Voters want real change and they’re tired of the status quo — at least, that’s what candidates and campaigns kept saying earlier this year in crowded local primaries for mayoral, city and county races.
For years, polls have shown homelessness is the number one issue to Seattle voters, and this year was expected to be no different as the pandemic increased visible homelessness and exposed fundamental flaws in the response system.
But the two people on the November ballot for Seattle’s mayoral race both spent years in City Hall as council members, were unable to make a dent in Seattle’s rising homeless numbers and produced the vaguest homelessness plans in a crowded field.
Bruce Harrell, a lawyer who served on City Council for 12 years, has focused on getting rid of encampments in parks by opening more shelters and housing, paid for by raising money from big businesses and philanthropy.
M. Lorena González, a former lawyer who’s served on City Council for almost six years, wants to build more housing and shelter using taxes from big businesses and make it harder for people to fall into homelessness by limiting rent hikes, and she says she wouldn’t forcibly remove any encampments from city parks.
While their primary challengers laid out specifics and deadlines, González and Harrell have instead appealed to divergent feelings around homelessness.
The two will each have a chance to prove they’re the one for the job at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when they’ll square off in a debate on homelessness hosted by The Seattle Times and regional funders coalition We Are In. Readers can register to watch that debate, as well as debates for city attorney, Seattle City Council and King County Council at st.news/2021Debates.
The race could be close; Harrell got 34% and González 32% of the vote in the primary.
Harrell has hosted two news conferences in parks in North Seattle near homeless encampments. He’s securing homeowners who may be left-leaning but are frustrated and feel unsafe. Harrell is a charismatic speaker and has managed to appeal to moderates.
González has tapped more into frustration about income inequality, aligning herself with advocates who want an end to encampment removals.
Former City Councilmember Nick Licata said successful local candidates focus more on appealing to a constituency than releasing the best policy plans.
“Detailed plans can get you in trouble,” said Licata, who spent 18 years on City Council until deciding not to run for reelection in 2015. “And they don’t really stimulate the vote. The proof is in the pudding — look at who passed the primaries.”
Neither candidate especially distinguished themselves on homelessness policy on the council, Licata said, but González has been a “team player,” a steady supporter of projects and budget items without a “standout performance.” While that means she’s popular with her colleagues, it also means they have been able to grab headlines before her, Licata said.
Harrell had a lower profile on the council, but his campaign spokesperson pointed to his creation of a Select Committee on Homelessness when he was council president, his sponsorship of “ban the box” legislation to protect people from being denied housing or jobs on the basis of criminal history, and budget actions “each year” related to homelessness.
Licata was not impressed with Harrell’s homelessness work while they were in City Hall, however.
“He’s been saying that Lorena’s responsible for everything that’s wrong with Seattle, (but) he hasn’t done that much,” Licata said. “Bruce is almost always in the middle, and he’s almost always agreed with everybody until the last minute when he decided how to vote.”
Harrell unveiled a homelessness plan this summer that would dedicate a minimum of half the federal resources the city receives in 2022 toward housing and help for homelessness. In the first six months, he wants to set up 1,000 shelter units, and then 1,000 more before year’s end.
Even 2,000 units of shelter wouldn’t be enough for the more than 3,700 unsheltered people in Seattle at last count. González has pointed out that the council already funded more than that this year and the city hasn’t been able to open them.
Barb Poppe, former director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who’s consulted for Seattle government, said that an investment of that size could easily be spent on solutions instead.
“If you can stand up a thousand new shelter units, why can’t you stand up a thousand new units of housing?” Poppe said. “Where are these sites that the shelters are going to be located? Are these pieces of land that could otherwise be expedited and developed for housing?”
Harrell has said if someone camping in Seattle refuses help repeatedly, there should be “consequences,” but he hasn’t specified what they would be. He stressed that he doesn’t want police on the outreach team that goes into encampments, but rather that he would staff it with more social workers and behavioral health clinicians.
“On the surface (Harrell’s) plan appears more detailed and he certainly talks a lot more about homelessness specifically, but what concerns me about his approach to homelessness is the extent to which he is tapping into popular frustration around visible homelessness to sort of drive his campaign,” said Tim Harris, founder of the street newspaper Real Change and a longtime advocate for homeless people in City Hall.
González’s plan doesn’t have as many numbers and deadlines, focusing more on root causes. She says she’d take “urgent actions” in the first 100 days but declined to specify what would actually be done at the end of that time.
González’s campaign leans on fixes that she could do or has done from her seat in City Council, such as passing a payroll tax on high earners, which is currently tied up in court, and ending single-family zoning.
González via a spokesperson blamed the city’s mayors for the inability to pass some of these measures so far. Since the mayor oversees all planners and subject matter experts at the city, they can devote the substantial time and effort it would take to drastically change the city’s zoning law, according to González.
“During my tenure on the council, we have never had that mayor, and it’s one of the reasons I decided to run,” González said in a statement.
But to some, González seems to just want to do more of what Seattle has already been doing on homelessness.
“In Lorena’s plan it just seems like the same old stuff just re-blended into a different drink,” said Art Langlie, a construction executive who’s been on the board of the local Salvation Army for nearly two decades and ran for the mayor’s seat in the primary. “Bruce’s plan I view as far more detailed. It focused on scaling up faster, although honestly I don’t think it’s fast enough. People are done with this problem.”
There are more similarities, perhaps, in what Harrell and González aren’t talking about.
Both González and Harrell hit progressive talking points about race and homelessness, calling out the fact that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately homeless in King County. But their plans don’t call out a homelessness system that has consistently shown poor results when it comes to people of color, said Johnathan Hemphill, who sits on the governing board of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and has been homeless himself.
“You’ve got two people of color running for office, and if you can’t speak freely about racism and the racism within the homelessness system, then what are we voting for you for?” Hemphill said.
They also have been quiet on perhaps the biggest Seattle policy shift on homelessness of the last five years: the creation of the Regional Homelessness Authority to fix problems that no one government could fix alone.
“Why aren’t they jumping in with both feet on that plan they helped create?” Langlie said. “None of the plans really hang together with everything going on there.”