In the race for Seattle City Council District 2, which covers Southeast Seattle, two out of three candidates made it through the primaries: incumbent Tammy Morales and challenger Tanya Woo. Out of the three City Council races where incumbents faced challengers, Woo got the highest proportion of votes, netting nearly 43% of the vote, compared to Morales’ 52%.
With a background in broadcast journalism, Woo divides her time between being a landlord and a community activist in the Chinatown-International District, where she helped start a community watch program. She has presented herself as a champion for the neighborhood after years of gentrification and the turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Woo’s candidacy has elicited the support of right-leaning Seattle politicians like Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has frequently clashed with Morales on the city council. In particular, Woo has criticized Morales for supporting the diversion of funds from the Seattle Police Department to other community safety projects. She stopped by Real Change’s office to lay out her pitch to win over District 2 voters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: What motivated you to run for City Council?
Tanya Woo: These last three years during the pandemic have accelerated a lot of issues that are my top priorities, like homelessness, public safety and housing. I have 84 units of workforce housing in the Chinatown-International District — we only charge our tenants a percentage of their income, so no one’s forced to pay rent they cannot afford. I started a group called the Chinatown-International District Community Watch. We consider ourselves alternative to policing; we are armed with water bottles and meals. We carry Narcan and other harm reduction supplies. And we try to build trust with our unhoused neighbors as well as those who are on 12th and Jackson, trying to connect people to resources.
And then in the last couple years, I saw that within the Chinatown-International District community, it was like a microcosm for all the things that are happening in South Seattle. Especially last year, when King County and the city wanted to implement a high-impact project without telling the community about it. We were not against the project. We just wanted a seat at the table, and learned that the only way to get a seat at the table is to demand it. And that is why I’m running.
What makes you better than your opponent, Tammy Morales?
I don’t think it’s like a better thing. I think it’s a different approach and different priorities. I believe that public safety, homelessness and housing is a huge priority — especially within South Seattle, because many Black, Brown and Asian people are being targeted and being shot and our children are just dying. We don’t have a solution to our public safety issues.
We also need short-term solutions. Like we were out inside the encampments one night, and there was a shooting. Luckily, no one was injured or hurt, but that was a really scary event. And my team [and] I cannot handle violent weapons. If someone pulls a gun or a knife on me, I’m not equipped to respond to that. For that we need officers — we need a reformed and culturally competent police department that’s focusing on community policing.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues Seattle is facing right now?
Public safety is the biggest issue. That’s what I’m hearing knocking on doors. People are concerned, especially along Rainier where the shootings have been. We had two mass shootings. Our homicide levels are at the highest they have been in years. This is our Black, Brown children who are dying. We need more partnership between [the] police, city, our neighborhoods and community organizations.
In terms of long-term solutions, I feel like our community centers, libraries, parks, all the programming we had for youth pre-pandemic has gone away and has not gotten back to those same levels. Many of our children are not being served.
If elected, are you willing to take on the rich and powerful to accomplish your policy priorities? And do you want to tax the rich more?
Yes, to both questions. Starting an alternative-to-policing group is not very popular in some circles, but it works. And I’ve seen its effects on people; we’re saving lives out there. So we’re not afraid to stand up to businesses. But I think what’s missing are the mom-and-pop businesses. We try to push back when we can with compassion and especially with love.
Do you want to stop the sweeps? If so, how would you make it happen? If not, how do you justify them? Do you think sweeps work?
I think we need to have constant outreach and engagement, especially in our encampments. Having those case workers go out there every single day and talking to people, building that trust and those relationships to allow people to come on in when they’re ready is really important. The only time outreach engagement is being done is when there’s about to be a sweep. Talking to people in encampments, they’re saying that “no one ever offered me shelter, no one ever offered me housing, I’ve been here for two years.”
No one wants to go into congregate shelters. And so how do we provide more of that to allow people to come in? How do you build that trust, after people have gone through a broken system? I think relationships are key to resolving any encampment and any issue that we see out there.
Do you think sweeps don’t work?
It’s complicated. I think if we have caseworkers and we’re doing the outreach and engagement constantly and people are getting care, we would eliminate the need for sweeps. But that’s not being done, so sweeps are happening. I think it’s inhumane to let someone die in a tent. And with fentanyl out there and that drug being so deadly — and we’re seeing so many deaths — I think, are they working? I don’t know. But I think they’re in a way necessary because the system is just so broken right now.
Mayor Bruce Harrell has made it clear that any alternative crisis response to 911 calls must follow a co-responder model and involve police officers. Do you agree with the Mayor? If so, why? If not, how will you convince him to get on board with a fully civilian crisis team to respond to 911 calls?
I think we need crisis response teams and we also need groups like my group, like the community watch group, civilian unarmed response. I think we’re a testament that it works and we’ve seen changes, and I feel like we are helpful in providing hope and building relationships in the community. But at the same time, I understand caseworkers sometimes don’t feel safe when they go into situations. They should have access to police officers. So I think we need an all-of-the-above approach — we need both. I think our group is proof and to convince the Mayor, he just has to come out and walk with us.
What are the biggest changes you want to make to the city’s approach to public safety?
We’ve talked about alternatives to policing for so many years and that hasn’t been done yet.
Especially in the hot spots of Third and Pike and Pine, they have a plan. But 12th and Jackson did not get a plan. I think that’s inequitable. We have a unique situation in [where] a community of color has experienced a line of disinvestments. And I feel that the community’s been ignored. It’s a little bit of a case study in seeing how you approach immigrants and refugees, communities of color? Are you doing the outreach and engagement to find what the problems and solutions are? And if that’s not being done in one community, is that even being done in other communities?
How would you promote safety for homeless people?
Last year, [the] Chinatown-International District had seven homicides. The highest in all of the city for a neighborhood, and I believe all but one were in the encampments. So it’s really going into the encampments and seeing and getting to know people and seeing who does what. Like right now, there’s an encampment on Dearborn. And the people who live there, we know some of them are not unhoused. They’re there to do illegal activity. So just knowing who does what, who needs care, who’s actually engaged in that activity, and keeping track and trying to get to the root cause of every single issue.
Do you support superblocks and pedestrianizing main streets in every urban village? Would you prioritize private vehicles or pedestrians, cyclists and transit, if elected?
I think we have to go from a neighborhood by neighborhood basis and ask these questions for [each] neighborhood. What will work in one neighborhood may not work for another neighborhood. And asking people what they want. I know, there are many neighborhood plans out there that different communities have put together. We need to look at those and really listen.
What are three things you would do to immediately improve the lives of Real Change vendors?
I would immediately look into public safety and make sure that there’s an alternative response being set up. Two, I would definitely put together a work group and really talk to vendors and see what they want to happen and make sure that it happens. And three, I think making sure that there’s access to resources, knowledge of where these resources are and making sure that outreach engagement is being done. I think the best way to do that is to have dedicated caseworkers out there.
Do you know how many public 24-hour restrooms are in Seattle?
According to the Seattle Parks and Recreation website, there are about 65 24-hour public toilets in the city, 11 of which are not porta-potties. If elected, what would you do to change this?
Especially in South Seattle, I’m really interested to know where those are and where they’re located around the city. I think safety is the biggest concern with these restrooms. But I think the built environment is really important when considering opening one of these 24-hour restrooms. I think they’re definitely needed. Just making sure that those hygiene stations are attended to constantly.
Do you support or oppose the Seattle City Attorney’s efforts to prosecute drug possession and public use in the municipal court?
I don’t think people need to go that far. I think diversion and treatment need to always be the first thing that happens, and that’s not happening right now. With the new drug criminalization and public use of drugs bill that’s coming through, it allows for funding for treatment and for diversion. It’s not perfect, it needs some work. But it’s a good starting point in the conversation that we need to have to get it to a good spot. So I think treatment [and] diversion has to be first. I don’t think people belong in jails. I think people need case managers and caseworkers to partner with them to help them through their journey.
How do you grapple with the reality that criminalization disproportionately targets poor, Black, Brown, Indigenous and homeless people?
Yes, that is true. We need to talk about this and we really need to put criteria in place. And we need to especially document this citywide. We have to talk about this and we have to hold people accountable. And especially fund groups that hold police accountable. We have to make sure that there is a civilian-led police accountability board. I think while the police department needs reform, needs a lot of culturally competent training and needs to prioritize de-escalation, we have to make sure that they have the resources and support.
Over the past two decades, the Chinatown-International District has been overwhelmed by rampant land speculation and market-oriented development. How would you work to stem the tide of gentrification in the neighborhood?
It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life, something I’m really frustrated about. I feel like a lot of people don’t understand what gentrification and displacement is, what it looks like and how we prevent it. I think a lot of that has to do with the city, in terms of racist zoning practices, in terms of not listening to neighborhood plans or neighborhood recommendations from the community. It’s always my priority, since my family does have a building in the Chinatown-International District, and we wanted to make sure that people who live there can work there. And it was really important that we do affordable housing, that we do workforce housing. But it was tough because as a [family] of color, we couldn’t get a loan. The fire happened in 2013, but we couldn’t start building until 2017. We were almost forced to sell — that’s a huge problem.
I think we need more help from the city. It would be great to see a municipal bank, a city bank that can help families be able to get the resources and capital to rebuild and offer housing to community members. It’d be great to be able to prioritize commercial, small mom-and-pop businesses on the ground floor.
Read more of the Oct. 18-24, 2023 issue.