Before her candidacy for mayor of Seattle, Nikkita Oliver clashed with the incumbent over housing and police reform
On March 22, 2016, Seattle Channel and KCTS 9 co-produced a forum, “Race, Justice & Democracy: Where Do We Stand?” presented in partnership with Seattle CityClub and Town Hall Seattle. KCTS 9’s Enrique Cerna hosted the event. Panelists included Mayor Ed Murray and Black Lives Matter activist, lawyer, poet and teacher Nikkita Oliver.
The following is a very edited version of Murray’s and Oliver’s remarks at the forum, which lasted 90 minutes. I have not fact checked the speakers’ remarks.
Affordable housing: racism and HALA
Enrique Cerna [EC]: Mr. Mayor, we are the third fasting growing city in the country. We have an economic boom going on here, but the challenge is that we also have gentrification happening. We have people being pushed out of the city. We have people unable to afford to live in the city. How can you change that?
Mayor Ed Murray (EM): We put together an affordable housing group better known as HALA. One of the recommendations was that Seattle needed to address the racist nature of our housing. If you look at a map of redlining and you look at a map today of Seattle, or you look at a map of covenants from the 1930s and you look at a map of Seattle today; they are basically the same. This is a city that has remained segregated by neighborhood. The HALA group had the courage to step up and say, “This is something we need to address.” We were immediately hammered in the media for accusing folks of being racist.
Seattle has put a proposal on the table that will create more affordable housing that any city in America. The pushback is pretty significant. It usually involves discussion around loss of single-family neighborhoods. Part of that is the fear, “Oh my god, we are just going to plow the city under.” The fear is also that somehow the character of those neighborhoods will change. And our single-family neighborhoods are mostly white. If we want affordable housing, if we want to address gentrification, that means a diversification of how our neighborhoods look and the type of housing stock we have in them.
Nikkita Oliver (NO): [Seattle] did have racialized housing covenants prior to [1948’s] Shelley v. Kraemer, which said those are unconstitutional and they were no longer allowed to be enforced by law. But they were enforced by private contract between people.
Black folks had been confined to the Central District—which was just 10 census tracts of Seattle — it was the only place where black people could get any property or find any housing.
Prior to the 1940s, Seattle got its first public housing. The Seattle Housing Authority thought itself so progressive because they did not have segregated public housing. But what they did have was a quota: they could only allow so many black people to live there. Even though black folks were the ones least likely to find housing in the city.
I looked at HALA and I wanted to understand better what it meant. I did a little bit of digging and I found that not only does the discussion with single-family zoning need to happen about how those areas need to change. There has actually not been a lot of push on those areas to change. Their pushback was, “We don’t want those people here, they will make our neighborhoods less viable.” What that meant was that we moved to this concept of urban villages.
[Next, Oliver talks about the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program that is the heart of HALA. Under MHA, developers of new properties must include housing for working people earning up to 60 percent of Seattle’s median income or pay into a low-income housing fund.]
The median income of Seattle is $70,200, as of 2013. But the Black/African American median income is $25,700. In order to get that housing at the 60 percent, you would have to make almost $45,000 a year. Even if you get $13.00 an hour or eventually $15.00, you are only making about $31,200 a year if you work every single day that you are able to work. None of us do that. We get sick, families need things, things happen.
The reality is while the policy looks progressive, it sounds progressive on paper, the impact doesn’t actually serve the people who need it most, which are people of color and low-wage folks in our city. It doesn’t create the outcome that we most need. It does not make white people or wealthy people be uncomfortable. In fact, white and wealthy people get to continue to dictate what the policy looks like. Black and brown folks and poor folks have to be the ones sacrificing in order to allow this city to have the equilibrium of comfort that it has had for over 100 years.
EM: I have to disagree a bit. We have identified 20,000 affordable housing units that we need, including at the very low end. That would be triple what we are doing today.
Six thousand of those are [going to be created] through the inclusionary upzones [or MHA]. The other parts include doubling the housing levy, which will create housing for the lowest income people. A whole raft of advocates, immigrant organizations, advocates for people of color and civil right groups have signed onto HALA , because it is the most aggressive affordable-housing [program] in America.
Seattle Police Department and communities of color
EC: Has there been progress in the Seattle Police Department [SPD] and communities of color in bridging the gap of distrust?
EM: Some. You don’t take decades of institutional racism; you don’t take decades of a certain type of policing; you don’t take centuries of distrust between policing authorities and communities of color and change that overnight.
When I came into office, this city was fighting with the civil rights division of the [U.S.] Justice Department. We were put under a consent decree. I made a commitment that we would cooperate. We are getting some of the reports back from the federal monitor, the federal court and the U.S. Attorney that say we are making progress. This change is not going to happen overnight and it is not going to be easy.
EC: Should there not be an effort to hire officers of color?
EM: Yes. The most recent recruitment class [of the SPD] has the largest number of people of color that have been brought into the police force. The number was around 30 percent. It is step by step.
[The SPD officers] don’t just get that training that the Justice Department is requiring when they start. They get it every few years. It’s not just about training.
That trust [between SPD and communities of color] is not going to be built easily. It’s not going to built overnight. And it’s not going to simply be about training by itself.
I have a short time to have this job. Mayors in Seattle don’t last very long. In this short time, if I can move that conversation forward, I have got to try. The issue of race and policing is core to what we are talking about in this country. I have spent a lot of time, trying to listen and hear how we get this thing right.
NO: I don’t think we ever go far enough when discussing the issues of policing. I appreciate you acknowledging there are communities where there has never been trust. We don’t ask why was there never trust? The police force was built out of the slave patrols to police black people and Native people. It’s out of a root of us being viewed as property. In this city, in a lot of ways, black folks, Native folks and Asian communities are viewed as a sort of cultural property. And we are policed in that way. We are used as cultural tourism. We stamp Chief Sealth’s face on our documents and yet the Duwamish remain unrecognized.
When we talk about issues of policing, we have really got to dig deep into why that distrust exists. Why would I ever want to trust a police officer, when my experience of police officers, regardless of [whether the officer is] black, brown or white has been that they are there to police my actions?
I know there are white people who [say], “Police officers are here for my safety. When I call them, they come and they help me with my property.” That’s very real for you, but my experience of police has never been that. And I’m light skinned, I’m an attorney, I have education.
The next question we have to ask ourselves is why do we still not view other people as human enough to hear their experiences, their stories and their encounters with police enough to say we are going to invest in far more than incremental changes when it comes to the police force. We will disarm them. If you are one of the 200 cops that signed onto that lawsuit opposing the consent decree — you are going to go, because clearly, you really want to use force.
We have to dig deeper.
Closing statements: white supremacy and seeing one another
EM: On police, we want to get this right. No mayor or councilmember has a background in policing. I know I didn’t. It’s not going to be easy. We need to be challenged. This has been a very challenging conversation, but I enjoyed it.
The arc of this has to be that we see each other too. We don’t want to say this cause is relative to this cause. [We don’t want to say] the experience of anti-Semitism is the same as the African American [experience or] the experience of anti-Catholicism or my experience growing up in this city as a gay person. But if we don’t see each other in each other’s experiences, I don’t know how we are going to be able to move forward.
NO: Wrapping up what cannot be wrapped up. Black and brown folks have been asking to be seen for a long time. We tell our stories and we are often met with, “I’d like to see the data.” Or “I don’t see it that way. I’ve never experienced that.”
What I think would begin to turn the tide is [first] white folks really have got to dig into their internalized white supremacy. [They] have allowed themselves to think subconsciously they are better than someone else. Second, we have to learn to accept people’s stories and experiences for what they are. I see a lot of community organizers in this room. There are a lot of changes that have been made in Seattle — not because the city wanted to make them but because grassroots community organizers said, “We will not be silenced until we are heard.”