Editor’s note: In advance of the Aug. 3 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling candidates for Seattle mayor.
In May 2019, just after Andrew Grant Houston’s 30th birthday, he launched his own architecture firm. He was keenly aware that Black people constitute only 2% of the nation’s architects. Being Black and Latino, Houston wanted to represent.
The Texas native had moved to Seattle three years before from Austin. He had fallen in love with what he called “a grown-up city, growing and bustling and exciting.” He felt it was a city where you could be your true self and, being queer, where he learned more about what that means. With a new nickname, Ace, he now wanted to express more of himself in his professional life than seemed possible during stints at a Seattle architecture firm and WeWork.
Less than a year later, the pandemic hit. As a new business owner, he said, “it was probably the worst thing that could have ever happened” — causing “a lot of struggling, especially coming from a place where I had no savings, no family to rely on financially.”
He fell behind on payments for a loan he had taken out to start his business.
Houston saw others struggling even more, and said he was aghast at the paucity of shelter spaces the city opened for homeless people when smoke from last summer’s wildfires made sleeping outside unbearable. Active in progressive circles, he blamed Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“I knew we needed somebody different in office,” Houston said over coffee in Capitol Hill, where he rents an apartment. When others he urged declined to run, he said he came to the realization, “Oh crap, I’m going to have to do this thing.”
A self-described policy wonk, he articulates a series of left positions with The Seattle Times in a Meet the Candidates guide. He is considered the farthest left among a crowded field of mayoral candidates, several of whom are considered extremely progressive. Alone among them, he unequivocally supports defunding the police by 50%. He wants to cut sales taxes but institute a 1% city income tax. He is a proponent of housing density, rent control and ending single-family zoning — calling it “exclusionary zoning” — throughout the entire city.
“I am a millennial,” said the now 32-year-old, who for environmental reasons doesn’t own a car and never plans to own a home. “The biggest thing that really comes from that is recognizing that the current systems we have are unsustainable and don’t allow my generation to be as successful as the last ones.”
His message has found an audience and given him unusual fundraising success for a newcomer — helped by $25 tax-funded “democracy vouchers” residents can donate to four candidates of their choosing. Hiring people to collect vouchers, he has raised nearly $350,000 from them, more than far better known candidates like Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González, former city councilmember Bruce Harrell, onetime state Rep. Jessyn Farrell and Colleen Echohawk, former director of the Chief Seattle Club. (Several, however, have as much or more money behind them when you factor in regular donations and funding from independent expenditure committees.)
Kyle Getz, a 35-year-old writer and host of the podcast “Gayish,” got up to speed on vouchers — first used in 2017 among City Council candidates — in order to give one to Houston. “It seems like he’s not compromising on anything,” Getz said approvingly of the candidate. “He’s putting out exactly what he wants.”
Houston’s housing positions stood out to Kate Rubin, executive director of Be: Seattle, a housing justice nonprofit, and she personally endorsed him. “As a lower- income renter myself, I constantly feel the push out of the city,” said the 36-year-old. “I’ve never been able to comfortably afford a one-bedroom apartment.”
When she mentioned that to Houston, Rubin recalled, he said, “There should be space for you. There should be space for everyone.”
But state Rep. Nicole Macri, a Seattle Democrat who finds a lot to like in Houston’s policies, said she is looking for more — specifically, the ability to govern, signaled by coalition building and endorsements by community, labor and government leaders. “I haven’t seen those indicators yet,” Macri said of Houston. She has endorsed González.
Houston worked for six months as interim policy manager for City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, wrapping up in May. He said Mosqueda called after seeing his social media reporting on Black Lives Matter protests and City Council meetings. It was something he had done to make ends meet while his new business struggled, soliciting donations for his work.
Mosqueda, while expressing appreciation for Houston’s work, said by text: “He’s not a candidate I support for mayor. Lorena (González) has long had my support and will continue to do so.”
Political consultant Sandeep Kaushik, who is not working for a mayoral candidate, questions whether voters will see Houston’s time in Mosqueda’s office as sufficient governmental experience. “People don’t generally look at the office of mayor as a starter job in government,” Kaushik said.
But to some, his life experience is just as important.
Born in San Antonio, Houston said his parents divorced when he was about 2, and he and his brother were raised mostly by their mom, a teacher whose Texas roots stretch back to when the state was part of Mexico. They spoke mostly Spanish at home.
“I grew up being asked all the time where I was from,” he said. “I share that with immigrants.”
He said he was placed in gifted programs at school, with more and more white people around him as he grew up, necessitating “code switching” between cultures.
He became particularly attuned to the culture of striving, which he sees as a millennial hallmark. To do well, he believed, he had to get into a good college. He felt he had when he was accepted at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture, a competitive program at the state’s flagship university.
Houston went through some rough periods there, though. He said he was pushing himself too hard. School was stressful and expensive, and he worked part-time jobs. He said he recently realized he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and that might be another reason he kept so busy.
Exhausted, he dropped classes at one point, and holed up in his room at another point. The setbacks delayed his graduation by a couple years, but he picked up a degree in urban studies as well as architecture along the way.
He also got involved in student government. Philip Wiseman, also involved at the time and now a lawyer in Texas, said the budding architect quickly became influential as they pressed the university and local government to give students a bigger voice.
After graduating in 2014, Houston worked for a land-use consulting firm and stayed involved in activism. He joined the “YIMBY” — Yes In My Back Yard —movement, a counterpoint to homeowners derided as Not-In-My-Back-Yard, or NIMBY curmudgeons opposed to development that might affect their property values and quiet neighborhoods, and who some believe are perpetuating racial and economic segregation.
He connected with like-minded activists when he moved to Seattle.
“From day one, he was like, what do you need, how can I help,” said Laura Loe Bernstein, executive director of Share the Cities Action Fund, an urbanist advocacy group.
NIMBYism in Seattle has got to change, in Houston’s view. He said the city desperately needs more housing, especially affordable housing, which he sees as key to preventing homelessness. “If you want to build your single-family home and have your million-dollar mansion, you are more than welcome to do so. But you can no longer restrict other neighbors from being able to develop more if they’d like to.”
It’s a contentious point in Seattle. Neighborhood groups have pushed back against the NIMBY characterization and noted that for-profit developers often build high-priced units, sometimes displacing affordable ones. Houston said he would ramp up fees developers have to pay for relocating low-income tenants and expand a program requiring some to pay into an affordable housing fund if they don’t build such units onsite.
It’s a debate that lies partly along generational fault lines.
“I think that Andrew represents some of the younger people who’ve maybe moved to Seattle because they were attracted to being in a big city,” said Monisha Harrell, a longtime LGBTQ activist and political consultant who is working on the campaign of her uncle, Bruce Harrell. “That’s very different from people who were born and raised in Seattle, and a big city happened to them.”
It’s also different, she said, from people who moved to Seattle in decades past, thinking not that they’re coming to a bustling city but, “I can get good family-wage jobs … I can have a house and the yard and raise my kids.”
The city has changed, unquestionably, even in the last year, as the pandemic took a fierce toll on downtown, homeless encampments spread, and Black Lives Matter protests ignited a conversation about defunding police and ensuring safety amid rising violent crime. In a May poll commissioned and made public by Farrell, only 19% of likely voters in Seattle questioned said they believe things in the city are going in the right direction.
Kaushik, the political consultant, doesn’t see Houston as offering a new way. “His idea of change is to double or triple down on the already old and untested progressive policies, like the cuts to SPD [Seattle Police Department] for example, that the city is already on.”
Houston doesn’t disagree with the doubling or tripling down part. But he says decisive action and a commitment to working with council will finally do more than “just kick the can down the road.”