Sheley Secrest sharply critiques the mayor’s HALA plans and works to build a community land trust
On April 20, Sheley Secrest declared her opposition to Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). At Seattle’s 46th Legislative District candidate forum, Secrest stepped out from the 10-person pack of candidates running for an open citywide seat on the Seattle City Council by showing her independence on housing issues. Her stance grows out of her experience as an African American, a community activist and a renter living in the Rainier Valley. In addition, through her work with the Seattle King County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Secrest is helping to create affordable housing in the Central Area through a community land trust, an innovative development tool based on non-profit ownership of land.
Secrest, 42, was born and raised in Seattle, is the mother of three children and has a private legal practice in criminal defense. She is running for Seattle City Council, Position Eight, which is currently held by Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who has chosen not to seek re-election.
HALA: unable to engage communities of color
Secrest’s critique of HALA starts at the beginning. In November 2014, Murray convened a 28-member task force to develop recommendations to help address Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. “I would have liked to see the HALA effort get more marginalized communities at the table,” Secrest says. “HALA wasn’t able to engage communities of color.”
Secrest believes this first mistake led to many consequences. “We need to better define what affordability looks like,” she says. “In the African American community, our median income is less.” According to city-data.com, in 2015, Seattle’s white median income was $89,000, while Seattle’s black median income was $37,000. Secrest paraphrases Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “‘African Americans are stuck on an island of poverty surrounded by a sea of prosperity.’”
HALA’s “Grand Bargain” is that developers can build bigger and taller buildings (upzones) in exchange for having to provide affordable housing in their projects or pay into a low-income housing fund. The affordable housing is available to households making up to 60 percent of Seattle’s median income or $40,000 for an individual in 2017.
“The ‘Grand Bargain’ isn’t that grand,” says Secrest. She is concerned that housing targeted to individuals making up to $40,000 will end up leaving out the poorest Seattleites. She wants more housing aimed at people earning less than $19,000 a year.
She also doesn’t believe that allowing developers to pay into a low-income housing fund is a good idea. “I’m concerned about economic segregation,” she says. “The option of paying a fee has the potential [to build] affordable housing in just certain areas of the city. That doesn’t bode well for communities of color.” She notes that segregation by income can lead to segregation by race.
Secrest was also disappointed by the mayor’s unwillingness to follow through on another of HALA’s key recommendations: allowing low-rise, multi-family housing in single-family zones. Murray withdrew the proposal in the face of protests that he attributed to “sensationalized reporting.” Secrest says, “Keeping the restrictions on single-family zoning was a missed opportunity.”
Secrest’s housing ideas: ban the box, enforce the law and develop community land trusts
Secrest also has her own ideas for how to help people get into housing. “I am a renter,” she says. “I know the challenges.” First off, she’d like to “ban the box.” She explains, “A landlord would not be able to ask a tenant about their criminal history until seeing if the tenant was qualified to rent the housing.”
In addition, she says, “Enforce existing laws!” She cites the example of people who have Section Eight vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2015, the Seattle Office of Civil Rights did fair-housing testing and found that 63 percent of people using Section Eight vouchers were treated differently from other applicants. As a result of the test, the Office of Civil Rights filed 23 charges of housing discrimination. “I’m a civil-rights advocate,” says Secrest. “Send a clear message to landlords that discrimination has no place in Seattle.”
Secrest is also involved in developing an innovative housing project in the Central Area. Through her work as the economic development chair of the NAACP (she’s also the group’s vice-president), Secrest is working to establish a community land trust (CLT) in Seattle’s Central Area.
Due to redlining, the Central Area became the home to Seattle’s African American community. Over the last forty years, the neighborhood has gentrified and its black population has shrunk from 73 percent in 1970 to 23 percent in 2010. The neighborhood’s gentrification and its black residents’ displacement has become a political flashpoint. “Can we use [a CLT] as a way to stop displacement?” Secrest asks.
CLTs are non-profit organizations that buy and hold land for community benefit. The land can be vacant or have a building on it. If a building already exists, the CLT separates the ownership of the land from the building and puts the land in trust. If the land is vacant, the CLT puts it into trust before developing it.
In this way, CLTs take the land off the market and freeze its value in perpetuity. Next if the land is vacant, the CLT develops it—either with a single-family home or multi-family housing—and sells the building or units to low-income buyers. In Seattle, the Homestead Community Land Trust is the largest and best-known example of this model.
A group of non-profits, including the NAACP, Africatown, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, Centerstone, Skyway Solutions, and the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, has received a $600,000, three-year grant from the Northwest Area Foundation to establish the groundwork for increasing the economic well-being of the African American community in Seattle and King County. The grant is completely separate from Secrest’s campaign. The group’s work will continue whether or not she wins public office.
Within the group, Secrest and others are advocating to use a CLT to develop a multi-family, low-income housing project in the Central Area. “How can we get people who wouldn’t usually own property to become homeowners?” she asks.
Like her willingness to critique HALA, her advocacy for a CLT demonstrates Secrest’s determination to try new approaches to Seattle’s housing crisis. In August’s primary election, we’ll see if voters reward her independence.
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Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.