Anti-racist organizer and mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver has made Seattle’s affordable housing famine a central issue of her campaign. In a Town Hall panel last year, the attorney and activist criticized Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan for creating ‘affordable’ housing that is only affordable to people earning more than $40,000 a year.
During that forum, Oliver criticized HALA in part for keeping Seattle’s longtime strategy of concentrating density into urban villages and mostly leaving single family zoning alone. “Not only does a discussion with single family zoning need to happen, about how those areas need to change,” Oliver said, “but there’s actually not been a lot of push on those areas to change, because their pushback was ‘We don’t want those people here, they will make our neighborhoods less viable.’”
Now, Oliver is running for mayor against Murray as a candidate for the Seattle People’s Party. Her campaign website blames the status quo for the city’s affordable housing crisis, calling that crisis “what happens when bigotry and racism go unchecked and unchallenged; when politics and politicians work for their own interests and the interests of corporations; when progressive speak is not met with progressive action; when the people are silenced in the name of an outdated political process and democracy becomes nothing more than a meaningless slogan.”
In the spirit of demanding more than slogans, we asked Oliver what specific policy prescriptions she has for addressing the affordable housing shortage. In a written statement, Oliver articulated two specific policy changes she would seek as mayor to address the affordable housing crisis: rent control and demanding more affordable housing production from developers.
But first, some context: a critical part of HALA is the Mandatory Housing Affordability framework, which essentially allows developers to build bigger and denser in exchange for making some fraction of their units affordable. Alternatively, they can pay the equivalent cost into a fund that constructs affordable housing elsewhere.
Some critics of HALA argue that private development of new housing inevitably displaces poor residents, because those construction costs get integrated into the new building’s cost of rent, whereas older buildings already have decades of paid rent to offset their capital costs. In other words, we should prioritize the preservation of existing affordable housing over production of new housing. Others argue that the only way to bring down rents is to build more housing, because if there are more apartments then there will be fewer potential renters bidding on each apartment, which will cause rent costs across the city to fall as landlords start competing for renters instead of vice versa.
Here’s what Oliver says about her affordable housing platform. First, she supports rent control, a signature issue of socialist councilmember Kshama Sawant and of council candidate Jon Grant. “The housing shortage is Seattle’s signature battle of the 21st Century and we need to employ every single tool to fight against it,” says Oliver. “If Seattle truly wanted to be proactive toward the economic apartheid Murray spoke about, it would fight back affirmatively and aggressively against RCW 35.21.830, the Reaganomics-era prohibition on rent control.” (Oliver is referring here to a law the state legislature passed in 1981, one year after a rent control initiative made the ballot but failed the election in Seattle.) “The Reagan Era, just like this Trump Era, is when many of the protections that protected ‘regular people’ went out the window—this was one of those protections. Seattle cannot do it alone when it comes to repealing rent control; though the Seattle City Council passed a watered-down rent control resolution, it did not implement rent control in Seattle. If Seattle truly wanted to be proactive instead of simply minimally progressive, we could be a vocal dissenter and lead a charge to get rid of this prohibition.” Oliver notes that rent control is “only one tool” in the city’s toolbox—but says it’s the one tool “the Mayor has advocated against…that could give immediate relief to thousands.”
Second, Oliver wants the city to be “more aggressive” in pushing developers to create affordable housing through policies like Mandatory Affordable Housing. From her statement:
“As Jon Grant brilliantly noted, if we want to make housing affordable, it should be affordable to at least a quarter of all new apartments. Again, although Seattle purports to model certain programs after other progressive cities, it extracts the soul out of those programs. To wit, whereas San Francisco will require 25% affordable housing for new developments, Seattle’s can be as low as 3%.” Grant, who is now running for the seat that Tim Burgess will vacate at the end of this year, was on Murray’s HALA task force but abstained from the final vote on HALA’s recommendations because he thought it didn’t go far enough.
This kind of talk is sure to concern the aforemention advocates of increasing housing supply. For example, Sightline’s Dan Bertolet wrote earlier this year, “The success of [Mandatory Affordable Housing] hinges on striking the right balance between upzones and mandates [on developers to build affordable housing]. If they balance, MHA will propel progress toward a more economically integrated and inclusive Seattle—the kind of city where people from all income levels find housing options where there are great schools and close job opportunities. If they do not, Seattle will get the opposite: less housing overall and less lower-cost housing, too. The housing shortage will worsen, competition will stiffen for what’s available, and prices will escalate, displacing more low-income residents.”
In summary, Oliver says, HALA is “not a bad thing, and neither is the Mandatory Housing Affordability framework. It is simply not enough. Or one could say that it is simply not progressive enough.
“In real time, Seattleites are being pushed out of their communities and neighborhoods. This is harmful to the City. The way to actually fix those harms instead of merely mitigating a small percentage of the damage is to be proactive instead of merely checking the boxes of being minimally progressive.”
This post has been edited.