The MASS Coalition hosted the District 3 debate at the Washington Labor Council. Photo by author.

It was standing room only at the District 3 Seattle City Council forum at the Washington Labor Council last Thursday. A growing pool of candidates hashed out their campaign platforms before a responsive crowd during the second debate sponsored by the MASS Coalition, of which The Urbanist is a member.

Not so long ago the race for D3–which includes neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, First Hill, the Central District, and Madison Valley–was a relatively sleepy one. As one of only three city council races with an incumbent, D3 received relatively scant attention–although Logan Bowers was making waves as solo-wheel riding cannabis business owner banging the drum for single-family zoning reform.

Seattle City Council District 3 Map. Credit: King County

But then Bowers got company. The late entry of Seattle School Board member Zachary DeWolf and Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and the Broadway Business Improvement Area director Egan Orion broadened the field of D3 contenders, stirring up conversation around Sawant’s tenure on the council. These candidates, alongside previously declared candidates like public defender Ami Nguyen and longtime public safety activist Pat Murakami, have not been subtle about questioning Sawant’s effectiveness as a councilmember.

If the energy present at the MASS coalition debate proves anything, it is that D3 voters have some choices to consider in the race. While Sawant stuck close to her Socialist Alternative party platform, decrying “corporate politicians” and extolling the public to “rise up in a grassroots movement” to fight for her signature issues of rent control and expansion of social housing, her opponents largely defended her objectives, but offered up different solutions for how to achieve them.

In fact, when compared to the recent District 6 debate, the D3 debate felt like a bit of a policy salon in which candidates floated their different visions of what strategies could help Seattle more effectively address critical equity and sustainability problems. The result was a conversation that veered from realism to near fantasy, particularly in the case of Murakami, who in a memorable moment pitched the idea of building a network of covered bike streets.

District 3 city council candidates from left to right: Logan Bowers, Zachary DeWolf, Pat Murakami, Ami Nguyen, Egan Orion, and incumbent Kshama Sawant. Photo by author.

Land use, zoning, and affordable housing

Not so long ago land use policy discussion in Seattle centered on the conversation around upzones tied to Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program. These upzones were targeted at urban villages and center, while leaving about 70% of the city’s developable land for single family zoning alone. But times have changed, and increased scrutiny over the fact that MHA upzones do little to allow for construction of “missing middle housing” like row houses, townhomes, and courtyard apartments, has led a renewed charge to further amend the Seattle’s zoning codes.

During the D3 debate there was a lot of love in the room for missing middle housing. Bowers, who has made zoning reform a centerpiece of his campaign, was perhaps the most bullish about the criticizing the current council’s approach to land use, but all of the candidates seemed to agree about the need to add density throughout Seattle’s single family neighborhoods.

Ideas on exactly how to add that density differed a bit. DeWolf emphasized the need to add more affordable homes near Seattle Public Schools and promoted the idea of upzoning a two to three block radius surrounding public schools for duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes. In addition to praising Minneapolis-style upzones that would remove single family zoning throughout the city, Bowers argued that more commercial zoning needs to be integrated into residential zones with the goal of a creating a “100% walkable city.”

“Every Seattleite deserves to have groceries, childcare, and a third place like a café or restaurant walking distance from where they live,” Bowers said.

Murakami, who has been a critic of MHA, expressed the desire to do away with deed in lieu payments under MHA that allow for developers to pay into a housing fund rather than develop affordable units on site. As the only candidate who did not express support for allow duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in single family zones, Murakami instead said she hoped that the young people in the room would “one day have the chance to own a single family home,” and suggested the City enact a policy to encourage the construction of basement apartments in single family homes that would be rent controlled at $650 per month.

While Nguyen and Orion both expressed support for allowing missing middle housing in single family zones, Nguyen went a step further to describe her desire to see the City do more to consider how upzones could negatively impact communities of color. She also advocated for property tax relief for low-income property owners at risk of displacement.

While Sawant, who has been an advocate for density during her tenure on the council, agreed that greater housing density was needed, she did not suggest specific zoning reforms. Instead she emphasized that “increasing density on a for profit basis [was] not going to solve the problem,” and also repeated her belief that taxing big businesses offers the best solution for Seattle’s housing woes.

When it came to the topic of the Seattle’s proposed accessory dwelling unit reform, all of the candidates except for Murakami voiced support for the plan, although Murkami later qualified that she would support the plan if it followed Portland’s model rather than the one currently put forth by the City of Seattle.

On the topic of rent control, Bowers was the only candidate to oppose enacting a rent control policy in Seattle. Candidates did not explain what kind of specific rent control policies they would support or oppose. State Representative Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) proposed a repeal of Washington State’s ban on rent control during the 2018 legislative session, but her bill didn’t make it out of committee and was not reintroduced in 2019.

Transportation and climate policy

Expanding mass transit was promoted as primary goal throughout the debate by all of the candidates. Completing the Center City Connector streetcar and allowing for scootershare on Seattle’s streets were specific points of agreement, while some differences arose on the topic of congestion pricing and transportation impact fees.

Bowers, DeWolf, Murakami, and Orion all supported implementing a congestion fee on vehicles entering the downtown, while Sawant and Nguyen declined, although Sawant’s remarks made it seem that she might be open to the idea if the fee were used to expand mass transit.

Charging developers impacts fees and using that money to fund transportation projects was favored by DeWolf, Murakami, Orion, and Sawant. Bowers, who earlier in the debate stated that he believed that “we can solve the [housing] problem without public dollars if we zone correctly,” was against transportation impact fees, likely because such fees could possibly slow down housing production. Nguyen was also opposed, although she did not explain her position.

Somewhat surprisingly for a race in which opponents have criticized Sawant for being neglectful of her district, the debate largely stuck to a discussion of city-wide topics. The question of what D3 transportation project the candidates felt was most important offered rare insight into their local priorities. DeWolf and Sawant both described increasing pedestrian safety near schools as a top priority, with DeWolf going a step further to call for exploring possible school-bus-only lanes to operate during school commute hours.

Creating a connected bike network throughout the district was also popular with Bowers calling for building bike facilities “safe enough to bike with a child,” and Orion calling for increased discussion between advocates and business owners around the design of a planned protected bike lane on East Union Street.

While other candidates called for completing the RapidRide G line would bring bus rapid transit to Madison Street, Murakami suggested Seattle explore implementing trackless trains that run on virtual rails similar to projects that have been undertaken in China and consider install the trackless trains on historic trolley lines, such as the one that ran on South Jackson Street.

The necessity of taking more rigorous action to fight climate change was a point agreement among the candidates who also seemed to be in agreement that zoning changes and increasing mass transit offered the best tools for reducing Seattle’s carbon footprint.

Despite the fact that the City of Seattle has not been meeting its declared climate goals, Sawant did not reference the logistical and political difficulties that have slowed down climate action. She did, however, make “climate catastrophe” the focal point of her end remarks, emphasizing that a grassroots movement similar to the one that achieved the $15 minimum wage was needed to win the fight against climate change.

Racial equity and community safety

Half of the candidates in the D3 race are women and/or candidates of color. Throughout the evening discussion of the racist legacy of redlining was raised, a topic of special significance in D3, where redlining confined Jewish, Asian, and Black residents to the owning property in the neighborhood known as the Central District for decades. In 1960, more than 90% of Seattle’s Black population lived in the Central District because redlining and racial covenants preventing them from being able to live elsewhere in the city.

The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen referenced the fact she grew up in Section 8 housing during her remarks and likened current conversations in which property owners express fears over low-income housing decreasing their property values to exclusionary practices of the past, including redlining. Nguyen called for creating a housing affirmative action department within the City that would “sue landlords that discriminate against people of color and section 8 renters.”

Fourth generation District 3 resident Egan Orion, who is white, expressed that he is “deeply committed to keeping the diversity of [his] neighborhood,” and called for policies and programs that would increase trust and community connections, particularly in the area of law enforcement.

As an advocate for the homeless, Chippewa Cree nation member DeWolf, called for enacting a series of progressive taxes to fund homeless services, including a payroll tax, local estate tax, and a city based expansion of the Real Estate Excise Tax. In a nod to equity concerns, DeWolf also called for restructuring city fines and fee systems so that they are based on income.

On the topic of racial equity and vulnerable communities, Bowers continued his criticism of the City’s single family zoning , which he argued, “keeps families of color out of the city and confines them to neighborhoods with more pollution.” Bowers called for “breaking down the wall of single family zoning so people can live in any neighborhood [they] choose to.” He also criticized how current polices banning quadplexes make difficult to construct the type of horizontal developments that allow for construction of ADA compliant units one the ground floor. “We are decimating affordable ADA housing, which is important for folks with disabilities and everyone that plans to be old,” Bowers said.

Recently, D3 has experienced gun violence, and the candidates were questioned on how they would try to prevent future gun violence from occurring. In general the candidates seemed to agree that more money should be spent on youth programs and services that keep children from entering into criminal activity. Murakami advocated for bringing the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods or SUN program which is being piloted some Portland elementary schools to Seattle. In the SUN program, schools are made into community hubs, offering children and families access to a “comprehensive set of services including educational, enrichment, recreational, social and health services.”

Not a lot of love for Mayor Durkan

When asked to grade Mayor Jenny Durkan’s performance on housing and transportation issues, the grades were uniformly low, mostly “C”s and “D”s.

For her opposition rezoning single family neighborhoods, Bowers awarded Durkan an “F,” but no one was as scathing of Durkan’s performance as Sawant, the only person in the room to have personally worked with the Mayor.

Sawant offered up a scathing critique of Durkan’s performance in office, awarding Durkan a grade of “F” for her performance on both housing and transportation. “She is Jeff Bezos Mayor. She is Vulcan’s mayor,” Sawant said after explaining how Durkan had led the charge to defeat the head-tax to fund homeless services that Sawant had championed.

Orion was perhaps the most lenient on Durkan, saying it was “perhaps still too early judge her performance.” Orion was also the only candidate to speak out against Sawant’s anti big business stance, saying that Seattle needs to embrace all of the potential innovation offered up by its strong tech industry. “We are one of the most innovative places in the world, a place where anything is possible,” Egan said. “And Sawant has failed to tap into that potential.”

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.