Andrew Grant Houston (known as “Ace the Architect” on Twitter) is the youngest person running for Mayor of Seattle in 2021 and, going by fundraising metrics, one of the candidates best positioned to connect with voters this summer.
An architect by trade, Houston is running as a standard bearer for Seattle’s large and vibrant activist community on an ambitious, unapologetically progressive platform. On June 14th, Houston and I discussed his campaign for mayor.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ruairi Vaughan, Evergreen State Electoral Analyst (NPI): I’d like to start by digging into your back story a little bit. A year and a half ago, you had just turned thirty and were running an architecture firm. Fast forward to today, you’re running for Mayor of Seattle and you’ve out-fundraised all but one of your rival candidates, raising a third of a million dollars or more from small-dollar donors.
Walk me through how that happened.
Andrew Grant Houston: Well, I think a big part of it is, especially being a person of color and existing in the United States, you learn very early on that if you’re going to get anywhere you need to work twice as hard as everyone else, if not three times as hard. So something that I have really learned and benefited from – especially in starting my own business – is really understanding the systems that are at play and being able to really take advantage of them.
So we have the new democracy voucher program – well it’s not new new, but this is the first mayoral election where you can actually use them – and being able to understand the process and fundraise has been really straightforward.
But there’s also being really clear about what I stand for and what I want to get done as mayor. I think especially given the current situation in Seattle, where we have a Mayor that has either kicked the can on a number of different issues, and delayed and stalled, or waited until the last minute and then chosen something that was against what the community’s wishes were.
There’s a huge demand for a different kind of leadership.
And so, by showing up and being very clear about how I am drastically different from the current mayor, I have seen a lot of support.
RV: You’re not only different from the current Mayor, but you’re also quite different from the other candidates: you’re significantly younger, you have also very much emphasized the fact that you don’t have a house, you don’t own a car, you can’t drive, use transit, and you’re a renter. Why do you think it’s important that the next mayor understands the perspectives of non-homeowners, renters, transit users — people like you?
AGH: I would say for two reasons. One is that we are a majority renter city. We are a majority non-car owning city, and when it comes to prioritizing those who not only make up the majority of our city but also lack access and ability, that it’s important to either have that lived experience or really focus on lifting up those who do have the least, because they are the most impacted by our policies.
I think the other reason, and really the main reason that I’m running right now, is that these kinds of changes towards what I would say is the lifestyle that I am leading right now are necessary if we are going to address the climate crisis.
What we have been doing as a city has been somewhat okay for a while on a number of different issues, but it hasn’t been enough.
We’re still dealing with the homelessness crisis, and when it comes to the climate crisis, our emissions in Seattle have actually gone up in the past few years, as opposed to what it was before!
So we need to now make drastic changes, but I feel like I am in many ways an example of how someone can live a sustainable life and still enjoy Seattle.
RV: You said that the city’s policies have been “somewhat okay” for a while. As for your policies — firstly, there’s just a lot of them!
RV: I’d encourage our readers to go to your website and read them. We don’t have time to go through every single one, but could you give me a summary of the four main groupings that you have on your campaign website: Stay in Seattle, Revision Zero, Clean Tech Capital, and Forest City Village City. Could you give me a summary of why you group them in these categories?
AGH: It really started with this vision I laid out and worked on with other organizers about what the city should look like in 2100. Working backwards from there, what are the main changes you need to make in the next eight years (so, the next two mayoral terms) in order to move towards that trajectory? The four plans are really a compilation of a number of community asks, so things that the community has either been advocating for or also came from a number of supporters who then submitted their own ideas as to what the policy steps should be.
The four main categories address four main issues which are the affordability crisis; people just being able to afford to stay in the city, so the Stay in Seattle Plan.
With Revision Zero, it’s the city’s commitment to the Vision Zero policy and not making any progress towards that vision, which is supposed to be zero preventable deaths. I have reframed it, which is why it’s “revision” towards zero preventable deaths including those that are from state-sponsored violence.
With the Clean Tech Capital Plan, it is focused on our need to take advantage of our power as a tech hub, by seeing the opportunity for investing in sustainable technology and really being at the center of that in the United States, because there currently is not one. I want to to bring in community to that in order to be part of the solution.
And the last one, Forest City Village City, is really aiming towards the fifteen minute city ideal and the concept of more sustainable neighborhoods and communities – but making it very clear that as we start to make Seattle more into a city of villages, we can also preserve and actually increase our amount of natural environment in the city.
RV: Thanks for that summary. I think a lot of Seattleites will [be intrigued by] that vision, and a part of the reason why is because Seattle has historically been ahead of the curve. A big part of why we’ve been ahead of the curve is due to the city’s economic prowess – aerospace, tech, etc. As Mayor, what new industries would you seek to attract to Seattle, and how would you use your position to go about doing that?
AGH: I am really thinking about the circular economy and how we build on what we have here locally to be able to sustain ourselves.
In my mind, that is where part of the Clean Tech Capital ideal comes from.
King County is the county in Washington State with the most jobs related to timber and forestry and as we move towards the need to not just build a significant amount of housing – because we are definitely in a housing deficit – but do so in a way that is much more sustainable.
We need to be relying on wood, and I see this as a really great opportunity to be able to improve foresting practices and be able to increase the number of jobs related to timber, which are really good, living-wage, union jobs.
RV: The Biden qdministration seems a lot more open than its predecessor to spending on green technology, sustainable industry and clean energy; how would you make sure that federal dollars are coming Seattle’s way, rather than other cities?
AGH: I think we already do a really good job at this, particularly when it comes to transportation. We are one of the few municipalities to receive multiple TIGER grants, which are related to transportation and infrastructure projects.
For me, it is using our federal delegation of representatives and our senators to really push for a much higher level of investment.
As a member of the Sunrise Movement, and now also a member of the Working Families Party, we have been advocating for the THRIVE Act, which would invest $1 trillion in infrastructure for the next ten years, recognizing that we need a true Green New Deal. We need a New Deal that is focused on sustainable technology, on clean tech, on rebuilding a lot of the infrastructure that we created back in the forties and fifties. It’s not just Seattle, but it’s so many cities across the U.S. that need significant investment that can only come through federal dollars.
So, really just making the case for that, but also that is one of the reasons that I am running specifically in this moment, because we need to be making those investments but it’s also imperative to have a local executive who is focused on actually getting those dollars out the door and executing those projects.
I bring a lot of project management experience from architecture, and managing multi-billion dollar investments on behalf of our community.
So for me, I find that to be extremely critical as we move through and actually getting these projects done and implementing them.
RV: Part of project management is dealing with multiple actors. One of the things that the current administration struggles with is the relationship with the City Council. You reported on council meetings and worked for Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.
How would you approach the relationship, and what do you think the current administration could have done but did not do?
AGH: I think there’s a lot of things they could have done, but chose not to do – so I’m going to focus on what I would like to do, which is real empowerment.
What I experienced when working for Councilmember Mosqueda is that everyone working in the legislative branch is really focused on improving the city and on making change. There are a lot of people with a lot of great intentions, so it’s really about finding those commonalities, and finding those projects that they really want to work on that they need capacity for; one of the biggest challenges that we had, even during my short time there, was that it was so difficult to get any work done because we had so few staff.
The branch that has tons of staffing capacity is the executive! So it’s really about identifying where there are shared common interests and being able to move those projects forward – working with the Council and through the Council, our larger community, to be able to be part of the solutions that we need right now.
RV: It’s going to take more than just a good relationship with the City Council to implement plans on the scale you are envisioning; how do you plan to interact with non-city bodies and agencies like the Port of Seattle and King County?
AGH: It’s really about highlighting those necessary steps and seeing where the power lies. That is something I have done for a long time, especially as an organizer. When it comes to bringing in community-based organizations and other actors, I’m less concerned about that.
To your point about the Port and County, I think in many ways it is about lining up the data that is already there and really explaining the reasons behind actions.
I know that is definitely going to be the case when it comes to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and trying to make that more of an active participant in addressing our current crisis.
But, the data is already there, it’s really about connecting the dots and showing how we can improve systems in order to improve outcomes for everyone.
RV: As well as the data, it rally helps to have relationships with the people involved in these structures. Do you have relationships with the port commissioners, King County Council, or the Executive?
AGH: I do have some.
One of the port commissioners is a mentor of mine, his name is Ryan Calkins.
I’m also watching a lot of the other races that are happening and engaging with those candidates as well. And when it comes to the County, I have had some engagement with Councilmember [Girmay] Zahilay. So yes, I do have some relationships, and in many ways I am someone who wants to build more relationships, have more dialogue and really get through the nitty gritty of things. I find myself pretty successful at making friendships with most people. I don’t have a lot of concern when it comes to being able to work together to get things done.
RV: Let’s move on to the biggest issues facing Seattle, and I’ll be blunt: how do we fix the homelessness crisis?
AGH: It’s going to be an all hands on deck approach.
Like what we were discussing earlier, we do need federal investment when it comes to permanently affordable housing. One of the biggest challenges that I remember from Councilmember Mosqueda was having conversations at the county level about wanting to create or preserve 44,000 affordable units, because that’s what the county taskforce’s goal is. And the cost for that was going to be $18 billion. So it is less of an issue of knowing what we need to do and it’s more of an issue of where the funding is going to come from.
The other thing that I am really focused on is addressing the crisis at hand, while also preventing additional people from entering into homelessness.
One of the biggest ways we can do that right now is getting the Governor and the Mayor to extend the eviction moratorium [Governor Jay Inslee announced a “bridge” period for the state’s eviction moratorium on June 24th].
If they don’t do that, we’re going to increase the number of people experiencing homelessness and it’s just going to make things worse.
The other things that I want to focus on in terms of when I enter office are also land use form, so that housing can be created much more rapidly and more cost effectively, because the highest costs for any type of construction right now is the land cost. And when we do that, we are having developers then pay into our mandatory housing affordability.
By doing that, they are going to bring in more dollars for affordable housing, so we can then build permanent affordable housing and permanent supportive housing that is needed. There’s a lot of pieces, dude, but it is definitely something I have thought of a lot, especially as a housing activist.
RV: Another issue, one that completely dominated last year, is policing. The Council voted to reduce the funding of the Seattle Police Department. What do you think about that decision? Would you have done the same, would you have done it differently, and how will you approach this as mayor?
AGH: If I had been on the Council at the same time, I would not have made the same commitment to fifty percent, because I don’t make empty promises.
Something that I respect – even though it was very frustrating – was Councilmember [Deborah] Juarez stating “I don’t believe we can move this quickly in that short an amount of time,” which is a very fair point.
Part of that is because there is so much obfuscation and hiring of information and data from the police department, that only the executive can address.
That’s why it’s also imperative that if we are planning on defunding SPD by fifty percent or any amount, we need to have an executive who’s going to hold the department accountable and make the much more transparent about how they are actually spending their money.
One of the biggest pieces of data that has really resonated with me was looking at the increase in spending from 2015 until last year, seeing that there was essentially zero increase in the number of sworn officers.
So, clearly that money is going to either militarization of the police, excessive overtime when we should actually just be hiring other officers, or just floating into the ether of the police department.
It’s hard to tell, because even if you look at the 2021 proposed budget, the amount of information that’s coming and is itemized by all the different parts of the department is almost nil. So part of it is getting in as an executive and trying to uncover what exactly the money is being used for.
I think a big question is going to be once the next mayor takes office, how many officers are still left? I know that a number of officers, once they heard that their pay could be reduced, or once they heard that there were going to be increased accountability measures, decided to leave or decided to retire.
That is a big question for me; how much money does the police department actually need in order to fulfill its obligations for those who are currently staffed?
RV: A big part of the next mayor’s responsibility is going to be choosing the new police chief. With what you said in mind, especially thinking about SPD officers being disgruntled with the city’s executive leadership, how would you plan to go about choosing a new chief for those officers?
AGH: So with this, like any other proposal, I am really focusing on understanding the current system and how we can actually build a new system.
For me, that involves looking into whether or not the chief of police actually needs to be a sworn officer – whether it could actually be someone who comes from our community police commission or another organization that has been focused on emphasizing public safety in ways that aren’t simply armed responses.
That would be my first priority.
The other one is recognizing that, as much as I am interested in public safety measures that are not police, we still need to reform the current system because there is a lot of bad blood and ill will between the police and the community.
If we are ever going to get to a point where the police department can be a trusted part of the community again (which it has not been for many decades, which has resulted in the consent decree that was implemented) then we need to have an exhaustive overhaul. So I am looking for a chief who is committed to that, and to developing a new vision of what policing could mean in this next decade.
RV: You’re a small business owner, and a lot of people coming to politics with that background use that experience to advocate for conservative policies – you’re not on that level.
AGH:[Laughing] Definitely not!
RV: How did your small business experience flow into the quite radical proposals that you are putting forward for the city?
AGH: Part of it is that my mindset when it comes to anything is really a mindset of looking at abundance. We are a community that has such a huge wealth of knowledge, resources, and money, yet we have so many systems that prevent that money, capital, and access being equitably distributed.
For myself, it really came down to wanting to get involved in politics because of my effort to try and do my job! It is extremely hard to be an architect focused on multi-family housing when I cannot get a permit (it takes months to get one), I have to go through the design review process (which arguably takes years).
I even have projects I worked on at other firms in Seattle which have yet to be constructed because they are stuck in appeals, and all this is while we have thousands of people currently unsheltered or unhoused in our community.
It’s really about taking that experience and trying to work through the system right now, recognizing that the system has created so many of the issues that we currently deal with, but taking that expertise and being able to reverse engineer to create a new system that works for all of us.
RV: Alongside your small business background, you also come from the activist community, which is very well-represented here in Seattle. I have seen you say that one of the impetuses for your mayoral run was seeing that nobody in the activist community was stepping forward at the time you declared. What conversations did you have that led you to think that it had to be you or it wouldn’t be anyone?
AGH: Honestly, it was a number of conversations with people that I really wanted to run for mayor, and they said no.
They said they weren’t interested, and there were some others that said that they would do it if absolutely no one else did, but that they had already run for other positions. These were other people of color and queer individuals who have already done a lot for Seattle, and I didn’t necessarily want to be in a mindset of asking them again to be the representative for all of us.
I said that I have all this knowledge and expertise, especially relating to housing, and so let me use that as a platform, and if other people end up running for a more leftist, more socialist side, then go for it! But no one else decided to, so in many ways it’s a little odd being out here on my own for some of these policies that I have proposed. But if anything I think that has really brought people together, recognizing that if we are going to make the decisive change that we need in this city, then I am the candidate to support.
I don’t take that lightly.
I have definitely been focused on engaging with communities in a number of different ways, even before I was running, so it is extremely critical to me that they understand that I am here to be responsive and to include them in the decision making process, but that we are going to be acting very quickly.
RV: You’ve also put a lot of emphasis – in interviews, your campaign literature, elsewhere – on being a mayor who is in for eight years. Why do you think it is important to keep going back to this eight years number?
AGH: I bring it up for two reasons…or actually three reasons, to be honest!
This first is that in order to achieve our climate goals, we must reduce our emissions by at least half by 2030. That means that we should ideally have just one executive to carry out that plan in that amount of time.
The other commitment that has been made by the Council is that we are supposed to get to zero emissions by 2030. I have not made that commitment, just because I recognize that we need to get through a first term and make significant reductions first of all, before I can say yes, we can get to zero. But, by the same token, if we are going to be not just a sustainable city, but a leader on climate action, then we need to get started now, because we are clearly very behind!
The second reason is we have already had three mayors who have served one term, and I feel like that has not been effective in terms of making significant impacts on any of our crises. We declared a homelessness emergency in 2015, it was a problem before then, and it continues to be a problem, having only increased. If we are actually going to make significant inroads then we need to have someone who is actually focused on the long term vision.
A lot of the changes that I am proposing are not going to happen overnight. These are things that need two or three years in order to actually get the legislation through make the changes happen, and only after that will we begin to see results.
And the last reason is that there is at least one candidate in this race who I know is much more interested in a statewide position; so I am making it very clear that I am committed to this position, and I am going to be in this position for at least eight years, because I find it absolutely necessary if we are actually going to make an effort. I am not using this as a platform for statewide position.
RV: You’re going to get to the end of eight years, and at that point you’ll still be under forty. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?
AGH: Ideally, get back into architecture! It’s what I love to do, and if it wasn’t so hard to do what I love, then I would not be running in the first place.
I take heart in knowing that with architecture, because it is a practice, many people don’t get into their stride until they’re into their fifties, so I will have plenty of time in my life to be able to design and build amazing structures.
RV: This entire interview has already kind of answered this question, but what would you say to people who say that Mayor Durkan’s problem was that she didn’t have a grip of city politics, and the last thing we need is another inexperienced person?
AGH: Well, that’s not really who she was!
She was someone who was supposed to improve the police department using her experience as a prosecutor, and that hasn’t happened. She was supposed to work with federal partners from her time under the Obama administration, and that didn’t not happen – and even now with Biden, that has continued to not happen!
So, I think it is important to really understand what people are proposing, what is necessary, and if those proposals are actually truly effective.
That is why all of my policies and plans have such clearly outlined goals and information. It is because I recognize that, yes, a lot of questions are, “Why are you running if you have so much less experience than these other seven people?”
The counterpoint to that is that, for many of these people, just because they have experience, it doesn’t mean it’s good experience.
The experience I have is the kind of experience we’ll need if we want to actually be the kind of Seattle that we always say we are. That is what I am focused on.
RV: Andrew, thanks for your time.
Voting in the August 2021 Top Two election will begin in under two months, with ballots due back by 8 PM on August 3rd, 2021. The top two vote getting candidates will advance to the November general election.