This morning, community organizer and small business owner Tanya Woo announced her campaign to challenge Council Member Tammy Morales for her seat in District 2, which includes Rainier Beach, Beacon Hill, and Chinatown-International District (CID).
Woo contains multitudes. She wants more police alternatives AND more police. She wants density AND downzones. She wants to keep the city’s “JumpStart” payroll tax at its current scale AND use it to fund her own ideas. All of those policy positions conflict with one another, but after our conversation it's pretty clear which lane she's angling toward.
Woo has lived in the district for her whole life. Her dad opened Mon Hei Bakery, which claims to be Seattle's first Chinese bakery. She remembers running around the shop as a kid, stealing pastries from the display case, scraping gum off tables, and serving tea. Her family later renovated and reopened the neighborhood’s historic Louisa Hotel, which she said speaks to her desire to protect the CID’s history.
In local government, she wants to amplify the voice of the CID, which has been historically excluded from conversations about projects that impact their community.
Most recently, she made headlines when she led a protest against King County for not doing enough community engagement before green-lighting an expansion of an existing shelter in nearby SODO.
Woo tried to squash allegations of being a NIMBY, insisting she would be okay with a shelter expansion if the County had asked first, though the county claimed it had spoken with several groups in the neighborhood and held a public comment period. Woo remained unsatisfied when the King County Executive eventually pulled the plug on the project. She said she wanted a six-month pause and better communication, not for them to end the conversation entirely. But the County needed to spend the money quicker than that for legal reasons, so they couldn't work on her timeline.
More Cash for Cops and for Social Workers
Though Woo lives in Rainier Beach, she spends much of her time in the CID. In the evenings, she patrols the streets with the CID Community Watch, a small, grassroots group that operates as something of a police alternative. She started the volunteer-run organization in the summer of 2020, when cops seemed to ignore safety and vandalism concerns in the neighborhood. Her group hands out sandwiches, breaks up fights, and watches out for anyone with a can of spray paint.
Woo said the group treats calling the police as a last resort, and they believe increasing police presence does not make communities safer on its own, as they witnessed firsthand with the Mayor’s attempt to stifle crime with a mobile precinct in Little Saigon.
Though she wants the City to fund more police alternatives, she’s unsure where to find the funds. She's curious about skimming off some money from JumpStart, but she doesn’t want to increase the payroll tax. In fact, Woo said she doesn’t support any new taxes, despite acknowledging budget gaps. Instead, she wants central staff to take a good, long look at current taxes to find out where the money is going (info that's available here) and if those investments are “effective.” Your standard find-the-money-to-run-the-city-in-the-couch-cushions stance.
Despite vague concerns about where all that progressive revenue is going, she is looking forward to what the city's Progressive Revenue Stabilization Workgroup has to say. But also, she doesn’t support new taxes, so it's unclear if they’ll change her mind.
In the meantime, she thinks the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) should use the big bucks it gets from the City to raise wages for its social workers as well as for workers at organizations that KCRHA gives money to, such as REACH and the Low Income Housing Institute. She expresses skepticism of the authority's “high-level” five-year plan and would demand an audit if elected.
Woo is all for police alternatives, but she’s certainly not turning her back on our boys in blue. She thinks the City needs to cater to the budget requests from the Seattle Police Department and potentially throw them some extra cash for cultural competence training. She knows only two cops who speak Chinese on the CID beat. She wants more.
To get more cops, she said she would have voted with the council majority last year to approve new-hire bonuses of up to $30,000. Of course, the City still doesn’t know if that move will help the department in the long-term, and police departments nationwide can’t seem to get cops to apply for their job listings.
A … Complex Housing Strategy
Woo wants housing, and lots of it. To accomplish that goal, she wants to give developers more tax breaks.
But she doesn’t want developers to throw up only luxury apartment units, so she said she would push for some changes to the Mandatory Affordable Housing (MHA) program, which requires developers to make a small share of units in new projects affordable or else pay a fee to fund affordable housing off-site.
Woo wants to expand the MHA program to every corner of the city, raise the rate of required affordable units from 2 -11% to 30-40%, and prohibit developers from paying a fee in lieu of that. The City estimated that MHA fees from 2021 helped it build 900 units, whereas developers only elected to build 95 affordable units under the program that year, according to the Seattle Times.
She came out swinging about density … until it came to zoning. She wouldn’t do away with single-family zoning, which limits development in over 70% of Seattle, because “every neighborhood is different.”
Further, she took a conservative stance on upzones, especially in the CID. In 2017, the City Council voted unanimously to upzone certain blocks in the CID. She would reverse many of those changes, capping buildings at ten stories in the landmark core of the neighborhood. Plus, she wants all that development to be exclusively affordable housing so CID elders can age in place.
But voters want the City to go beyond current affordable housing models. In a special election earlier this week, a ballot initiative to establish a public development authority (PDA) that would one day bring government-owned, permanently affordable social housing to Seattle leads by several points.
Woo didn’t have strong feelings either way about the social housing initiative and did not commit to finding a revenue stream for it.
Taking the Business Lane
Woo is the only current D2 challenger kicking off a campaign with institutional support (she pays consultants), so she’s the biggest threat to Morales so far. Already, her candidacy reveals several points of contrast.
Both Woo and Morales want police alternatives. However, Woo wants to increase spending on cops with no clear funding source while Morales strongly advocates for diverting funds from SPD to support other means of public safety.
When it comes to taxes, Woo wants no new taxes and no increase in one of the City's few progressive sources. Meanwhile, Morales demonstrated her commitment to progressive revenue when she took an unpopular vote last year to increase JumpStart to raise an additional $140 million.
Woo tirelessly advocates for the CID–even when it means aligning with Republicans and NIMBYs as she did in her effort to pause the SODO Service Hub expansion. Morales held off on an official response to the controversy until after the County Executive scrapped the project. Even then, Woo accused Morales of playing to the middle instead of standing firmly with her constituents in the CID.
The distinction will become even clearer when endorsements roll in. Unless Woo wants to fight Morales for labor’s endorsement, vying for business support may be her most competitive path. Her voting history would suggest she isn’t completely turned off by business endorsements. Though she voted for Morales in 2019, she voted for business-backed Bruce Harrell for Mayor in 2021 and wouldn’t say who she picked between Nikkita Oliver and Sara Nelson in the race for the citywide seat the same year.
Eds note: This story was originally published at 7 am, but I bumped it up to the current time for better visibility.