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, Seattle Councilmember Lorena González shared what she would do if she were elected to be Seattle’s mayor. Bruce Harrell did not respond to Real Change’s request for an interview.
Real Change: One of our vendors was concerned about the disconnect between elected officials and folks experiencing homelessness. What personal experience qualifies you to create policies for the unhoused community?
Lorena González: Being unhoused or housing unstable is, in my mind, truly a product of poverty and income inequality in our communities, and Seattle is definitely not immune from the wealth gap and the high concentration of wealth within a very small portion of our population. But that’s also true for lots of other parts across the state and across the country. [I’m] someone who grew up as a migrant farm worker in Central Washington State, where my family used to travel every summer and live in migrant farm labor camps in Central Washington State. And you know we experienced lots of oppression, including wage theft, and we also grew up in a tremendous amount of poverty in our hometown. And so I think it is familiar for me, personally, to experience the insecurity of living paycheck to paycheck and of making difficult decisions about what’s the pay for next in order to make sure that you can keep paying the rent. That’s a legacy that unfortunately I have inherited from generational poverty in my own family, and it’s one that I think makes the issues related to poverty and income inequality of top priority for me in the race for mayor.
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?
Thanks to the folks over at Real Change for taking a really strong, early position against Charter Amendment 29. I am not in favor of Charter Amendment 29. I personally intend to vote no on my ballot and would encourage others to do the same. [Note: After this interview was completed, Judge Catherine Schaffer ruled against allowing Charter Amendment 29 on the Nov. 2 ballot. The Court of Appeals rejected proponents’ attempt to overturn her decision.]
And the reasons are quite simple, and I think we have shared reasons for not supporting it. I — like Real Change and so many other human service providers and the ACLU of Washington — really do believe that memorializing in the constitution of the city of Seattle a status quo policy of sweeps is cruel, inhumane, frankly illegal and doesn’t work. All of us want to see the crisis of homelessness solved. That is our number one common goal in the city, and where we differ in opinion is whether sweeps — which in my mind are defined as moving people along from one place to another without offering them adequate services or housing — is the wrong policy direction for the city. It is also an unfunded mandate. And so while the charter amendment sets these lofty goals around 2,000 additional shelter or housing units, there is no indication as to how the city is going to find those new revenue resources without putting the mayor in a position of cutting vital services in other areas to be able to meet that mandate. For those reasons, I really have come to the conclusion that it’s the wrong policy choice for the city and stand in solidarity with so many others who are currently opposing that charter amendment.
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?
I think that there are things that we know work well, and I think the thing that I would try differently is actually adequately resourcing those interventions to meet the scale of the need in our community. And that’s, I think, been the problem in past administrations. There’s been a “peanut butter approach” where we fund a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but never to the scale of what is truly needed by the people living in our communities.
So, taking that human-centered, trauma-informed approach that really is going to fund the interventions at the scale needed to meaningfully address the suffering of people in our city is something that I’m deeply committed to doing. So, we know what a lot of those interventions are, we know what a lot of those — both on the prevention side and on the long-term housing affordability side — are, and really what I think is different from my perspective is my willingness to take on the wealthiest and the largest corporations in our city to say, “It is time for you to pay your fair share to once and for all end these crises for the people of our city.”
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 Capitol Hill. What would you do to keep Seattle affordable?
This is largely related to what I just said in my previous answer, but I think for me, there’s a few things that are really going to be critical. One is I’m deeply committed to creating a 15-minute city in order to allow maximum amount of housing choices in every single neighborhood, including single family home zones, which are strictly zoned right now for the most expensive, least climate-friendly type of housing in the city, and convert those into residential families zones, residential zones period. To say, look, these are the areas where we want people to live, to thrive and to raise their families and to have stability.
Creating those connected, livable communities is really, critically important, but we need to tackle those zoning laws in order to be able to do that, and we need to pair that with anti-displacement and anti-gentrification policies like creating land trust ownership opportunities, co-op housing opportunities, things where people can come together, pool their resources and create that housing stability as a long-term strategy is really important.
I also am a big believer in social housing. We have a lot to learn from many European cities who have shown us really great models about what it means to think of housing as city infrastructure and to take housing out of the public market and put it into the hands of public ownership in order to more effectively control what the rent is in those homes. This would not be a harkening back to the failed policies of public housing in America in the 70s [and] in the 60s. This would be more transformative and more inclusive. It would be mixed-income social housing that really would be prioritized in high-amenity neighborhoods that really will give people an opportunity to create housing stability.
And then the last thing I’ll say is we have an opportunity to look at that next housing levy and to increase our investments in home ownership and also rental assistance. And that is something that I’ve been really proud of being able to champion on the council is significantly increased investments in rental assistance, and I think that as we continue to face the eviction moratorium, and the cliff that is associated with that, we need to make sure that we continue to invest in rental assistance as a key way to prevent people from entering into homelessness.
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?
Rental assistance, it is so important. And, you know, we have some small landlord property owners who also on their end need some mortgage assistance to avoid the temptation of evictions as well, but ... key in this situation is to make sure we’re getting as much rental assistance out to those who need it the most as quickly as possible. And we need the federal government and the state government to help us in that effort to quickly access rental assistance dollars and to infuse those dollars into the hands of tenants who are really experiencing the crunch.
The next thing I will say is that, you know, tenant laws and laws that protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords and those who, in spite of having access to resources, still want to evict poor people, is going to continue to be critically important as we continue to face the realities of an increase in evictions.
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 homeless?
I think it’s quite simple. We have elected people in the past who are unwilling to hold corporations accountable and to require that they pay their fair share to take care of those who need government support the most. I also think that the vast gap in wealth and income inequality is a reflection of institutionalized racism, structural racism and racism on its face. It’s no surprise that in the context that you’re describing it’s also true that those who are furthest away from wealth are Black folks, are Latinx folks and other immigrants within our community. And so when you look at the data about who is wealthy and who is not, it is also true that people of color are disproportionately represented amongst the poor within our city. And that’s why it’s so important to me to take on the system that has perpetuated income inequality and the inability to accumulate wealth and stability and resilience for BIPOC community members in our city.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the Oct. 20-26, 2021 issue.