Real Change asked all candidates in major King County races to talk with us about how they would address the housing crisis and the needs of people experiencing homelessness. In this spoken interview, Sen. Joe Nguyen shared what he would do if he were elected to be the King County Executive.
One of our vendors was concerned about the disconnect between elected officials and folks experiencing homelessness. What personal experience qualifies you to create policy for the unhoused community?
Yeah, I’ll even expand on that question a little bit, too, because I think one of the biggest things is not just a disconnect in terms of the types of policies that get drafted, but also, it’s a bigger disconnect, where those policies never get prioritized, right? So in the legislature, and just in general, you see only a finite amount of bills in any given session, or any given kind of opportunity. So if your issue isn’t worthy of being discussed, oftentimes it doesn’t come up. That’s why a lot of the anti poverty stuff doesn’t come up. A lot of the tax reform stuff has come up, because people who are in power are so disconnected from that.
For folks who don’t know, I grew up in public housing. And we were on the verge of being unhoused, after my father was in a car accident, right. So seeing how quickly you can go from being stable and secure, to being overwhelmed and hopeless was a unique experience that I thought we had, that really informs a lot of the work that I do right now. And then even after that, I saw how hard it was for government agencies to offer help; there were all these requirements and limitations. as to how hard it was for me to navigate a social system and travel on behalf of my mother, I saw how was how hard it was to make ends meet and even had to pitch in early as well. So knowing that we went from like, not a great situation, but an okay situation to very dire because of the financial burdens of the health care costs for my dad, to me is oftentimes what leads people to become homeless in the first place. So that’s something that’s always in the back of my mind. And that’s why I’ve done so much work in this space with Wellspring Family Services, addressing family homelessness, and other issues. And that’s why I’ve worked a lot of anti poverty efforts, is because I believe that that experience is what helps us inform better policy.
But I’ll even admit, that’s not enough for us to have good policy, right? Like when we talk about these things, we need to make sure that folks who are impacted are at the table, and not in a tokenized type of way. So when I was volunteering at cam, second chance, and white center with my daughter, before the pandemic, I actually learned a lot from the people who were there who were unhoused and now were stable in terms of how do you then help them become successful. So there’s a lot of things there. So the main point is that it’s not one person’s perspective or experiences — (it’s) making sure that we include communities are impacted. And we’ve done that in the legislature; when I had a bill to make it easier to cite temporary facilities and shelters, people that were impacted by homelessness were there to testify, and they helped draft the bill. So stuff like that to where it’s not just my lived experience, but the fact that I have a history of engaging communities and ensuring that the voices are being heard.
The advocacy arm at 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?
Yeah, I don’t. And I’m kind of curious to see what the incumbent says because I’ve heard his response and other things. So neither here nor there. I actually think it’s pretty malicious. But when I first read it, I didn’t understand it. Right. So I thought that they were trying to solve homelessness, they were trying to alleviate homelessness with this charter amendment. And if you do the math, it didn’t add up. But it wasn’t until I saw Mayor Durkin make a comment that said, “Oh, yeah, 2,000 is about the number of people who are experiencing homelessness in downtown Seattle. And that’s why they had that number.” And I was like, oh, they’re not actually trying to alleviate homelessness. They’re just trying to make it less visible and politically less divisive right now. They’re not trying to actually solve a problem.
So the reason why I think it’s a little bit malicious is because you’re basically going to enshrine sweeping in the constitution of the city, without actually providing enough housing and resources to alleviate the problem right now, as well. But look, I understand the frustration of why people feel like it’s necessary, they may not be as informed as they could be. But I do think that it’s a failure in leadership, and especially at the county to address these very systemic issues that we should have been doing for the longest time. And the way that these amendments work is that you don’t get to modify them. You don’t get to fix them, right? They’re pass/don’t pass. So you can’t fix it at the ballot. So I don’t think it works. I’m interested in the things that work and not making him more politically difficult to help people. But really, it’s not enough resources, not enough housing, and then enshrines sweeping into our Constitution. I don’t know if people realize the implications of that. But like, you can then see private businesses or individual sue the city for the smallest of encampments, even if there’s not a place for them to go if this were to go into effect. So I get why people thought that this might be a good idea, but actually I think it’s pretty malicious.
As King County Executive, would you propose any new policies to address homelessness? What would you try that hasn’t been tried in King County before?
Yeah, look, there’s long term solutions and short term solutions. And at the end of the day, it is much more cost effective and better for the individual to keep somebody housed than it is to take them out of homelessness. So that’s kind of the mentality where I’ve come at from this in the first place. But if you want to look at policies specific, there are a few, right, so making it easier to cite temporary shelters in order for us to get people stable and housed in the best way possible. I changed the definition of homelessness, to include people who are sheltered but not necessarily housed, right. So like they’re couchsurfing, they’re in RVs, they’re in cars, making sure that they have access to the resources as well. Long term talk about planning and land use, those are policies that we can be doing in order to ensure that we have more affordable housing. Also, one key thing too, is oftentimes folks who are experiencing homelessness have an ADA requirement for these buildings, ensuring that we have those as well, more supportive housing. In this, there’s also different issues that cause folks to become homeless. So I work a lot on the criminal legal system, ensuring that when people are exiting that system, first off, trying to get them to not go into it in the first place. But as they’re exiting, they have the reentry services in order for them to be successful and not recidivate. And then potentially go into a situation where they become unhoused. That even you know, dealing with our foster care system. So there are certainly policies that we can do to address the near term and the short term.
And even then, when we talk about affordability and housing, I think in the long term, we have to really be strategic and thoughtful about how we build affordable housing, because we just know that when costs go up, more people become homeless, especially in a community like King County where you have such extreme wealth inequality. So, that’s kind of a long answer. But there are a lot of things, too, that we don’t actually need policy, we can just do now, which we should have been doing. Whether it’s augmenting services, like JustCARE, investments and diversion of basic needs programs. The nonprofit that I work with, we just did the math — they helped 1000s of families over the past few years, the average cost to keep a family housed was about $1,400. That’s not an insurmountable amount of money to help people stay housed, especially given what happens if you were to wait ‘til they become homeless. So if we did more in terms of investments in basic needs and diversion programs, we can keep people housed. That’s something that I would do different than what we’re doing right now.
If you talk to anybody, even in the media, or even in public service, what they’ll say with homelessness, it’s like, how do we fix, how to put another bandaid on this problem. So we have to stop with just band aid to also think about the long term solutions as well. And that means you have to address the various aspects of it, whether it’s domestic violence, affordable health care, mental health, otherwise, be more effective with our resources, things like that. This is a particular passion of mine, right? And even aligning the resources that we have more appropriately — so not necessarily policy, but there’s hundreds of organizations and resources that are out there to help, but they’re not aligned and they’re not governed. So if you found somebody who needed help, and you call 211, more often than not, the resources you get may be booked or they don’t have the capacity. If we were more effective with our resources, we can actually help people quicker and more effectively as well. So I can talk more about that. But that’s kind of the gist, where you gotta take a holistic approach, short term and long term, address immediate needs, solve systemic problems and then, honestly, just get more affordable housing.
One of our vendors has been living in this city for since 1962, but with rent rising, they can no longer afford their current apartment in Capitol Hill. What would you do to keep Seattle, and thus King County, affordable for folks?
Yeah, there’s a few right. So like in terms of like ways to keep things more affordable in the area where we’re seeing rapid gentrification and income inequality. You know, King County, the state and the city, we have a lot of surplus lands that are being underutilized right now: civic properties that we can turn into housing. There was a stat that said King County had enough surplus lands to house every family that is experiencing homelessness — so basically “woman and child that is experiencing homelessness.” We had a plan to end youth homelessness and didn’t do it.
So just doing that, I think, would be huge, but also investing in more innovative models as well. So incorporating community land trust: so essentially where, to make something more affordable in a particular area, either the county or some jurisdiction buys the land, but the building itself then can be used for affordable housing, and it stays permanently affordable. We can adapt models like in Vienna, where we have a social housing model, right. So, for the vendor who couldn’t pay their rent, say, for instance, they moved into one of these spaces previously, and the rent would be capped, because it was social housing, agnostic of what their income would be at that time, as well. Also, one of the biggest things — we have to tackle this from a targeted way, right? When people say “affordable housing,” the technical definition of affordable housing, I think, is 80% AMI,, that’s still like $100 grand for a family of four — that’s not actually affordable. So for me, you have to look at it from a zero to 30% AMI, use the surplus lands, have social housing, incorporating community land trust; for the 30% to 60% AMI, potentially a private-public partnership to reduce the costs associated with building in that space. And then, for the ones that are above 60% AMI, use the prime get, but at the very least, we need to be thinking about how do we build more density? Because that’s the only way for us to get more affordable housing, as well.
Housing justice advocates fear that as the eviction moratorium ends, we will experience a historic wave of homelessness. How will you keep the many residents of King County who are behind on rent housed?
Yeah, you know, what’s frustrating is that we allocated, I think, $1.1 billion from the state with federal funds and state dollars to help mitigate rental relief. And then you probably saw the article in crosscut the other day, where King County hasn’t been able to stand up a solution to actually allocate the money from this, as well. And I talked to an organization this morning about the frustrations that they’re feeling. That’s simply incompetence. There’s no policy that mitigates them from being able to get that money out quicker. I think there’s some accountability issues that they may be trying to work through in terms of the data platform that they want to use, but getting the money out quickly to families that need help the most. That’s how you do it. And let’s be clear too the executive has the opportunity to extend a moratorium for unincorporated areas. So at the very least in unincorporated areas, you can extend the moratorium and work with local jurisdictions to expand what that looks like. But it’s a travesty to note that there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in relief that was allocated — even a year ago — and there’s no process in place to help allocate them more effectively right now, is kind of the reason why we need somebody who’s going to act urgently to actually fix this, because I know what it felt like when we potentially couldn’t pay our rent, I know what it felt like to believe that you might become homeless. So in that case, it forces you to actually act with urgency to get this done. So even right now behind the scenes I’m trying to figure out how to help get some of the allocations out quickly. Even if I know that politically, they’re not going to want me to do it. So I’m trying to get other people to pitch some ideas, because we just have to get it done. So that’s the biggest thing is how to get relief out faster. I think that there are ways to do it. An example is the vaccine distribution. The state had a similar issue, trying to get vaccine distributions out, we helped build a platform to make it more efficient and make it more effective and it worked. Rent relief can be something similar as well.
Homelessness is one of the most talked about issues in the city and county elections. Why in a wealthy county like King County, home to two of the richest men in the world, are people living on the streets?
Income inequality. that and like if you look at our political system is fundamentally broken, like it is fundamentally broken. The people who are involved in our politics oftentimes aren’t the ones who are most impacted by policy. And like I said before, like the legislature, we see three or 4000 bills in any given year, yet we only pass two to 300. Right? So it’s not about right or wrong, good or bad, even Democrat or Republican. It’s making sure that your issue is worthy of being discussed. When you only listen to wealthy donors, when you only listen to the corporations who fund your campaigns, or the special interest groups who get you elected, that means you’re going to work on their interest, not on everybody else’s. It’s frustrating.
But also something very telling that I’ve noticed in the past few years, is that oftentimes, people in power react only when there’s political pressure, right? The fact that we’re seeing some traction on homelessness and issues in that space right now by the county executive, only after I got into the office, or only after I started running for office, to me is pretty telling, right, like we saw that happen at the legislative level I’ve seen that happen at the city leve, I’ve seen that happen at the county level. So the interesting thing is that the legislature, we passed tremendous policies this past couple of years, things that impact people on a very regular and real basis. And one of the reasons why I think it was so successful is because you now had people with the lived experiences at the table in power. It was the most diverse legislature in the history of Washington State. I think we need the same thing at the county level to push for some of these policies.
And that’s why is that it’s hard to talk about equitable taxes. It’s hard to talk about density And oftentimes when your donors are the ones that don’t want it, you kind of back off and shy away. Right? That’s why, you know, I’m very strict in terms of our campaign contributions, because I want more density. And I want to make sure that our tax structure is fair. And I will openly fight for a tax structure that doesn’t just punish people for being poor. So the thing that is so frustrating about our tax structure is that when you’re trying to raise revenue to help alleviate issues like homelessness, really, the only options you have are property taxes, sales taxes, maybe car tabs, depending on certain issues as well. So you’re fundamentally putting people in a worse spot by trying to raise revenue to actually help the same people.
So that’s why we’re having such a hard time in this city is that we are very lucky to have tremendous economic opportunity, but that hasn’t trickled down to everybody else. And our tax code literally is codified in a way that makes it harder for those at the bottom to be successful. So I think income inequality is a problem. We have leaders who maybe talk about these things in the abstract, but don’t actually fight for them. That’s why I was so vocal about progressive tax reform, because I don’t actually care about getting reelected. I just care about getting the work done.
And that’s really why — you need somebody who isn’t beholden to the political class to actually fight for these things. Because, you know, they may say, like, I support progressive tax revenue. But when it came up to cap gains, I didn’t see anybody pushing until it was at the very end, right. So that’s kind of one of the things is that our political system and our economic system are fundamentally stacked against regular people. And it’s very hard to shift. But at the same time, it doesn’t take that many people to actually change it. If you had some key leaders in the right spots, you can truly make transformative change. And I think the executive position is one of those.
Read more of the Oct. 13-19, 2021 issue.