There’s a new candidate running for City Council in the downtown Seattle district Sally Bagshaw is leaving vacant. Michael George, a development consultant that works for a local commercial real estate firm, announced his candidacy for District 7 today. He’s become fairly involved in local politics, especially around advocating for family issues like schools and family-sized affordable housing.
I met up with the first-time candidate at Seattle Coffee Works, a few steps from Pike Place. Dressed in a respectable sweater, dress shirt, slacks and trench coat combination that would fit in at Nordstrom’s, he ordered the coffee shop’s drip coffee and drank it black. George said he moved to Seattle 14 years ago (he’s originally from Boston via Montana) and has lived downtown for 11 years. The 39-year-old lives downtown with his wife and two young children. He assured me that he was not a Republican but he also said he was not a socialist.
Speaking of socialists, sitting one table away from us at the downtown coffee shop Monday morning was Shaun Scott, a socialist City Council candidate for District 4, who was meeting with the folks from Seattle Subway, a local transit advocacy group. That makes it seem like you can’t get a good cup of coffee in Seattle right now without seeing someone running for City Council.
City Council’s elections are in November of this year and the primary is in August, eight months away. There are already eighteen declared candidates with likely many more to come, especially in the incumbent-free seats like District 7. George, who said he would be using the city's democracy vouchers, seems to be starting with a strong position; Sally Bagshaw mentioned George as a possible replacement when she announced she would not be running and he seems to already have a strong local political network to tap into. I spoke with him about a range of issues over coffee before we took a walk through the nearby market, which he seems to love.
How did you first get involved in local politics?
About seven years ago my wife and I found out that we were going to have our first child. We looked around downtown and we realized that we were living in a neighborhood that really didn’t have a lot of the amenities that you need to raise a child. It didn’t have a public school, it didn’t have playgrounds, so we started a little non-profit called Parents for a Better Downtown Seattle.
Through that work I started to get involved in a whole bunch of things. I did work with Seattle Public Schools. I did work on family-sized housing. And I realized that it wasn’t just my neighborhood. A lot of neighborhoods across Seattle, it doesn’t matter if you are in Southeast Seattle or North Seattle. It’s all the same thing. A lot of these neighborhoods just don’t have what they need to really provide everybody with the quality of life that everyone wants.
You work for a local real estate company, what kind of work do you do?
What I actually do is I work on public transit projects. My biggest clients are Sound Transit and King County Metro. A lot of housing, a lot of public good projects. I have intentionally aimed my career that way. I have worked on every transit-oriented development that King County has done in the last decade.
Is there one of those projects that you think really embodies the promise of transit-oriented development?
One project that I am really excited about is up in the Roosevelt neighborhood. Sound Transit had a large piece of property and one of the things they had me do is to help them figure out how to get a whole bunch of public good on that site, and the result, in my opinion, is going to be phenomenal. It’s going to have 250 units of affordable housing at a range of incomes. It is going to have 100 affordable family-size units. That means 2- and 3-bedroom affordable units. This project is going to have a subsidized affordable daycare, so it’s going to allow those people to really thrive in Seattle.
Whenever we have these density projects in Seattle, we have this pushback from certain parts of the community who say we don't need these bigger buildings and that they'll just change the neighborhoods and increase gentrification. How do you talk to people from that perspective about these projects?
People actually know their neighborhoods better than the people coming in and doing projects there. So in this project and I think a lot of agencies are getting better about it but we’re not quite there, it’s really going in and honestly talking to the community and not as someone that’s talking but someone that’s listening. When you do that up front I really do think it expedites the project and people tend to get behind it.
Would you consider yourself a developer?
No, I wouldn’t consider myself a developer. A developer is trying to make a profit by developing a project. My work is based around helping public entities figure out how to balance their needs with the desire to incorporate public good in projects. And my career at Kidder Matthews has really been focusing on those types of projects.
But your company is a for-profit firm working with developers and governments to try to make money.
I am sure I will be described that way but anybody that opens the hood will see that I’m not making millions of dollars to help for-profit developers build mega projects. I work with affordable housing developers, I work on transit projects, and everyone has to make a living and I’ve proactively decided to make my living doing things that benefit neighborhoods and communities.
One thing that will probably come up in this race is that you're a white straight guy. How are you going to communicate to voters that say: I'm not the same identity as you and I’m getting pushed out of this city; I don’t feel like government is arguing for me. How will you tell voters like that that you're the person to help them?
As someone that is a white male, it’s something I thought of a lot as I made this decision. All I can say is I really have a passion for these issues and part of that passion is making sure that I give the people you are talking about, the people who historically haven’t had a voice, a voice. I can’t speak for those people but I can help give those people a voice. And one of the things that I am good at is being a convener to make sure that people that don’t have a voice have one.
Do you have any ideas on what should be done with the Magnolia Bridge?
I am for a one-for-one replacement of the Magnolia Bridge. Magnolia is an island, there are only a couple of ways to get off that Island. If we were talking about Vashon Island we would not be talking about do we cut the ferry or not. It’s too bad we hadn’t [saved] for it for a long period of time but ultimately, we need to replace the Magnolia Bridge.
Do you think that we are making progress on fighting homelessness?
I think in some ways we are making progress, but I think the severity of the problem is making progress a little faster than we are. I think that there are a number of things that we are doing that is right. I really like at the state level that we can now discount land to build affordable housing, I think that is phenomenal and there’s a lot of opportunity there. I think we are starting to really focus on regional solutions. I think Seattle can and should lead on these issues but I think other cities need to step up in a big way to follow.
Do you think we need to build more public housing?
Yes, I think we need to build a lot more public housing. And I think we need to build more public housing that’s focused on a wider range of households. So I think we need more focus on family-sized housing, senior housing. We need a lot more affordable housing and we need it in Seattle and across this region. I think Seattle has spent a lot of money on affordable housing and I support that but I think we need cities on the Eastside to step up as well and fund their affordable housing.
Do you think single-family zoning is hurting the city?
I think single-family zoning—and I’m not against it wholesale—when you go into neighborhoods that have single-family zoning you have stuff being pushed onto neighborhoods without giving people the real opportunity to speak their mind and be part of the conversation. What I would say is there are areas where single-family zoning, I think, could accommodate more housing, but I think wholesale we need to be respectful of the people living in those neighborhoods and bring them into the conversation.
Would you say there’s too much single-family zoning in the city?
Yeah, I think there are places in Seattle where there’s single-family zoning where we need to look at ways to increase affordable housing.
I have a lot of friends that are getting priced out of the city and can't live where they grew up. I think that's terrible, what do you think the city can do about that?
We really need to give a voice to the people that want to be here and either have been pushed out or that haven't even thought it was an opportunity in the first place. Because we are going to end up in a city that doesn't serve that many people, it's going to be a monoculture and I really don't want to live in a city like that. I think a key to that is affordable housing. If we don't build enough affordable housing we're not going to have that opportunity.
Some people would say that downtown, your neighborhood, is an example of one of those monocultured neighborhoods. Most of the people that can live downtown are of a certain wealthy class. Would you welcome more affordable housing and do you welcome more homeless shelters?
I have advocated for affordable housing in my neighborhood. As a father, I don't know where my child is going to end up and if my kids want to live in this neighborhood in the future and have problems and can't make the money that it takes, I want them to be able to live here. So yes, I absolutely have no issue of bringing more affordable housing into my neighborhood.
With homeless shelters and navigation centers, I think there is a balance. You don't want to concentrate all of the services to one area because it can overwhelm a neighborhood. But at the same time, my neighborhood is where a lot of homeless people are and it's important to bring services to where they are. So I think it's important to have that conversation honestly and that's what I want to do.
If I walk out the backdoor of my building, there are tents up against my building and I have gotten to know a lot of those people. I have known them for years. I know them by name. I do think those are true neighbors. There's a range, just like any group of people, and not everyone is the same. There's not one type of homeless person, but a number of them I actually feel safer having them be in the neighborhood. So yes, we need to help. We need to be part of the solution, not just say that it goes over there.
An earlier version of this interview included an answer where Michael George said he was planning on continuing to work if elected to the City Council. His campaign team contacted me after publication and said that was a misunderstanding and that he does plan on quitting his job if he wins.