendment 29 because it would continue the cruel practice of sweeping encampments and displacing our unhoused neighbors. Do you support Charter Amendment 29 and thus sweeps? Why or why not?
I absolutely do not support Charter Amendment 29 and have been actively organizing with community against it. I don’t support it for a number of reasons; sweeps are one of them. Sweeps are inhumane. I’ve opposed sweeps long before this charter amendment came around. We talk a lot about public safety in Seattle, but sweeps are inherently a public safety issue. When you disrupt the small amount of stability, community and maybe even some safety that people are able to create, you create a public health and safety issue for the city. Even more, the fact that folks are having to live outside and in encampments is actually the city’s fault. We’ve failed to respond to the state of emergency around the lack of affordable housing and the number of folks in our region that are without homes since 2015. So, we are actually the ones who are culpable for the crisis that we’re in.
The amendment specifically — first of all, they keep talking about it like it’s a long-term solution. It has a sunset in six years, which says to me they actually don’t believe this is a long-term solution. Secondly, it requires the city to create 2,000 units of emergency or permanent housing — which is a very broad category, and that includes everything from enhanced 24-7 shelters to permanent housing — within one year. If folks really thought about what it takes to develop housing, they’re going to realize, most of those units, if not all of them, are going to be emergency housing or maybe hotelling, but they’re not going to be permanent housing within one year. This is not to say that the city could not produce permanent housing quickly if it wanted to. I actually believe that we could, but this particular solution is one that allows for both emergency or permanent, and it requires the first 1,000 in six months. So, I know that permanent housing is not going to be built in six months; I know that part’s not going to happen. Maybe some units in a year but not a permanent 1,000 in six months.
Additionally, there’s no clear funding mechanisms. So, where are the dollars coming from for this particular charter amendment — which is also just an odd amendment. Usually what goes into a charter amendment is things around governance, not dictating policy that, in Seattle, then the council’s going to have to implement. I think it’s also just worth acknowledging that the amendment mandates a minimum of 12% of the city’s general fund is to go to the Human Services Department, which is really only 1% of what the city already did this year so we’re actually mandating ourselves to something that very minimally more than what was already happening, has no clear funding source, make sweeps — a really inhumane practice — permanent and is going to ask us to invest dollars in units that are actually not going to achieve the goal of ensuring that people have access to quality, affordable, permanent and, in some cases where it’s needed and supported, transitional housing that we really need to get out of this crisis.
Would you propose any new policies addressing homelessness? What would you try that we haven’t tried before as the crisis rapidly grows in large cities like Seattle?
One thing I want to acknowledge is, while there is nuance and complexity to us getting out of the crisis that we’re in, one thing that is actually not that nuanced or complex is the reality that we just need to build green, social, affordable housing. And the city finds money for all kinds of other things. This is a public health crisis; it is a state of emergency. In bringing forward new ideas, I also don’t want to ignore the fact that one of the things that we’ve been told is we just need housing. And part of that is also preserving our current supply of affordable housing. It is using public land to build green, social, affordable housing; it’s having progressive revenue generation that allows us to generate the $400 million a year housing that we need to have for the next 10 years. Some of the responses to this question, they already exist; it’s just the city is really lacked the political will to make it happen.
In terms of some additional thoughts that at least in the short term can mitigate the harm and impacts upon our relatives that are living outside, we’ve proposed stopping the sweeps, like a lot of people, and repurposing those dollars toward radical accessibility and parking lot programs. A lot of people who are without homes are living in their cars, and creating safer spaces where we can build rapport with our residents who are living outside, so that when services and housing are available, they trust the folks bringing those services and housing to them is really going to be key. It’s thinking about, in terms of radical accessibility, what are we doing around the public health and safety issues that do exist when folks are living outside? So, rather than sweeping folks, how can we be bringing mobile shower units, mobile laundry units, mobile health clinics, all the things that we know that, at least in the time that we’re in right now, can help increase the safety and relationship-building that the city does with folks who are living outside, so that rather than sweeping and forcing people into situations that are often actually high-barrier services, we’re now beginning to build those relationships and have low-barrier access to the things that folks need.
You know, growing tiny house villages is important, but I think we have gotten into a lull where we treat that as a permanent solution, rather than actually building housing, and that’s not an acceptable response. And then, expanding our hotelling program. I’ve also heard from folks, who have been forced into the hotelling programs, that they do not have the autonomy or space that they need in those spaces. They can be high-barrier when it comes to the requirements of services or certain things that you’re expected to do. And so, really understanding what “low-barrier” means and implementing that in all of our housing programs. If we’re if we really take seriously, ensuring that that folks have the opportunity to come inside. And so, I want to be careful not to act like the city hasn’t actually already been told the myriad of solutions from folks like the Lived Experience Coalition or other folks who have lived experience. I actually don’t believe we need to recreate the wheel here. I think we just have to listen to people who are navigating these systems, and we have to listen to what we’ve been told about building housing accessibility, especially radical accessibility, and having low barrier services.
One of our vendors can’t pay their rent. They have been living in the city since 1962, but rising rent has made it so they can no longer afford their current apartment in Cap Hill. What will you do to keep Seattle affordable?
We need to preserve our current affordable housing, whether that is through housing trust funds that allow us to purchase buildings when they stop becoming affordable or through a voucher system or rental assistance or continuing to expand the tenants’ protections that Councilmember Sawant’s office has actually significantly expanded over the last year. These are all things that help to provide additional protections to renters.
One of the huge failures of this city is when we sold Yesler Terrace, which was the first integrated public housing in the entire United States. When we sold it, it was redeveloped by the private developer at a one-to-one ratio of of housing that was already there. But imagine if we had kept it ourselves, redeveloped it and actually built more affordable housing, rather than mixed income housing, in that space. We could have had double the units of affordable housing instead.
We need to be preserving our public lands, preserving our affordable housing and committing financial resources in the city towards that. We have $120 million from JumpStart to do that work. There’s the Office of Economic Development and the Office of Housing that also have dollars that could be moved into a Housing Trust Fund to support tenants in purchasing their buildings. We need to take seriously the opportunity for cooperative forms of ownership. I think community-held and -owned housing has a much higher likelihood of remaining affordable than anything that a private developer owns, because the interest of a cooperatively owned building is not in how much money can we make — it’s actually going to be in how affordable can we keep these units in this space for all of us who live here.
This would not be recreating the wheel for Seattle; there are examples of this in many cities across the U.S. that we could borrow from and replicate. But it is something that we’ll have to get committed to, because when you look at HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) and MHA (Mandatory Housing Affordability) and basically the Grand Bargain, we continued to move in the interest of private developers and corporations rather than in the interest of residents in Seattle who are trying to keep up with the rising cost of rents.
Housing justice advocates fear that as the rental moratorium ends, we will experience a historic wave of homelessness. How will you keep the many Seattleites who are behind on rent housed?
Yeah, I think what’s really important is that we look at this eviction as a public health crisis, like this impending wave of of evictions, and understand that all of the things we talked about around safety and health will be deeply impacted and determined by the number of Seattlelites who find themselves pushed out of their homes. Obviously, continuing to push at the state and local levels to have an extension of the moratorium, that that should go as long as two years post when the crisis finally ends to ensure that people have enough time to economically and financially recover.
Again, Councilmember Sawant has put some strong legislation in place that prevents folks from being evicted based on rent that they could not pay due to the pandemic; now there is a clause in that that allows certain types of civil pursuit of that unpaid rent, but that is a good step in the right direction. Preventing school-year evictions is also huge, and making sure that our young people can remain in their homes. We don’t talk about it enough, but there are thousands of young people within Seattle Public Schools that are without homes.
Growing our rental assistance program is really important; so, some of the American Rescue funds did go into Seattle’s own rescue plan specifically to pay off people’s rent. Unfortunately, we’re not at a place in our city where people actually see the value, wholesale yet, of just paying off everyone’s rent. So, in the state of California, there has been effort made to just bring everybody back to zero. As we continue to receive federal funds or funds from other places, I actually think it is important that the city council just think deeply about what would it look like to just pay off folks’ rent from the pandemic so people can come back to zero. In that same vein, I think we can expand things like pre-filing preventative programs that fully divert landlords and tenants to rental assistance or technical support or rent forgiveness programs, because there are going to be people who evictions are filed on where they’re not able to prove that the entirety of the rent that they owe is from the pandemic, and for those folks, rather than sending them to be evicted, we should be pre-filing (and) diverting them into some sort of support program, rental assistance or rent forgiveness that addresses that need, rather than — honestly? — punitively responding to it. There are options around tax and fee-forgiveness programs that we could put in place for landlords who are willing to pass that savings on to their renters rather than evicting them, and continuing to push the state, which they have not at this point, to extend things like unemployment for even more time through the crisis is really important.
The last thing I would say is it’s not just our renters that are facing losing their homes: It’s also our elders. Many of our seniors are on fixed incomes. There is this piece of legislation, HB 1410, which went in place at the state level, that makes it harder to evict folks as a result of unpaid property taxes. So, we should be finding ways to help educate homeowners, as well, on what their options are, at least around this new piece of legislation that went in place at the state level, so that they can also remain in their homes.
Homelessness is one of the most talked about issues in city elections. Why in a wealthy city like Seattle, home to two of the richest men in the world, are people unhoused?
Because we are terribly inhumane. We care more about wealth and property than we do people, I think is probably the simplest answer. But in terms of policy, we really need to change our regressive tax structure and move towards progressive revenue generation, where the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share. If all of the businesses that made money hand over fist during the pandemic, including Amazon, including other tech companies, were to be paying their fair share right now, we would have generated enough through progressive revenue generation to respond to the crisis that we’re in; we would have already been building housing in the city. We wouldn’t have had to fight so hard for the JumpStart tax. And so, at the end of the day, reality is, as a city, we still value putting property over people. And so we need to change that and be putting people first.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the Oct. 6-12, 2021 issue.