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Deciding Seattle’s Future

Today is Election Day in Seattle. And the stakes are high for those seeking a more inclusive city. Three of the four leading candidates support ending exclusionary zoning and opening neighborhoods to apartments. One opposes this move. Because Seattle lacks ranked-choice voting, voters cannot rank the three pro-housing candidates so that their cumulative total will go to the leader among the three. That’s a major reason why the sole defender of exclusionary zoning leads in polls and will make the November runoff.

I describe in Generation Priced Out how Seattle has long advanced the nation’s most creative and inclusive housing policies. A major affordability and production breakthrough occurred in 2015, but rabid opposition from the Seattle Times to ending exclusionary zoning and a lawsuit filed to stop the affordable housing plans halted the city’s progress. By the time the major legislation was finally passed in 2019, a measure to expand housing to all neighborhoods was no longer on the table.

I can think of no “blue” city where electing a mayor committed to allowing apartments in all neighborhoods is more important. Seattle residents support greater inclusion. Many despair at the city’s growing unaffordability and wealth gap. The city needs a mayor who will not be intimidated by newspaper and homeowner opposition to these goals.

Three of the four top candidates—- Colleen Echohawk, Lorena González, and Andrew Grant Houston—would move Seattle in a more inclusive direction. Bruce Harrell the candidate leading in the most recent July poll, would continue Seattle on a path of exclusion. Harrell is strongly backed by the older homeowners whose property values rise more from exclusionary zoning.

Most big city newspapers—the NY Times, LA Times, SF Chronicle and Boston Globe, for example—are strongly pro-housing. The Seattle Times is not

The Northwest Progressive Institute poll found Harrell leading with 20% followed by Gonzalez at 12% and Echohawk at 10%. Ferrell and Houston were at 6%. It remains a very fluid race, as “54% of respondents were initially undecided and 32% were undecided even after the follow-up question.”

Pro-inclusion candidates have 34% of the vote to Harrell’s 20%. Seattle lacks ranked choice voting (!) but there will be a November runoff of the top two candidates.

Who Will Make the Runoff?

Bruce Harrell will make the runoff. His older homeowner face are the likeliest of voters in this off-year summer election (Seattle’s failure to align local with state and national elections skews turnout toward older white homeowners at the expense of less well off and more racially diverse tenants). Harrell is also endorsed by the anti-housing Seattle Times.

Most big city newspapers—the NY Times, LA Times, SF Chronicle and Boston Globe, for example—are strongly pro-housing. The Seattle Times is not.

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As a highly regarded councilmember who would be Seattle’s first Latina mayor, Gonzalez would seem to have an edge in finishing second. She has a comprehensive housing strategy, strong labor support, and brings racial diversity to a city that remains largely white. Off-year elections prioritize voter turnout and labor will be mobilizing turnout on Gonzalez’s behalf.

Gonzalez would be a huge upgrade over current Mayor Jenny Durkan. But some Seattle progressives do not feel she is “left” enough. They favor Echohawk and Houston, both of whom are running strong campaigns.

Echohawk backers had to be encouraged by poll numbers showing her only 2% behind Gonzalez. Echohawk’s “Housing Justice” platform is as strong and comprehensive as any I’ve seen from any major candidate in a big-city mayoral election. She received the sole endorsement of the progressive website, The Urbanist.

Andrew Grant Houston also has progressive housing views. He supports allowing eight units on all lots, which would take Seattle even beyond Portland’s allowance of sixplexes.

Neither Echohawk and Houston have previously been elected to office. It’s not impossible for a candidate to go from activist to mayor in a big city, but it rarely happens.

Maya Wiley came somewhat close to doing so this year in New York City. But Wiley’s television career and work in the de Blasio administration gave her a much higher level of name recognition than activist candidates normally have.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

After housing prices rose dramatically in 2017 Seattle’s worsening affordability crisis was an ongoing national story. Amazon’s rapid growth was impacting housing costs and I and others wrote about the city’s innovative Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). But since the pandemic the national media seems to have lost interest in Seattle’s housing crisis. I have not seen national stories on Seattle’s mayor’s race despite its importance to the city’s future.

Housing and land use policy will be central to the final November mayoral campaign. Let’s hope this time Seattle voters make the right decision.

Randy Shaw

Beyond Chron