Rise of the renter? Tenants Union director Jon Grant makes bid for Seattle City Council

City Council candidate Jon Grant (Image: Casey Jaywork)

City Council candidate Jon Grant (Image: Casey Jaywork)

Housing: after food, air and water, a safe place to lay your head may be the most basic of human needs. But with the fastest-growing rents in the country and a ballooning homeless population, Seattle is becoming home to fewer and fewer homes for the poor and working class.

Jon Grant aims to change that. Campaigning for city council on a three-plank platform of affordable housing, police reform, and public campaign financing, the executive director of the WA Tenants Union presents himself as a scrappy underdog taking on the city’s complacent status quo.

“It would be one thing if the incumbents were do-nothing,” Grant told CHS shortly after declaring his candidacy. “[But] they’re actively aiding and abetting developers in getting out of paying into affordable housing.”

Incumbent and former council president Sally Clark.

Incumbent and former council president Sally Clark.

Grant will be running for one of two city-wide seats (the other seven are elected by district), against either current council president Tim Burgess or former president and current councilor Sally Clark. Both, he said, have failed lower-income renters and shown “wholesale deference to developers” in recent years.

He pointed to 2013’s South Lake Union upzone controversy as evidence: Clark and Burgess called on developers to set aside about $18 per square foot to fund affordable housing, while uber-liberal councilor Nick Licata argued for something closer to $100 per foot, which he said was more commensurate with what other cities were doing.

The council eventually settled on Mike O’Brien’s compromise of $21.68. For Grant, that’s $75 per foot down the toilet.

“Once those buildings are built,” he said, “we can’t go back and ask for that money again.”

With real progressives like himself on the council, Grant said, such discounted public giveaways will be harder for business lobbies to push through.

In addition to his hawkish attitude toward developers, Grant specifically wants the city to use its bonding authority — that is, its ability to take out low-interest loans — to provide a funding source for affordable housing. With this infusion of city money to private nonprofits and “quasi-governmental” groups like Capitol Hill Housing, Seattle rents would make less of a killing for investors and provide more of a living for renters. Grant also wants the city to pressure Olympia to allow rent control (or “rent stabilization,” as he calls it). And he wants to see a “robust principal reduction program” to help homeowners with underwater mortgages.

But the only way any of that will happen, according to Grant, is if voters elect new, “bold” leadership to the council.

“There is a feedback loop between the development that’s happening in the city and the people who get elected and then encourage that same development,” Grant said, pointing to the campaign money Burgess and Clark both receive from developer and real estate interests. By contrast, Grant pledges to take no contributions from developers.

Dealing with this “feedback loop” is the second plank of Grant’s platform: campaign finance reform. This might not sound sexy, but it’s definitely relevant. A Princeton study last year found that the US is more or less an oligarchy in which Mammon rules while “the American public [wields] little influence over the policies our government adopts.”

To bring the people back into city hall, Grant supports a public financing model similar to the one proposed by Mike O’Brien last year. The Stranger described O’Brien’s plan this way:

If a candidate could get hundreds of small donations to demonstrate he or she was serious and had support, the city would then match that small money pile sixfold, giving the candidate enough of a war chest to be relatively competitive against the people who are funded by maxed-out political checks.

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Council president Tim Burgess.

Here, Grant again conflicts with Burgess, who used his authority as council president to keep O’Brien’s proposal off the council’s agenda. At the time, Burgess said he didn’t want to give voters ‘tax fatigue’ and thereby place at risk his own plan to expand the city’s preschools.

On the third and final plank of his platform — Seattle’s beleaguered and beleaguering police department –Grant’s position is straightforward: follow the Community Police Commission’s recommendations, starting with independent oversight of officer discipline. ”Right now with the [in-house] Disciplinary Review Board, it’s cops policing cops,” he said. “That’s gotta be a top priority.” He also acknowledged that communities of color and black men in particular are “target[ed]” by police, and said that it’s “pretty clear” SPD used inappropriate surveillance to illegally quash #BlackLivesMatter protests.

Earlier this month, Burgess told CHS that Seattle has “one of the best civilian oversight systems in the whole country” and pointed to the federal monitor and the CPC as examples. Grant’s response? “I’m shocked to hear him say that.”

Grant pointed out that both the monitor and the CPC aren’t “something that we did, it is something that was done to us” by the DoJ and court mandate. “It is definitively the case that we do not have the best system,” he said.

November’s election, said Grant, isn’t about rent or police or campaign finance as disparate issues. It’s about how they connect to each other, creating a situation where the public is peripheral to decisions made in its name.

“It shouldn’t be the case that the community has to lobby city hall four times as hard [as business] to get the things we need to survive in this city,” Grant said. “It should be the other way around.”

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8 thoughts on “Rise of the renter? Tenants Union director Jon Grant makes bid for Seattle City Council

  1. Burgess already has a solid, pro tenant and pro labor challenger. It would be a shame if Grant jumped in and made it a three-way race, while Clark remains with no credible opposition.

  2. Sigh. I just want a decent candidate who actually understands that business needs to exist and be financially sustainable in order to properly keep the City running. Populist rhetoric is tiring.

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