Moon, Durkan face off on homelessness, housing during first general election debate

The next Seattle mayor will hit the ground running in late November, after child sex abuse allegations resulted in Ed Murray’s early departure from office.

One of the biggest issues the incoming mayor will face is housing affordability and homelessness. That was the topic of the first general election mayoral debate between candidates Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon on Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Changing Seattle: Mayoral Candidates Debate Growth, Affordable Housing & Homelessness” was produced by the Seattle University Project of Family Homelessness and Solid Ground, and cosponsored by the Housing Development Consortium, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund.

Durkan, a former U.S. Attorney during the Obama administration, and Moon, an engineer, answered questions from a media panel. At one point, they were able to question each other.

A major issue facing Seattle is the lack of housing, and which neighborhoods to target for increased density to accommodate more development.

Crosscut’s David Kroman asked which neighborhoods should take on increased density, referring to an environmental impact statement produced for the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program. That report found households grew similarly, whether ignoring displacement risk and access to opportunity or upzoning neighborhoods with a higher displacement risk and lower opportunities less.

Neither Durkan nor Moon specifically identified the neighborhoods in Seattle that should be upzoned to increase the city’s housing supply. Durkan said there’s no question the city will continue to grow, and there is a way to ensure there is to do so “gracefully and graciously,” with affordable housing in every part of the city.

Moon said she would lean toward neighborhoods that can take additional density without causing displacement, and working with communities to prevent gentrification.

“We have done top-down planning for far too long,” she said.

Moon said she supports legislation being proposed by Councilmember Mike O’Brien that would stop penalizing people living in cars and RVs, and she believes safe lots are a good idea for meeting people with human services.

“Often for people it’s their very last shelter that they have an option to,” Moon said.

Durkan didn’t say she supported O’Brien’s proposed legislation, and rather spoke about a need for more accessible short-term shelter.

“We’re not talking about cars and vehicles,” Durkan said. “We’re talking about the people who are living there.”

Moon used one of the three challenge cards the candidates were provided, asking Durkan to answer whether she supported O’Brien’s plan.

Durkan said the legislation wasn’t finalized, and that she didn’t want to focus on “semantics.” She said some people live in vehicles because they’re preferable to the shelter services being provided.

The candidates differed when it came to opinions about sweeping unsanctioned homeless encampments. Durkan said unsanctioned encampments are unsafe, that there have been homicides and human trafficking cases. The city swept an encampment under the Spokane Street viaduct on Tuesday, which is where a man was shot and killed last month.

“I think it’s morally wrong to let people live in those conditions,” she said.

Making sure people’s property is protected and providing a place in which to store it is a priority, she said.

Durkan said she is proposing 500 emergency shelters be created in each council district through partnerships with various organizations and faith communities.

“I think people are afraid of homeless people because they don’t know how we’re working to solve the problem,” Moon said.

She said sweeps disrupt people’s lives and can put them in more danger. Moon pushed for a human services approach over a public safety response.

Seattle Times reporter Vernal Coleman asked the candidates about the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program. Under it, developers have to either include affordable housing in their projects or pay into a fund for affordable housing. Coleman asked the candidates if they worried that would result in most affordable housing being constructed on the edges of the city.

Moon said the fee developers pay should be made higher, so it incentivizes them to include affordable housing in their projects. That would create neighborhoods with diverse populations from varying income levels, she said, adding there is a need to avoid creating low-income neighborhoods that can’t support small local businesses.

The MHA program is one of more than 60 recommendations in the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which Durkan said Moon wants to restart.

“I think if we start over, we will never be able to address the crisis we have now,” Durkan said, “which is that Seattle is just not affordable.”

The city of Seattle is contending with four lawsuits against its 2.25 percent income tax on high-earners. If it is upheld in court, Durkan said the tax should be used to lower regressive taxes and for affordable housing.

Moon said she supports taxing large employers, that the wealthy and corporations need to pay their fair share. She also supports a capital gains tax and a more progressive business and occupation (B&O) tax that has less impact on small businesses.

“All of those require going to Olympia,” Durkan said, adding she’s willing to fight for such things, but believes the “chances are slim.”

“We have to be honest with voters,” she said. “We have a crisis today. We need a solution today.”

Moon said HALA is one part of addressing the city’s housing affordability and homeless crisis, but it also makes the city beholden to private developers to solve the problem.

Murray had briefly proposed a $275 million property tax measure to raise funds to fight homelessness, but dropped the idea in April to push for a county sales-tax increase.

Moon said she would not have supported the proposal, and that city voters have already approved seven property tax increases in the last six years. A possible public education-funding fix to satisfy the McCleary decision also means an additional property tax is coming, Moon said.

“For some people, their property tax bill is higher than their mortgage,” she said.

Durkan said she also doesn’t believe now is the time for another property tax increase, adding the structure of Murray’s proposal didn’t address the opiate crisis or mental health services.

“There may be a conversation later,” she said about a property tax increase, “because we need resources.”

Moon was asked to support her proposal for a speculation tax, which would aim to curb national and international interests from buying properties in Seattle and holding on to them to capitalize on the currently hot real-estate market.

“We don’t have the data because no one wants to look at it,” she said.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold had expressed to King County Assessor John Wilson an interest in identifying people using LLCs and shell companies to acquire high-end real estate, but didn’t want to “foment racial bias or resentment.”

Durkan said Seattle’s next mayor will have enough crises to handle “without making one up.” She accused Moon of targeting Chinese buyers, her campaign team later sharing a column Moon wrote with Charles Mudede for The Stranger in August 2016 that does address wealthy Chinese buyers and the housing market.

“That solution should not be based at all on where a person is from,” Durkan said.

Durkan did say properties left vacant should be taxed, which Moon pointed out was part of her proposal.

“It’s funny the way you describe the solution is exactly how I describe the solution,” Moon said.

Moon said she believes people in the Chinese community were misinformed, or possibly “maliciously misinformed.”

Durkan accepted Murray’s endorsement for mayor in June, but removed that blurb from her campaign website after he announced his resignation. She spent time during the debate stating how her approach to policy would be different.

“Anyone who has ever worked for me or with me knows I’m my own woman,” Durkan said. “The main reason I’ll be different than Mayor Murray is that I will listen to people, because that’s where the solutions are.”

Durkan criticized Murray’s Pathways Home initiative for not including enough community and organization input, and also for not properly addressing funding for addiction and mental health services.

“It is a big hole in our plans moving forward,” she said.

Kroman asked the candidates what else could be done to deter landlords from discriminating against potential tenants, citing a case in 2015 where the Seattle Office of Civil Rights found 13 properties had done so. Those landlords all received fines of $2,000 or less, Kroman said, adding that’s less than many people pay in rental move-in fees.

Moon said “institutional racism raises its head” all the time in the rental market, and she believes the city needs set rules for landlords and tools for tenants. Earlier in the debate Moon called for a “Tenants Bill of Rights.”

Durkan said she had once been unable to find an apartment because she’s gay. As U.S. Attorney, Durkan said her office did tests with people of color seeking housing to identify discriminatory landlords.

“And when that happened, we sued them and we made them accountable,” she said, adding the City of Seattle’s prior enforcement was not enough.

Often criticized as catering to single-family zoned neighborhoods, Durkan was asked how much of Seattle should continue to be zoned as such. Currently, 54 percent of the city is zoned for single-family residences.

“I don’t think you can put an acreage on how much single-family housing should be,” she said, again adding all of Seattle will be gaining density.

Moon said she wants to see the level of single-family zoning somewhere between “0 percent and a lot less than it is now.” She said she would work with neighborhoods for “gentle infill development,” suggesting the city look more seriously at mother-in-laws, duplexes and triplexes.

Moon said she would support city legislation that clearly guarantees people have a right to shelter.

“If I’m mayor,” Durkan said, “I won’t need a law to tell me that housing is a human right.”