Matthew Mitnick is running for Seattle City Council District 4. (Photo courtesy of the campaign)

Tired of “wishy-washy” Seattle politics not getting things done, Mitnick’s youth-led campaign seeks to take on the political establishment.

When asked why he is running for a seat on the Seattle City Council, Matthew Mitnick, candidate in District 4, master’s student at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy, and co-chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, doesn’t mince words.

“The political establishment in Seattle, in my opinion, has catered to the interests of corporate businesses, wealthy landowners, and those who are in the political club, and not the actual people on the ground,” Mitnick said in an interview with The Urbanist.

During our interview, I had the opportunity learn more about Mitnick’s motivation for running for elected office, positions on important issues, and the youth-led coalition that is powering his campaign. Read on to learn more about a campaign that seeks to shake up Seattle. (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

What motivated you to run for City Council?

It was a long process, honestly. Deciding to run was a little bit scary. But really it came as a result of just so many people. My colleagues and I have been organizing for the past few years here in the U District, and we tried to implement an unarmed alternative emergency response team in the U District, modeled after Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS and the CARES program in Madison, Wisconsin, and STAR in Denver.  

And we just hit road blocks because there was no political will to actually get anything done. We also tried to implement a community land trust at the excess Sound Transit parcels. There’s the state law that allows for excess land to go towards affordable housing development, and [land trusts] can actually obtain the land for free, but it didn’t move forward.

All those projects were going on while at the same time, me being a renter and a worker and feeling like the city has not supported us in terms of policy, just a wide variety of factors. And lot of youth and students were thinking it would be really cool to run for one of the city council seats, put together a campaign. A lot of those young people asked me if I’d be willing to run, and I said, hell yes.

What do you want readers of The Urbanist to know about your campaign platform? 

Our platform is under four pillars: rent control, Green New Deal, workers’ rights to unionize, and community control over policing. And I’m happy to get more in depth in terms of the policy, but I’d say what stands out most with what we’re trying to push for and what we’re telling voters is that we are not controlled by corporate interest. We’re not controlled by a political establishment. We are here to enact policy for the people on the ground.

Can you talk a little bit more about being part of a movement? 

This campaign is a youth movement. We are a coalition of college students, high school students, young people, renters, and workers. We also have a lot of advisors who’ve lived in District 4 for 30 plus years. That’s something that I’ve really thought has been understated. It’s been cool to learn from people who’ve have been in this fight and are able to give their perspective, but us, as young people, we are acting with a sense of urgency.

That honestly just defines how I organize, and how I’ve balanced my role on the Seattle Human Rights Commission. Everyone is always willing to do a study. They’re always willing to do a report. Maybe they’re even willing to do a pilot program. But community knows what their needs are, and they’ve been articulating that very loudly.  And those in power, in my opinion, have gaslit those concerns. They’ve politicized those concerns, and they’ve not addressed them. And these concerns are how people can survive.

Our coalition represents that. We have over a hundred people who’ve already signed up to volunteer. For many of them, this is their first time ever engaging with the political campaign or in the political process. And I think there’s a variety of reasons behind that, partly because our base is primarily young people who are volunteering their time, who are wanting to get involved in this movement. But, the way I perceive electeds, like this isn’t just some personal vendetta trip or for my ego. Our policies are crafted by our team and by people who actually have lived experiences with these policies. 

You have described yourself as an abolitionist. Can you explain what that term means to you? 

For me, it means that public safety should not be driven by the police. The police will not keep us safe. The community will keep us safe. And, I’d be curious what the full stances of my opponents on this would be.

It’s funny. So many people try to advise on these campaigns and they’re like, oh, the abolitionist terminology or even promoting these ideas will hurt you with voters. And really I think that is part of the trick that the establishment has tried to put this idea under.

We want to actually fund public safety and get people response. So, I’d say in terms of abolition, I just don’t think that a punitive carceral system actually keeps anyone safe. It doesn’t address long-standing cycles of trauma, abuse, harm, and that the police, they don’t exist to actually protect us. It’s to maintain control and power among the hands of the wealthy, White landowners.  

You know, abolition is a very loaded term, as you indicated. And, and that’s why we’re, we’re pushing for unarmed civilian public safety response teams, but also police accountability in the short term is something that needs to happen.

Is there anything else you’d want to say in regards to public safety?

There needs to be justice no matter what direction we go with policing. Justice needs to happen for impacted people and families. And, through my work on the Seattle Human Rights Commission…it’s been very clear to me when doing this work, the Community Police Commission, the Office of Police Accountability [OPA] in the Office of Inspector General [OIG], it’s all a scam. They all exist in a feedback loop to help each other.  

Think about it, like the OPA, you have cops investigating cops, because the cops are part of that. And then you have oversight for the oversight with the [OIG]. So my whole opinion on police accountability is we need impacted families and impacted persons, because if we’re actually gonna be talking about relevant facts, we need to hear it from the people directly. And we need to declassify OPA documents. We need a civilian oversight board that actually has the power to hire and fire cops, that can listen to complaints, that can review incidents. We need to demilitarize the police. It’s my stance that to deal with gun violence, first we need to disarm the police because they instigate a lot of these issues.  

The last thing I’ll say about public safety is the built environment also is a huge factor of that. There’s hostile architecture throughout this entire city. We need more safe parking spaces for RVs. We need complete streets. We need safe streets because people are dying like literally all over the place because of our infrastructure. Also, stopping the sweeps, that’s also a main part of my policy because it’s a waste of money to [sweep] people. It is just an ongoing cycle that doesn’t actually address the root concerns here.

In regards to stopping the sweeps, how would you reprioritize the City’s efforts to address homelessness?

First and foremost, we need to have a housing first approach when it comes to this. And if we actually were able to get people housed, people wouldn’t be living on the streets in the first place. And in the city you have roughly like 30,000 vacant units. And, if you just did a vacant unit tax, modeled after what Oakland did, we could raise like… Let’s say you do $5,000 per year per vacant lot or $3,000 per vacant unit, and you could raise about a hundred million dollars through that. And that could be utilized to either house people in those vacant units or you could build new housing.

But the $30 million that is going towards sweeps should be repurposed into actually funding case managers, social workers, having one point of contact for people to get the services that they need.  

We also need safe injection sites. That’s a really, really big thing that District 4 could definitely benefit from. Safe disposal boxes, public restrooms, trash cans, these are like basic infrastructure things that so many other countries have, but are not present here in this city. And if people are concerned with trash being all over the place, and people going to the restroom on the streets, that’s literally just because our infrastructure is not built in a way that can actually accommodate people.

I’d like to circle back for a second. The vacancy tax idea has become something that distinguishes your campaign. But you also mentioned potentially housing people in the vacant units. Is that something that you’ve seen in practice anywhere, like Oakland? How would that work exactly?  

I guess there’s several different approaches to the vacancy tax. I guess to start, it’s a way for a progressive revenue stream where we could raise a significant amount of money. And then also what it would do is if there’s vacant units and these landlords don’t want to pay the vacancy tax, they’ll lower the rents. So it’s effectively a rent stabilization tool as well.

In terms of the housing method I just shared, I kind of was inspired by how in the pandemic a lot of cities were repurposing — they were buying up hotels and motels that were largely vacant and repurposing those into being rooms for people. So that’s just the thought I’ve had. You know, a lot of these highrises are coming in and there’s a lot of vacant units.  

Rather than having to pay the fee, you could give the option to the developer that the city will pay to house someone here for three months or so as they work to get them in a permanent housing. Because if you look at the money we’re spending, we are spending more money to sweep people, to arrest people, to create harm, then it would be to actually just house them. So there should be nobody on the streets if we have more vacant units than people on the streets.

What do you think the city should be doing to create more housing options as we look to the major update to the Comprehensive Plan in 2024? 

We need to build more housing. While we do have more vacant units than people who are unhoused, there’s also a need for housing because a lot of people that who work in Seattle live outside of Seattle because they can’t afford to live in Seattle. More people are coming to the region. So yeah, we need to build a lot more housing. And I think that starts with social housing. I’m really excited that social housing Initiative 135 passed. I was a field organizer during the signature gathering phase and I remember long days collecting signatures at Folklife and the farmer’s market.

With social housing there’s no profit involved and that’s kind of my biggest thing. Housing is a human right. And in my opinion, that means there should be no profit at all when it comes to housing.

There are so many policy levers we have at our disposal that we could use to expand housing options. And I think with that comes expediting housing development. I am against design review. I think we just need to go end it entirely. It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money, it just uses a barrier to prevent things like land trust or social housing or affordable options from happening. That’s why all regulatory barriers for multi-family development need to go.

What other ideas do you have to raise revenue for the policies you would like to enact?

I know there’s a lot of restrictions in Washington State with taxing, but I think there are some loopholes we can find, like a capital gains tax on those making over $750,000. It would also be interesting to explore a millionaire’s tax on certain assets. LA recently did a mansion tax, which I’m pretty sure would be illegal in Washington State, but I think like if on the sale of a mansion with a value over $4 million, if that somehow could be taxed, that’s another revenue stream. But I don’t know if that one is fully legal.

Being on a council that is composed of members with different types of ideological viewpoints and positions, what would you see your role as and how would you see yourself working with other councilmembers? 

Well I guess to to start, our coalition does not take excuses. And that’s something I’ve seen on the Human Rights Commission where people have told me privately that their personally against sweeps, but they are not gonna vote to oppose them because it would anger the mayor or because of optics, or their job. The biggest thing with me is I’m not looking to move up to any higher office or play the game. I’m only interested in getting things done.

The way that our coalition would interact with City Hall is we would bring in people into the conversation who’ve not been heard. As a councilmember, you have access, and it is, in my opinion, the role of councilmembers to use that access to get people in the room who have the lived experiences and knowledge.  

That’s sort of our approach and I’m willing to work with anyone. I know that things have been very divided in recent years and I don’t really believe in, you know, slapping a label on someone and being like, because you’re a Democrat, I’m not working with you or you’re a Republican, I’m not working with you. I’m not really about that. It’s more, here are the issues, what can we do? And, and our coalition wants to lead as a coalition and make sure that we are accountable to the community that supported us and that is living in this district.  

I guess the last thing I’ll say is that also means being uncompromising. If there’s an issue that I know impacts my community, I’m not gonna just abandon them or play both sides or be wishy-washy. That, that’s been my biggest frustration with Seattle politics. People are always afraid to actually fight for what they believe in or for what the needs are on the ground because they’re worried about angering the mayor, or someone else higher up, that kind of thing. We will be there to fight for the community and that’s all we want to do.  

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. 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.