Stand on a street corner just about anywhere in Seattle, ask passersby about the city’s primary election and you’ll hear the same thing again and again.
In Othello. In Ballard. At University Village. In South Park. Many voters are concerned about housing costs and homelessness, which makes sense.
Seattle declared a homelessness emergency six years ago, and large numbers of people are still living in tents. The median sale price for a house is nearing $1 million, while the COVID-19 pandemic has saddled some renters with debt and eviction fears.
Less clear to many voters is how City Hall should handle Seattle’s most pressing challenges and which candidates can be trusted to make progress.
Some residents know whom they’re choosing in the races for mayor, City Council and city attorney, and they told Seattle Times reporters who visited four different neighborhoods to speak with voters this past week. More are undecided, with ballots due Aug. 3.
Homelessness and housing costs dominated responses in a recent poll that asked likely primary voters to describe their priorities for Seattle’s next mayor. In anonline poll conducted this month for the Northwest Progressive Institute, 68% of respondents mentioned homelessness in answering the open-ended question and 13% mentioned housing costs.
Some voters want to see new leaders at City Hall, while others value experience. Many are at sea, grasping for answers. As of Friday, 5% of Seattle ballots had been returned.
“I don’t know how we’re going to deal with the housing and homelessness situation,” said Paula Johnson, a 47-year-old former librarian visiting University Village. “But it’s definitely on my mind.”
Every 10 minutes, trains pull into South Seattle’s Othello light-rail station, where shiny new apartment buildings rub shoulders with pho restaurants and beauty salons in strip malls.
William Wallace, a public health adviser who lives near the station, said Tuesday he was just starting to research the mayoral candidates.
“I’m looking for someone to help the homeless population,” particularly with mental health and substance abuse services, the 22-year-old said. “Being out in the city and seeing [homelessness] everywhere, we have to try harder.”
Wallace said he was interested in mayoral candidate Andrew Grant Houston, a 32-year-old architect who wants to site 2,500 tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness and who has accumulated rent debt during the pandemic. “He understands that people are struggling,” Wallace said.
For Ashley Carpitcher, the election is connected to homelessness in a personal way. The 47-year-old is voting for Colleen Echohawk, who helped secured an apartment for Carpitcher in Othello.
Carpitcher and her children had been living on the streets. Until recently, Echohawk led the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit that works with Native people.
“I know Colleen because I saw her every day. I would go shower [at the Chief Seattle Club],” said Carpitcher, who just started a job with the nonprofit. “Colleen is one of those people who helps people.”
Jesse Robbins, a 39-year-old stay-at-home dad at Othello Park, is looking for leaders who understand that zoning changes can combat homelessness by allowing more apartments to be constructed.
“Making sure that everyone, up and down the economic spectrum, has a place to live,” said Robbins, who’s considering Council President M. Lorena González for mayor, among other candidates.
Not every voter is focused on homelessness. Sanjiv Doreswamy lives near the Othello light-rail station and works at the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, which lends to small businesses and nonprofits. He’s voting for former Council President Bruce Harrell.
“Seattle politicians need to be a little more business-friendly and a little less crazy,” said the 49-year-old.
Seattle’s stringent labor standards have raised costs for small businesses, said Doreswamy, calling Harrell a “pro-business” bridge builder.
Abi Moussa, 25, is less concerned about the city’s business climate. The day care worker thinks teachers, students and renters deserve “more support,” perhaps from higher taxes on large corporations and wealthy people like Amazon boss Jeff Bezos.
“Why can [Bezos] go to space? Where else could that money have gone?” Moussa said, walking past Othello Park with a friend.
When a heat wave struck last month, Christal Yuen worried about unsheltered people in Ballard, where she lives, and across Seattle. The city set up cooling centers, but the website editor thought people living outside might not know where to go.
The 31-year-old wasn’t sure Wednesday whom she would be voting for. She said she wanted to support candidates willing to increase homeless outreach and allow social workers to tackle some street-level challenges, rather than police officers, she said as she walked her dog before work.
“The police have become kind of a catchall” for the city’s problems, Yuen said. She hopes Seattle’s next leaders will address concerns raised during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Taking walks around Ballard has helped Mae Mills stay active. The 68-year-old has curtailed her strolls recently, however, because she finds the tents and trash in certain areas depressing, she said.
It’s not that Mills lacks compassion. She spent 15 years volunteering in shelters and lives in an apartment building for low-income seniors. But she thinks City Hall has allowed homelessness to spiral “out of control.”
More attention must be paid to root causes, she said, not sure who to support in the primary.
“There is something that is pushing people to the point” where they end up on the streets, Mills said.
Jenise Crane remembers when local leaders announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness. That deadline came and went, noted Crane, wondering whether it’s realistic to expect City Hall to solve a crisis of national proportions.
“Our economy, our social system is broken,” said the View Ridge resident, waiting for a prescription in the University Village shopping center on Thursday, where visitors milled between chain stores like J. Crew, Pottery Barn and Sephora.
In the mayoral race, Crane initially leaned toward Casey Sixkiller, a deputy mayor under outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan, thinking his insider knowledge might help. But the 65-year-old may be swayed to support González, who touts relationships with council members, she said.
“I’m going to talk to my stepsons” about who to choose, “because they’re going to be around longer,” Crane said.
Pollene Speed McIntyre is voting for Harrell because she thinks he can “bring people together,” she said on a trip to the shopping center.
The Mount Baker resident was disappointed with González and other council members when police Chief Carmen Best retired amid debate over layoffs.
Partly because Best was the first Black woman in the job, “That put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, particularly in the Black community,” said Speed McIntyre, who declined to share her age.
Harrell and former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell seem like capable mayoral candidates who appear to be focused on homelessness, said Lee Oatey, relaxing at an outdoor table in University Village.
The crisis is “getting worse and worse” downtown and at Green Lake, where the 77-year-old, who worked with investments before retiring, likes to go swimming, he said.
“We’ve spent a lot of money already,” the Hawthorne Hills resident said.
Walking home from a coffee shop in her neighborhood next to the Duwamish Waterway on Tuesday, Kaileah Baldwin called Andrew Grant Houston her obvious choice for mayor because his aims align with her own socialist views.
“Many of the other candidates are kowtowing to businesses,” rather than making sure ordinary residents have what they need, said the 29-year-old, who works for a policy advocacy nonprofit.
Baldwin supported the JumpStart Seattle tax that the council adopted last year. The measure targets big businesses like Amazon and is expected to raise more than $200 million annually for affordable housing and other services.
The city’s next mayor must ensure the money “actually makes it to those places,” she said.
Like so many Seattle voters, musician Bob Neale, 69, is thinking about homelessness. The South Park resident thinks better mental health services should be established to help prevent people from becoming homeless.
People should not be allowed to camp on public land, however, Neale said.
“I don’t think they should be thrown in jail,” he said. “But I’d like to see a harder line be drawn.”
Rent increases have driven longtime residents out, said Jeremiah Cooper, 33, who stopped to look at a poster advertising council candidate Nikkita Oliver, an educator and attorney.
The poverty rate in South Park is double the citywide rate, according to a 2018 report. Cooper said City Hall must try to make housing more affordable.
He also said City Hall should spend more on drug rehabilitation and programs that keep young people away from the streets.
“People want to see their leaders show up to the ‘rough areas,’ ” said the personal trainer. “We wanna see some action.”