“We Need to Put Public Housing Back on the Agenda”

Shaun Scott

Shaun Scott is a DSA member running for Seattle City Council. We talked to him about his bold platform: building public housing, taxing the rich, and pushing for a municipal Green New Deal.

Shaun Scott. (Seattle DSA)

Interview by
Jaden Adams

For years, the Left marched in Seattle. From the 1999 WTO protests to the anti-Iraq War movement, through Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the city incubated an insurgent politics that learned how to take back the streets.

The politicization has taken an electoral turn in recent years, however. Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant became the first US socialist in decades to win a citywide election in 2014. In the years since, she’s used her office to bring battles for rent control and a $15 minimum wage to the forefront of politics in the city. And now, a new wave of candidates is looking to follow in her footsteps.

This year, Seattle DSA organizer Shaun Scott is running to represent Seattle City Council District Four on a platform of public housing, taxing the rich, and a municipal Green New Deal. With his August 6 Democratic primary approaching, Scott sat down with Jaden Adams to discuss the inspiration for his campaign and how it plans to advance the fight for our right to the city.


JA

At least in the United States, you might call Seattle “the origin” of both the most recent cycle of street-based movements throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, and also a later turn to using electoral campaigns to promote socialist causes. How do you want to build on that momentum?

SS

It’s an electoral race, but the way that we’ve built our campaign, the issues that we talk about, the things that are first and foremost for me, were inspired by the spirit of Black Lives Matter.

The district that I’m running to represent, District Four, is the district where Charlena Lyles was killed by the police department in 2017. That’s something that all candidates in this race should have to have something to say about. Most don’t, actually — and that’s a huge marker of difference for us in this race to capture District Four for democratic-socialist leadership.

JA

In terms of District Four, obviously you have citywide responsibilities as a city councilor, but you also have the specific district. Can you tell us about the demographics of the “University District” and the issues facing it in particular?

SS

Well the journalist Michael Hobbes, a writer for the Huffington Post, wrote an upgrade piece about generational disparities in American housing showing how a lot of the single-family-home–dominated zones that control the neighborhoods that we see in District Four and across the city are largely inaccessible to younger people and lower-income people.

The renters in my district, the young people, the students who go to the university, the number one issue that I hear from them is the lack of affordable housing options in the city, and the seeming abdication of local government’s responsibility to provide housing as a human right.

And, of course, this general climate of economic anxiety also has impacted older generations that are worried about retirement, who have a lot of their home and personal savings and retirement funds wrapped up in a home equity and in an increasingly precarious housing market.

JA

In terms of public housing, your campaign slogan is, “Fighting for Our Right to the City.” So, I’m just curious, what does this mean to you? One thing you mentioned is that the city needs to tax our biggest corporations and use our bonding capacity to create revenue to build housing. Could you explain what this bonding capacity is and how mobilizing it helps us to fight for our right to the city?

SS

So, you know, not to get too academic with it, but “The Right to the City” is a phrase that comes from the Marxist philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, who has done a lot of thinking about cities and cosmopolitan cities, as a site of resistance against capital. But the operative verb in the slogan is “fighting.” It’s the fact that we know that it’s going to take a contest, a contest for space, a contest for resources, a contest for revenue, to actually have that right to the city manifest.

And so, the question of public housing speaks to that fight on two fronts. Number one, the revenue solutions are not going to be given over easily. We had a very long, very public, contentious fight around public revenue for housing last year in the form of the employee head tax, dubbed the Amazon Tax, in which we saw major corporations push back vigorously against movements that originated on the ground to tax big business, to pay for housing and housing services. And so that fight is going to have to involve identifying where the revenue is to actually build the public housing that we need.

The fight is going to have to involve taxing our richest corporations. It’s going to have to involve implementing a real estate speculation tax on the same order that we saw implemented in Vancouver. It’s going to have to involve a real push to make sure that the corporations and companies that the city has incubated are paying for both the human infrastructure and physical infrastructure that they themselves benefit from.

But that fight is also going to have to be one for space, because we can raise all the progressive revenue that we want, but currently our zoning laws make it so that there’s only so many places that you’re able to put that housing.

In Seattle, it’s literally illegal to build apartments. It’s illegal to build multifamily housing. It’s illegal to build duplexes, for crying out loud. It’s illegal to actually build condos, even, in much of the city. So, even if you were a neoliberal housing hack, which I am not obviously, you’d still have to confront our zoning regime to do dense private construction, to say nothing of building public housing.

We need to do better and — at the municipal and the national level — we need to put public housing back on the agenda to solve the housing crisis, and in general big social problems back on the agenda to solve other ills, as well. Those are the kinds of ideas my campaign is about.