On May 8, 2017, “4 to Explore” conducted a phone interview of Ms. Nikkita Oliver, one of the prominent candidates for Seattle Mayor.
Ballots will be mailed mid-July 2017 and are due by Tuesday, August 1st for the initial election. The August election will decide which top two candidates face each other in a November run-off. For all candidates running, CLICK HERE.
I was going to wait until our Summer edition of “4 to Explore” to publish this interview, but am publishing it now because Ms. Oliver was not able to attend the Northeast District Council (NEDC) mayoral candidates forum on June 8. Many residents of Northeast Seattle are still probably wondering, “Who is Nikkita Oliver?” Once again, 4 to Explore is there!
Here is the full transcript of that interview.
PRIORITIES: What do you want to accomplish in your first 100 days in office as Mayor?
Nikkita Oliver: The first thing – the most important thing — is a comprehensive housing plan. This affordable housing and homelessness crisis that we’re in…needs a plan that has a lot of foresight and a vision to address both immediate and long term concerns: Building housing, addressing rent stabilization, speculative capital, [and] a progressive income tax. Some will take years; some can be immediate. There are city properties we could leverage for transitional housing. We need to have conversations with people in encampments to ask about solutions that will work for them.
Our city is at a really important time. Housing is connected to many other things: transportation, human services, revenue, density and development.
One thing our city is really missing is a long term vision of where we want to go.
NEIGHBORHOODS: Last summer, Mayor Murray stopped supporting the 13 Neighborhood District Councils that represent every neighborhood in Seattle. Do you plan on restoring that support and/or the District Council roles in distributing information to community councils, making recommendations for the city budget, and making recommendations for grants for neighborhood projects or will you keep his current policy in place?
Nikkita Oliver: I want to say first that community input is incredibly invaluable. Without community input, bureaucracy just functions from top down. And so I deeply value hearing community voices, but also having community effectively impact what policy looks like not just in the making of policy but in the actual implementation of it. The neighborhood councils, while a good idea in some ways were inherently flawed because they did not necessarily reach across constituencies. Some of what we saw with the Councils were people have the time or the resources to invest in the District Councils. But the questions I think got asked about the Councils are who are the voices who are not there and why are they not participating. And so, while I do intend to have some sort of structure that creates very necessary and important space for neighborhoods and communities to directly to impact both policy development and implementation, I’m not sure going back to that model is going to be the most effective for the sort of input that our city most needs. I have been talking with some of the directors of different community centers and teen centers. We have a lot of very natural networks already built into our city that could be used as a way for communities to speak directly to the issues that most impact them and speak directly to policies and implementation. I think what’s necessary is pouring resources – the right resources – into those spaces and ensuring those become spaces where we’ve purposely and intentionally accessed community for that information. So how can we learn from what happened from the neighborhood model in terms of what populations are accessing those models and then how can we evolve it and use preexisting networks to build ones that actually gather across constituencies to build better policy and implementation. So, on the one hand, I do think the decision to reconsider what those Councils decisions look like was important on an equity level, I think not coming up with a plan that actually deals with the equity issue is problematic, so what I was trying to do with my office – there are so many community organizers in our city, we are such a lucky city, we have community organizers at every level from grass roots organizers to more nonprofit organizers to community center organizers. We have a lot of organizers. I think we need to figure out how we leverage relationships, which is something I have the skills to do, I am a grassroots organizer and I’ve worked with nonprofits, I’ve worked with community centers and so I have a ton of relationships to bring to the table to develop a more equitable way to ensure neighborhoods have direct connection to the Mayor’s office and I think that’s important. I think the other thing is,, as a Mayor, I will make myself accessible to communities. And that is about not simply doing town halls or “State of the City” addresses where I get to say and present my ideas, but it also means just going and sitting in spaces and listening to what communities are talking about and being available for the questions. And when I don’t know the answer to be willing to say I don’t know, but you know what I’m going to find the answers or I will work with you to find the answers. I think these are really important changes that we need around accountability, transparency, and ownership within our current government structure.
REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT and GENTRIFICATION:
- During your campaign kickoff, you said, “We must stop giving developers a free ride…We have to counteract displacement…including our seniors — we have to take care of our seniors…Input must be included in a meaningful way…” Tell us more about this.
Nikkita Oliver: When we look at how the grand bargain was developed, when we consider who was at the table, it was mostly people who have corporate interests. It didn’t necessarily include homeowners. It didn’t necessarily include renters. It didn’t necessarily include people who have been pushed out of our city those folks who are at the table getting to help make the decision. When I talked about meaningful input I mean going beyond hearing peoples’ voices and actually putting their ideas into effect, and allocating resources to those ideas. The grand bargain allows developers to come in and build without considering their impact upon our community, and without actually investing in our community.
We are seeing housing rates go up for a number of reasons, the market is shifting in a lot of ways, median income is increasing every year, lots of people are moving to our very beautiful city. As a result there is a huge demand for housing, and one problem with HALA and MHA is that it is dependent upon the private market meeting their needs while simultaneously not asking developers to actually really invest in the city they say they want to be in. So I think we need to look at a multifaceted response to the housing crisis which includes asking developers to invest more, because I firmly believe that they want to be here and they will often want to invest in our communities but it also means the City leveraging its resources to get involved in building housing and it means dealing with issues like speculative capital which are driving the market up.
So I think we need a multifaceted response, but also meeting with people who live in the zones that are single family zones. Folks who tend to get called things to NIMBY, which I think puts folks in a box that doesn’t actually knowledge their real concerns. Which are, I bought my home here, I invested here, and my hope was that I could live here and my children could live here for the next 30 to 40 years. And, if you are a senior who bought your home 30 years ago and you’re living on a fixed income and property taxes are going up each year, you are actually very likely to be pushed out of your home. And we have to consider what that means for someone who has spent their entire life working to have a place to live and a place to retire.
The flip side of that, we also have to deal with the fact that people are going to get paid to come into our city and with that means we need more density and we need more housing. Not just so that we can take the negative things that have happened in the market but also because we need to protect our environment to decrease the impact that we’re having on the environment. And so what I’m hoping we can do is come to a consensus around putting the density more equitably around our city but also doing it smartly nad, by smartly, I mean putting it in places that ecologically make sense, putting it in places that make sense transportation-wise, but also putting it in places that does not exacerbate the gentrification that’s already happened and [in places] that actually pushes back on the market to create place for people to move back to. So I think the developers who want to be in our city have a responsibility to our city and we need to willing to ask them to be accountable — responsibility as a part of our city.
When I talk about the progressive income tax, I’m actually talking about all of the Seattleites being willing to take on a piece of making our city the healthiest place possible. And I believe that, from our wealthiest Seattleites to our developers, that everybody wants to see that happen and we want to see our city be a healthy place for everybody – to be able to equitably live in a successful way. And that’s what a progressive Seattle looks like – a place where everyone invests at a level where they are able to invest in – because we are all going to be accountable and take ownership for creating a city that is accessible and is affordable.
I think that answers your question. That’s the vision. And I do think that it’s possible.
- Do you support having real estate developers pay “Impact Fees” as allowed by State law to help to fund new schools, fire stations, and parks?
Nikkita Oliver: Absolutely. That infrastructure is essential to our city functioning well. It’s essential to the people who live in their buildings – to be able to live in a well –functioning city and I think that the developers are interested in having a city that functions well. And so impact fees are just a part of that. The linkage Fee – and the 20 to 25% around the linkage fee – or having that many affordable units in your building is also a part of that. These things are a part of ensuring that Seattle remains an affordable, successful place. But, like I said, we cannot depend on just the private market to do that. I think the City needs to get involved in leveraging its own resources in order to make sure we have enough affordable housing. And not just for people who are at the 60% AMI, but also people who are at the 30% AMI. 60% [AMI] is really our workforce housing and our teachers and we need to make sure our teachers can live here but we also want to be a icity that is affordable for our low income families and to ensure that those families can stay here. And that we have a well-rounded, equitable city.
(For more on Impact Fees, go here: http://alexpedersen.org/impact-fees-for-developers-can-boost-neighborhoods-and-schools/ )
RESPONSIVE GOVERNMENT: Some have criticized city government leaders for focusing too much on national issues instead of the basics of local government and/or to listening to interest groups instead of residents not involved in interest groups. What ideas do you have for making city government more responsive to its residents?
Nikkita Oliver: There are some national issues that have very real hyper-local impact. And I think those are the ones we should be focusing one. And I think the community that shows up at Council meetings. To me that’s organizing at the grassroots level and it does a great job brining those issues to the surface in our city and showing us how they connect tat the locatl level. And I think that, what responsive government looks like is hearing your residents when they are telling this issue at the national level is actually impacting me locally and I’m trying to show you where I need your as my local representative to be responsive to that locally. I think residents really can direct us and in seeing where at the national level we need to be responsive and really where the local connection is. I think it’s seeing where the local intersection is and being responsive there. And there are so many ways that we can do that. We have such a large refugee, immigrant, Muslim community that, under our current [presidential] Administration, is facing a lot of challenges and there are some incredible leaders in his community who can actually lead us about how locally we can do that in a way that doesn’t neglect our local government. When the national intersects with the local – that’s where it’s most important that we’re most responsive on those issues.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING: To produce new affordable housing, Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) relies on upzones that require real estate developers/investors to pay into a fund for affordable housing (or to build a percentage of the housing onsite). The Mayor calls this “Mandatory Housing Affordability” (MHA). Percentages that must be set-aside range from 2% downtown to 9% in the U District. The affordable housing does not need to be built in the same neighborhood where the fees are paid. Do you feel that the 2% set-aside for affordable housing downtown and the 9% set-aside in the U District were sufficient?
Nikkita Oliver: No, I don’t think it’s sufficient. That’s an area where lots of students live and I don’t think it is enough set-aside to ensure that students can live by their school. When I think about 2% in [South Lake Union / downtown]. We have to look at, who can afford the 98% [of the housing units that is not affordable]? And who are we saying are the only 2% of folks who should be allowed to live there. That’s essentially what we’re saying. And we’re developing areas of the city for only certain income-brackets. When we look at 98% [of the housing units], only certain people are allowed to live here and only 2% of lower-income brackets can be here. I want to see more of our city to be more equitably accessible than that. South Lake Union is a beautiful area. Wouldn’t we want more of our families, more of our people to have access to that housing? And really what’s going to end up happening, the places where there are higher percentages of housing or where we are asking for higher percentages are places that are at the farthest reaches of the city. So, we’re saying that, if your lower income, the only place where we’re gonna make sure you have access to housing is farther out in the city. I think that’s problematic. I think we’re going to need to more equitably distribute the affordable housing so people who want to live closer into the city are able to do that because everyone deserves to have access to their city. And there are going to be people who want to live farther out or who want to live in neighborhoods that have a different type of cultural character and I want people to be able to choose to live in those areas in the city because that’s the area of the city that they like. But, right now, low income people don’t have a choice. If you don’t make enough money, you don’t get a choice on where you live in this city. And that is an economic equity issue that is racially and ethically unevenly distributed. When you look at whose median incomes are increasing at what rate, black and brown folks are at the lowest parts of those income increases. And so then it’s becoming racialized. So we’re also seeing the city become more and more segregated where the center of our city is whiter and wealthier and the farther reaches of our city are browner and lower income. And that’s a problem that’s starting to segregate the city.
HOMELESSNESS: While the reports from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (under President Obama) show a decrease in homelessness in many cities throughout the country, it has increased in Seattle and King County.
- Why do you think homelessness is rising in Seattle while it is decreasing elsewhere?
Nikkita Oliver: I think it goes back to the economic, equity issue. And when we look at which communities are being impacted by that economic, equity issue and access issue, it is very particular communities – it is veterans, it’s black or brown communities, it’s people who are already working and who had families living paycheck to paycheck. There are a lot of families who are homeless in city – a lot of families who are constantly trying to find housing because of the constant rent increases. There are a lot of veterans. There are also a lot of mental health needs in our city. And so all of these things I think contribute to rising issues around homelessness. We have a major human services gap. And so when you have this kind of economic equity issue that we’re seeing here in Seattle, where the gap is not being met…and there’s not enough housing, period. The open housing rate [vacancy rate], the last I read, I think it was like 2% or 3%. There’s just not a lot of housing to choose from. And so people end up homeless.
And homelessness is defined in a lot of ways – it’s not just encampments. When we look at how many young people in our schools who are homeless, which has increased exponentially, it’s actually a better indicator of what homelessness looks like in your city. Because sometimes people are houseless. Multiple families living in one unit because that’s all they could find. So the rate of homelessness in Seattle is actually much higher than what we’re told. And I think it’s the economic gap and the lack of accessibility. I think we really need a holistic strategy. We need to think about jobs and opportunity. We need to think about educational opportunities. We need to think about housing. At one point in time, Boeing worked well with the city and our educational institutions to ensure there were pathways to jobs in Boeing, that there were pathways for low income folks, the people who might otherwise wouldn’t have accessibility to find ways to get into work. And when we look at hour our city is growing, many of the jobs that are coming here are being filled by people who don’t’ live in the city. So I think the city needs to figure out how we broker relationships with Amazon and Microsoft and Google to ensure that our young people who are here have solid trajectories into those jobs and that our families have trajectories into those jobs.
And another thing that is being over-looked, is the impact of – we live in a high access to information city – and a lot of formerly incarcerated people, people with records in our city are having a very hard time getting housing because there is so much information on people’s backgrounds now available to landlords. Because there’s such a high demand for housing, formerly incarcerated people who have done their time. And based on the way the justice system is supposed to be set up, because now they’ve paid back their debt to society. But a lot of them are being overlooked for housing. So I think that’s also contributing to why we’re seeing so many homeless and houseless people. It’s overall an equity issue that is very multifaceted — everything from access to housing and jobs and opportunity.
FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY: Do you have any ideas for reducing city government expenses / finding savings?
Nikkita Oliver: Yeah, absolutely. We have a huge budget. $5.6 billion. We spend a lot of money on courts and police. And, in the court area, when it comes to Seattle Municipal Court. I don’t know how much you know about “quality of life crime”; these are crimes that are things that people get criminalized for simply because they’re poor. Say you get a parking ticket that you’re not able to pay and, over time, that turns into a suspended license. And then you’re not able to pay the ticket, the suspended license and then maybe you get a ticket for [driving with] a suspended license – over time these turn into criminal issues that a person was not able to address in the first place because they did not have the money to pay the ticket in the first place. And we’re becoming a city where cash-poor folks have to drive. If you’re being pushed to the far reaches of the city and transportation is not moving in lock step with development, then you’re driving and it’s very easy to get a ticket in Seattle. So figuring out how we cannot prosecute “quality of life crimes” is huge. I heard a story about young homeless person who was charged with stealing because they had thrown their trash away in a private dumpster. I heard a story of someone charged with stealing electricity at the library for plugging their phone in. Regardless of whether or not those charges resulted in conviction, just the charging process, and calling that person into court, filing of the paperwork, adds up to a substantial amount of money over time. I think sweeps [of unauthorized homeless encampments] — the number of sweeps we do, how we do the sweeps; if provided more services and services that people in encampments wanted and provided trash, water, places to dispose of needles to those encampments instead of ding these constant sweeps and focused on having 24/7 storage, and getting transitional housing together. We could actually decrease the amount we spend on sweeps and transfer it over to human services. When it comes to “quality of life crimes” those funds could go into a lot of other places to ensure that those people don’t end up in those situations because if we keep out those cycles of poverty, we’re actually going to make our city healthier – those are two places that we could cut.
Also, I know that [Mayor] Murray had proposed hiring 200 more police. I could think of so many other things to do with that money that would actually decrease crime in our city and increase safety for everybody. I think it’s about looking at the places where we are spending money in ways that we don’t have to. Not only would it be more effective but, in the long run, it would be basically more responsible and amount to more efficient processes that benefit humans over systems.
EDUCATION: Do you support expanding the high-quality Seattle Preschool Program so that it is available to all 4 year olds (universal preschool) and, if so, how would you pay for it and how quickly would you make it universal?
Nikkita Oliver: Absolutely. Preschool is incredibly valuable for the development of every young person in our city. It’s also important for families to be able to become economically stable. If they know that there is high-quality preschool available to them. I think, in providing that, I think we need to think about how we pay our child care workers. We do not ensure that our child care workers are paid at the rate that they deserve. And if we’re saying that preschool education is important, we need to make sure we take care of our workers so that they effectively take care of our children. But, in the long run, supporting high quality preschool for all people in our city, is going to make our city much healthier.
EXPERIENCE: When Mayor Murray was running for Mayor, he was criticized for his lack of experience as an executive running a large organization. Can you speak to your own experience and management style?
Nikkita Oliver: I think what people fail to acknowledge about the role of an executive or anyone in the executive branch is that they’re only as good as their team. While they are the face of the decision and make the ultimate decision on a lot of things, our mayor is dependent upon having the most brilliant team possible because delegation is essential to running our city. Over 10,000 employees and a $5.6 billion budget, the mayor cannot know everything but [she] can know exactly, who they put in what places to do what jobs and can know that each of those people have the credentials and have the work experience to make that happen. You have to be able to trust your team. If you don’t trust your team what you’re going to end up doing is micromanaging your team. And people just simply don’t function well when they’re micromanaged. The system doesn’t function well when the trust isn’t there. You know, I’ve managed large teams before. I am very well versed in law, policy, and analysis. You don’t get through law school and a master degree at the same time, while working multiple jobs and not know how to manage some things. But I’ve also done a lot of work on systems transformation and focusing specifically on how you can systems more humanistic and more equitable. And that happens by ensuring you have a quality team around you that knows how to use evidence-based data that produces policies that, when implemented, actually amount to the sort of changes that you’re striving for. And that has to work in lock-step with having very strong responsive, dynamic communication with your constituencies – across constituencies, being able to acknowledge equity issues that might exist there.
So I think part of what I’ve been criticized for is that I’m not a career politician. I haven’t worked as a legislator or been on City Council. But what I have done is work closely with Councilmembers, worked closely with legislators, worked closed with elected on how do you develop ordinances and policies that work with the grassroots community. So what my skill actually is is knowing how to bridge the gap between community and government, but the thing that is essential for an executive to have is how do you take all of these different constituencies, how do you work with the legislative branch and the judicial branch in your city in a way that actually moves toward a consensus government that amounts to positive impact at the human level. If systems don’t work for humans, then those systems don’t work.
And part of what we’re seeing right now is the mismanagement is really a micromanagement issue. That there’s not enough people that work with the current mayor’s office who have the knowledge, the necessary knowledge to do their jobs – they also don’t have the trust. They haven’t been given – the leash is too short. So my style of leadership and my style of management is really about ensuring I have the right people doing the right job with the right resources – and then trusting them to do that job and having a process of accountability and very high expectations and goals and metrics and vision to make that happen. And when those goals, those metrics, and that vision is actually served or not met, then you have to move into a conversation of accountability, which we are lacking in our current government structure. So that would be, that is my management style.
CONCLUSION: Is there anything else you’d like to add, specifically for the residents of Northeast Seattle?
Nikkita Oliver: The only other thing I’d want to say to the people of Northeast Seattle: I want the communities there to know that I’ve heard quite a few people tell me how, especially the upper regions of our city feel at times they get ignored. And particularly around things like certain types of infrastructure — sidewalks, streets — human services and I think that is a place where our city absolutely has to grow because urban sprawl is happening and we need to be responsive to the needs of communities. And I have heard many residents in Northeast Seattle say that they feel overlooked. And so I would love to do a listening post there. We’ve done community listening posts in other places but I would love to sit with any neighborhood group and literally just listen – not there with an agenda to present our platform. But there to listen and hear and allow communities to develop our platform. We have a goal of really being organic. Because now we’re in good place to be organic. We don’t have to make the bottom-line decision yet. We’re actually in an incredible position to have these dynamic conversations that really develop the vision and community with people and we want to do that including with our neighbors and our communities in Northeast Seattle.
4 to Explore: Thank you so much for taking this time to have this interview.
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