Neil Powers interviews Nikkita Oliver

An idealist and pragmatist who would seek impact fees, and re-assessment of HALA through race and equity lens

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Nikkita Oliver began as the only serious challenger to Mayor Ed Murray.  “I got into this election when Murray was still undefeatable, when the incumbent had $300,000 already (plus PAC money),” she says.  Oliver sees her early commitment to run stands out among the progressive chorus of mayoral candidates.  This lawyer and community leader wants to do what two of Seattle’s last six mayors have done…become mayor without ever having held elective office.

She talks as an idealist and taking a pragmatic approach to getting things done.

Oliver wants to address your ever-rising property taxes, impacting renters and homeowners. She wants to do more in addressing homelessness. She wants Seattle to charge developers impact fees to help pay for infrastructure costs of development just like dozens of cities in the state, including Bellevue. Oliver wants to use bonding authority to build more public housing. She steps beyond the density all good/all bad debate. Oliver wants to develop density strategies with a race and equity lens that is respectful to neighborhoods, while not pushing people of color and others with modest incomes out of the city.  She believes in transforming the culture of policing. She flags the burden on local owned small businesses not being able to afford rental space, including at street level in new mixed-use buildings.

Oliver talks about growth.  “It goes back to that race and equity lens….acknowledge that displacement is about economics and also about when we look at whose neighborhoods who takes on what kind of density and whose neighborhoods resonate loudest at city hall,” she says.  “It is not often those neighborhoods that are black and brown.”

“When you’re putting up luxury units that people with certain incomes in the neighborhood can’t afford…..you’re not building housing for people in that neighborhood, you’re building housing for a different group of folks you want to invite in,” Oliver says. “We need to be asking private developers for 25 percent (affordable housing) at least to ensure especially when income levels are lower, that people can stay (in their communities).  Upzones are not “one size fits all neighborhoods.”  She prefers “strategic zoning” that looks at a range of zoning options when making room for growth. She wants to listen to community concerns.

“We need a wholistic approach that includes public housing, private market, market intervention strategies that deal with speculators in our market,” says Oliver.  “Then also we need to look at jobs and opportunities and a livable wage.”

She sees a key approach as using the city’s bonding authority to get the resources to develop more housing.

Oliver uses the analogy, comparing a local natural disaster to homelessness. She sees if there were urgent needs after a natural disaster, it wouldn’t make sense to call for building an expensive park, “people would be up in arms.”  Given the state of emergency for homelessness, Oliver sees assisting people out of homelessness by providing more housing as an urgent city priority.

She supports an income tax for the city’s highest earners as helping with funds for more affordable housing.  “I want to believe that our wealthier Seattleites …are not happy that people are being pushed out,” she says.

King County Assessor John Wilson questions the sustainability of increasing property taxes.  So is Oliver, with an eye on ever increasing levy measures.  “I am going to make strides on progressive tax reform,” she says. “We have too many regressive taxes and that’s what we fall back on.”  She sees helping to build a coalition of cities to address the state’s regressive tax structure.

Oliver is keenly aware of the pressure on households with limited resources. “I absolutely want us to figure out with City Council…..how we look at low income families, modest income families, working class families, how we serve them better through how we use taxes,” she says.

On the recent killing of Charleena Lyles, an African American mother and resident at Sandpoint, shot dead by responding police, Oliver points to resourcing and building stable communities where people support one another. Depending on the situation, calling 9-1-1 could be a last resort, not the first resort.

“We’ve developed a culture of policing that accepts this warrior mentality, that accepts this implicit bias as just a part of policing…it doesn’t actually challenge the policing institutions to do better,” says Oliver. “As mayor, one of the things I’d really push as we move forward from this election is transforming the culture of policing…everything from the amount of time they spend training around implicit bias to the amount of time they spend training around how do you de-escalate a mental health crisis.”

Seattle and King County are looking at task force recommendations, made up of heroin and opioid experts, to collaborate on having two safe sites for people to inject drugs.  This is similar to an effort in Vancouver, B.C. meant as a way to reduce fatal overdoses, provide medical supervision, and to encourage treatment. “Yes, we need them,” Oliver says. “I under-stand there is some community fear about it.”  She sees it as imperative for the mayor’s office to help with education. She talked of meeting a parent whose son died of an overdose, who felt such a site might have saved his son’s life.

“Evidence tells us it works, if we are really about saving lives and addressing addiction as a public health concern, a public health issue, then we need safe injection sites,” she says.

Oliver has no interest in becoming a career politician.  She talks about some people getting elected to office and “instead of changing the office, the office changes them and not in ways that are honorable.”  

She sees that unless changes are made, there are many people who won’t be able to afford living in the city.

“I have the integrity and the political will,” Oliver concludes. “This is about winning our city back and that’s different than when people jump into the race when suddenly there is an opportunity to win.”

– Neil Powers was a longtime staffer for former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck. Afterwards Powers worked at United Way of King County on homelessness. More recently he has been studying journalism in Toronto.

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About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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