International Examiner: What is your takeaway from the results of the primary election in August, for your campaign?
Tammy Morales: Well, we were very pleased with the results. I know that District 2 is one of the more progressive parts of the city, and I think it means that people are interested in having a representative who is looking for real solutions to the challenges that we have in the city.
IE: If you are re-elected, what do you see as the top issues that need addressing for the Chinatown International District (CID) heading into 2024?
TM: Well, you know, there are lots of issues that the city as a whole is dealing with, and many of them affect the CID more acutely. So there are issues around land use and affordability for sure, we know that. The median income in the CID is, I think, is something like $20,000 to $22,000 dollars. So there are some real issues that we need to make sure we’re addressing, so families can stay.
Housing affordability is definitely one of them, supporting our small businesses so that they don’t get pushed out either, I think is really an important part of why we are going to be looking at making permanent the commercial rent control that we had put in place during the pandemic. That’s a really important piece so that our local businesses are able to stay in the city.
And then we know that just in terms of the way that city operates, language access is a huge issue. This is a long standing issue. So you know, one of the things that we did, my office worked with the Department of Neighborhoods to put together a resource guide, for example, because we know that there are folks who don’t know who to call if they if they don’t want to call the police. If they witnessed somebody who’s having a crisis on the street, folks weren’t sure who to call.
We worked with the Department of Neighborhoods to create a resource guide of service providers in the neighborhood, and translated that into six or seven different Asian languages. That’s something that all of our City departments should be doing, making sure that any public facing information they have is easily accessible in different languages. So I’m actually working with the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to create a language access policy for the City, we have something as an executive order, but we’re really working to figure out how we support our City departments in increasing that kind of access.
IE: Throughout your civic work in the CID, is there a particular lesson that you’ve learned or anecdote that you could share that challenged you, or taught you something new about the neighborhood?
TM: That’s a great question. You know, I think what is challenging about this work in general, given the many ethnic groups, community groups that we have in the city, you know, I have the most diverse district in Seattle. And within any given community, it is easy to assume that everybody in the community believes the same way, has the same priorities and preferences, and that’s just not true. It wasn’t that I learned that in the CID, but I saw a few different examples of that really clearly in the last couple of years.
Whether it was the [Sound] Transit station or the response to the SoDo shelter expansion, folks don’t always agree. It is important to engage, no matter what side folks are on and then it’s my job as a council member to to move forward with what I think is best for the community itself and for the city. And that’s not always the popular thing. But you know, we really have to be thinking about how, in the case of the CID, how to make sure that we aren’t contributing to displacement, we aren’t contributing to inequity, moving forward as a city with policies and solutions that can really address the history and the legacy of zoning and redlining.
So that’s one thing. And then I think the other thing is really, for example, in the case of the the transit station, working with our partners at Sound Transit, at the county, to identify specific mitigation measures that they will commit to, because the community has been asking all along, you know, what will Sound Transit commit to, regardless of which option is chosen? That’s something that we’ll be working on and making sure that they deliver specific community benefits to the neighborhood as early as possible.
IE: Public safety has been a longstanding concern in the neighborhood, particularly Little Saigon. Do you have any new ideas for how the City could address this?
TM: This is a complex issue. There are lots of overlapping crises going on and so I think looking at alternative crisis response tools, making sure that we are actively reaching out to the organizations that are in the CID is sort of the first step, right? We have actively been doing that. There are, I think, 15 organizations that we have spoken to, we’re working with, to come together and figure out what kind of policy change we need to be advancing. And that said, we know that there are alternative crisis responses that we need.
There are things like the STAR [Support Team Assisted Response] program, in Denver, or CAHOOTS [Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets], all of the things that can provide a non-armed officer response to people who are experiencing a crisis. That’s something that we’ve been trying to do in the city for three years now. We’re pushing, pushing the executive to make sure that these sort of really proven, evidence-based solutions are implemented here.
There’s also community-based violence intervention. We’ve seen those sorts of programs like Community Passageways, the Southeast Safety Network, corner greeters down in Rainier Beach. These programs are really effective. I know that folks in the CID are interested in doing something similar. So helping create that kind of a model there is something that we’ve heard from folks. It’s important to understand that you can’t just pick up a model and move it over there. It’s very organic, so helping understand how to create something like that is going to be important.
Because so much of what we’re seeing, particularly in Little Saigon and the CID, is related to substance use, you know, the fentanyl crisis, I think the levee that we just passed at the county level is going to be an important opportunity to build places where these folks need to go in order to access treatment, and access the kind of services that can help move them off of their addiction. There are many, many steps that need to be taken and we’re pushing on all fronts.
IE: Last year, after pressure from the CID community, King County backed down from expanding new shelter and services for people experiencing homelessness in SoDo at the edge of the CID. What is your takeaway from the way this unfolded? What is its significance or lessons learned?
TM: Well, like I was saying before, I absolutely understand why people were so frustrated. This is a community that has repeatedly had big projects landed on them without a whole lot of input, without a lot of ability to have a say in what the project looks like. So, I do think that the County could have done a much better job at having deeper conversations with the community. It’s resulted in a really confusing process, and it created division, and that harms community, when people are fighting.
It was a lesson for all of us, all jurisdictional levels, to make sure that we’re engaging with community as early as possible, and really understanding how to reduce harm. And really look at how, you know, in this particular case, what we can do to provide the kind of wraparound behavioral health services that we know are still needed in the neighborhood.
They don’t all have to go into the CID, that’s for sure. And we know that there are communities across the county that really have to step up and share in the responsibility of addressing this crisis. All that to say, I understand why folks in the neighborhood were frustrated by the location and the way that process unfolded. We still need to make sure that the folks who are suffering from behavioral health crises or from substance use disorder, are getting the access to services that they need, somewhere. That’s part of the work that we need to be doing with the County.
IE: According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, Seattle’s downtown area, including the CID, is where overdose rates are highest in the county. Do you think that Mayor Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan adequately addresses this public health issue? And if not, what other measures would you want to see implemented?
TM: What we are experiencing is overlapping crises. The way we address some of the things that are happening downtown, is, you know, not to arrest people who are experiencing poverty or are having a crisis. I mean, the mayor himself said that. When you see somebody who is suffering from a substance use disorder, they are sick. And what he said is: ‘We’re not going to put people in jail, or we’re not going to fill our jails with sick people,’ something like that. So I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that if our goal is to help folks who are suffering from substance use disorder on the street, then we really need to be listening to the public health professionals and what they’re telling us is we need more treatment options.
We need more places for people to go to get services to get all of the harm reduction strategies that can prevent overdose fatalities, and at least give folks the option of being in a place where they have access to treatment, if that’s something that they’re looking for. We’re not going to solve the problem by putting people in jail. If we don’t get people some sort of treatment, then we know that they will die. And for me, the priority is making sure that we are getting folks off the street and into a situation where they might actually get the help that they need.
IE: What are your thoughts on the City’s current response to homelessness in the CID? If elected, what plan would you support as a solution to bring people inside during your next term?
TM: Well, what we know is that there are something like 6,000 shelter beds in King County, and something like 48,000 homeless people. So, you know, even if everybody said “Yes,” we would still have 42,000 people with no place to go on the street. While we are waiting for permanent supportive housing to be built, for low-income apartments to be built, we have to have places for folks to go that are safe, where they can still get access to treatment and services. I’m starting to feel like a broken record.
We need more tiny house villages, we need more enhanced shelters, we need more RV safe lots. I think the City has a role to play in finding this space for these, partnering with community organizations who would be willing to house these. But that’s the kind of security, it’s the kind of community that is needed in order for people to get off the streets. We know how hard it is to get people into shelter. Not just because we don’t have enough of it, but because once they get there, they’re worried about being assaulted or having their things stolen or getting lice. And so we have to have places for people to go to be safe, to get access to services, access to toilets and showers and kitchens, trash pickup. It is not a permanent solution. I don’t think anybody claims that it is, but it is a very much needed short term solution. And I think we should be doing more of that, while we wait for more permanent housing to be built.
IE: Chinatown International District businesses experienced severe struggles during the pandemic, and economic recovery still isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels. What should the City do to help businesses recover and stay afloat?
TM: During the pandemic, we passed rent control for small businesses and had an eviction moratorium for folks. I think those are the kinds of things we need to look at again. Part of what I’m working on with the Office of Economic Development is wealth building strategies, particularly for communities of color. And so I do think that commercial rent stabilization is going to be an important element of that so that our small businesses have the same kind of tenant protections that we want residential tenants to have. I’m really interested in scaling up something that we have relatively new — the Business Community Ownership Fund — which can help small businesses purchase commercial property so that they aren’t tenants anymore, but they’re actually owners. That’s an important piece of stopping the displacement that’s happening. Those kinds of investments in our small business are going to be important. We also need to be investing in our talent, in our workforce. I’m particularly interested in supporting how we get folks into green infrastructure jobs.
There’s a lot of work to do, to support small businesses, particularly minority, women-owned businesses, around access to capital, working on our contracting opportunities for them with large employers in the city. And really looking at how we improve neighborhood facilities, where small businesses operate. A lot of what we hear right now is that our small businesses, particularly in the CID, need more trash pickup, they need other services, they need a lot of technical support in understanding their lease agreements or, you know, what the tax structure looks like, or how they make the kind of investments in their space that they’re looking for. Those are all things that the Office of Economic Development is starting to work on.
It all needs to be done in language, again. But they are starting to look at kind of a small business navigator process to help folks work through all those different options that are being looked at really as as a strategy for investing in the future of the Seattle small business ecosystem.
IE: The CID is home to a large concentration of unreinforced masonry buildings and the City Council passed Resolution 32033 in 2021, which established the framework for a mandatory retrofit ordinance that could occur in summer 2025 at the earliest. If City Council proceeds with this legislation during your term, what role would you play in ensuring that it meets the needs of the CID community at-large?
TM: Well, that’s a great question. I’ve had a lot of conversations with SCIDpda in particular about this. So you know, there is the safety issue, the emergency disaster preparedness issue of making sure that these buildings are protected, you know, retrofitted. And there’s the issue of costs. So, how we support property owners in being able to make these retrofits, which can be very expensive, given that they have limited income, with their affordable rents that they are charging. I think there is a place for the City, really, for the feds to come in with federal loan assistance. I know this is something we’ve talked about before, having FEMA maybe provide some loan assistance, so that these property owners can make the changes that are needed. I know there was conversation about either phasing in the requirements so that not everybody has to do it at the same time, or phasing in financial support, so that we start with the buildings that are most at risk, and get those taken care of first, and then sort of work our way out of the circle until most of the buildings that are that are at risk are taken care of.
So it is admittedly a big problem in terms of the cost that’s associated with it. And if the Big One comes there will be a lot of people in danger. That really has to be the focus, making sure that we are supporting the property owners and doing the right thing because we certainly don’t want to be dealing with a catastrophe on the other side and know that we could have prevented significant death.
IE: The Sound Transit Board endorsed a plan to place new light rail stations to the north and south of the CID, while keeping 4th Avenue on the table for further study. Could you talk about which option you support and why?
TM: What I will say is that there are a lot of small businesses that are at risk with the 4th Avenue option. I think it’s important that we make public transit the easiest transportation choice. But we also have to make sure that we’re not displacing residents and local businesses in the CID. Because of the history of this particular neighborhood, the history of the impact of all of these transportation projects on this particular neighborhood, that is a conversation that really needs to be handled carefully. I don’t think that it is a reason across the board to stop a project. But in this particular neighborhood, it’s huge, and the CID is already recovering from decades of government-imposed transportation projects. So I also think that we really need to call on Sound Transit, on City and County folks, to identify the specific mitigation measures, and to make sure that they’re delivering regardless of what ends up happening, because I know this is still in the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] process. But regardless of which one ends up getting selected, there have to be very specific commitments made to community benefit, and to those mitigation measures.
One more thing I’ll say is that we’ve been partnering with folks in the CID to activate Union Station, improve the Jackson Hub. Really improving the pedestrian experience along the whole transit corridor is also important. And, you know, between SDOT and Sound Transit, there’s a lot more work to do there.
IE: With either plan, concerns and unanswered questions remain for the community. What are your concerns and questions for Sound Transit?
TM: I do think that there is more to understand about both options. More to understand in terms of the costs, certainly in terms of how the ridership will be affected, and just the feasibility of the north and south options is still not completely known. So I think once the next phase of the EIS is made available, and we have a little bit better understanding of what design really looks like, and how much it’ll cost, my guess is there will be another conversation.
IE: If elected, how would you use your influence to mitigate or address community concerns around the negative impacts of a new station or stations?
TM: That’s why I think early community engagement is going to be important and reducing barriers to participation is going to be important. I am not sure that Sound Transit has done a great job at that. My office meets quarterly with Sound Transit to understand the gamut of things that are affecting the district, things that are happening in the Rainier Valley, and what’s happening with the next phase of the system. My role in this situation is really to be serving as kind of a liaison between the community and Sound Transit, and to also be maybe helping convene the community conversations, because the Sound Transit Board? I don’t know how many of them actually ride the light rail. It’s important to make sure that folks who are making these decisions are hearing directly from people who are impacted by it.
IE: The CID is often making headlines for controversy and issues that divide stakeholders right down the middle. As a City Council member, what is or would be your approach to tough decision making when there’s no clear consensus from the community?
TM: Part of my job as a council member is to make hard decisions. And so, I think part of the challenge as a city, it’s not just the CID, it’s many neighborhoods where residents don’t agree on what should happen. What you have to be really careful of is only letting the loudest voices guide the things that are happening. So you know, that’s where you work with departments. Our city departments have really smart people who have been doing this work for a long time and understand the impact of the work that we’re doing. You have a lot of conversations with folks, and try to understand what concerns them. If there are things that can be mitigated, support the changes that you can and really try to have the best interest of the entire city at heart.
As somebody who’s trained as a neighborhood planner, I go into a lot of these conversations with an understanding of how a system will work and how it intersects, whether it’s transportation, housing, economic development, or land use. But I also know that the history of planning. The history of many of the systems of our city is to center the loudest voices and to not always to center equity in our decision making. For me, that’s always been the center. How do we make sure that we’re addressing the history, the legacy of policymaking that has marginalized communities of color, and that has really created systems where we’re just exacerbating inequity? It’s not cut and dry. There’s so much that needs to be considered.
You have to listen to everybody. You have to get perspective from everybody to really understand how people think they will be impacted. And also understand that if folks haven’t been given the opportunity to really understand, for example, these very dense planning documents that are only in English, then you have to work with the community to make sure that there is an opportunity to absorb the information before they form an opinion. That’s why I think it is so important to ensure as early as possible that materials are translated, that there are liaisons from these departments or agencies that can really help people understand. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree. And I guess what I would say is, I will acknowledge, I don’t always get it right. But I’m always trying to do the next right thing.