South-End Activist Takes on City Council President Tim Burgess

South-End Activist Takes on City Council President Tim Burgess

Last week, Brighton neighbor and Executive Director of the Tenants Union Jon Grant announced his decision to run at-large for Position 8, directly challenging incumbent and City Council President Tim Burgess.

Grant has already raised nearly $20,000 in contributions to launch his campaign just weeks after declaring his candidacy for one of the two at-large council seats.

“We need bold leadership on City Council if we are going to successfully advance the effort to eliminate economic inequality,” he said. “We could lose the gains made from raising the $15 minimum wage and requiring paid sick leave if our housing costs continue to soar. If elected I will bring the needed urgency our communities require from City Hall.”

Jon became Executive Director of the Tenants Union in 2010, taking over a troubled agency that had lost most of its funding and staff. In three years, he doubled its operating budget, opened new offices across Seattle and the State, nearly tripled the number of people served, and advanced numerous successful campaigns to expand tenants’ rights. Key to many of these successes was his long standing collaboration with Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata.

“With Nick Licata announcing he will not run again, I decided to run so that Seattleites have a solidly progressive candidate who shares his values and will push the envelope to get things done.”

This week, Jon was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for your RVP’s People in Your Neighborhood column, a space dedicated to highlighting the unsung heroes of the southeast Seattle community.

Jon Grant



How long in Seattle’s south-end?
Almost 7 years, with most of that time in Beacon Hill, Georgetown, and Brighton.

Where from originally?
I grew up in the greater Puget Sound area but spent much of my youth here in Seattle, eventually moving into the City in 2005.

What’s your day job?
Executive Director of the Tenants Union of Washington State – based right here in Hillman City.

What do you like most about your day job?
I love that my job puts me directly in touch with people in the community, and allows me the opportunity to hear out their concerns while at the same time actively work alongside them to find solutions.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
My work. My entire professional life has been dedicated to fighting for economic and racial justice in very tangible ways. I am very passionate advocate for my community, and have deep values that community interests must come first in policy making.

How have you given back to your community?
I currently serve on numerous City initiated committees such as the Housing Levy Oversight Committee, and the Mayor’s Housing Affordability & Livability Agenda (HALA) committee, which is tasked with addressing our affordable housing crisis. On a personal level I regularly donate to local non-profit organizations, including Got Green, Puget Sound Sage, and the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless, etc. Every year for the past 10 years I have been a team captain in the One Night Count of the Homeless, where from 2am-6am I lead a team of volunteers to scout blocks in Seattle to tally the homeless population.

I formerly volunteered a lot of my time at the Vera Project, Seattle’s all-ages volunteer run music venue. At Vera I sat on the Programming Committee, worked the sound board and lighting, and stage managed shows that featured a lot of our great local musicians.

Why do you volunteer?
Volunteering is the way to build a bridge between your family life, work life, and the community; it puts you in contact with new people and ideas while at the same time improving the shared environment for everyone. The line between my professional work and my volunteer work is very thin as both are directed at accomplishing the goal of ending homelessness, which I believe requires a strong commitment to end economic and racial inequality.

What are you passionate about?
Social justice and creating a more equitable society.

What are your hobbies?  
I often bicycle around my neighborhood in the summer, read non-fiction, and I can knit a decent set of gloves.

Tell us about your family:
My mother is a retired reading teacher, and a self-taught botanist who has an amazing garden in her backyard that she has spent a decade cultivating. My father is a retired lawyer, and spends his free time teaching carpentry. My sister lives in California with her husband and my two rambunctious nephews. Both my parents instilled a strong work ethic in me that stays with me to this day, as well as progressive politics. My dad used to read me the newspaper and proceed to explain what was wrong or untrue in all of the articles, which lent me a critical eye that informed my current passion to change systems that don’t work for people.

Who inspires you?
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harvey Milk. Both believed in the power of community to overcome harmful institutions.

What was the last thing you read?
Auto-Biography of Gene Wilder. I never knew his life was so full of tragedy, which has made his movies all the more poignant.

Tell us something about you that not many people know:
I can knit hats, gloves, scarves, but not socks. Why put in all that work if you are just going to hide it away in a shoe?

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I am most happy when I meet people in that moment of empowerment where they have felt like they have no options, but instead choose to fight back. I have been privileged to see this moment time and again in the course of my work, whether it is a dispute with a landlord, developer, housing authority, or city department.

What is your greatest fear?
That someone will use my knitting abilities in a campaign attack ad. Don’t ruin a good thing! My real greatest fear is that we have another ten years of unresponsive and unaccountable city government.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My girlfriend Layla, who I was so fortunate to meet in my life. I love her very much, and she has been an amazing source of support in all of my pursuits.

What is your current state of mind?
Positive. I want to get out and meet voters, and let them know they have great options this election cycle, and learn how we can work together to advance a truly progressive agenda.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Passing the “Healthy Homes” Rental Registration & Inspection Ordinance, a law that will register each rental property and inspect to make sure people are living in healthy and safe conditions. I worked for 5 years advocating for this important law, which constitutes a sea-change favoring tenants who are faced with the inherent power imbalance of challenging their landlord to make repairs. It’s estimated this will benefit nearly 27,000 residents; tenants suffering from sickness related to black mold, structurally unsafe buildings, and other hazards that now will be brought up to livable standards. This effort required extensive negotiations with the rental industry, pressuring city departments, and most importantly, mobilizing the community to pass an ordinance with real teeth.

What is your most treasured possession?
Based on use and amount of time spent, probably my phone. Sad, but true!

What’s your favorite thing about the Rainier Valley?
Its diversity; we have the most diverse zip code in the country, and as a City Council Member I would work hard to preserve its cultural legacy. We must preserve cultural anchors as well as maintain affordability in order to make this possible.

Where is your favorite place to go in the Rainier Valley?
I enjoy going on walks through the neighborhood and winding up in Othello Park, which is a good place to read a book on the weekend.

If there was one thing you could change about the Rainier Valley, what would it be?
I fully support a “road diet” for Rainier Avenue South, and lowering the speed limit. We must slow the traffic down as there has been far too many injuries and accidents.

What is it that you most dislike about the Rainier Valley?
This is an amazing community, there is very little to dislike. However, as a resident and having talked to many of my neighbors, it is clear we need to do more to create a safer neighborhood. Rainier Valley needs to have more cooperation between law enforcement and the community to build trust. Rather than increase car patrols, we should focus more on increasing bike and foot patrols which help foster relationship building among residents and business owners with the police.

If you could live anywhere besides the Rainier Valley, where would it be?
There are so many amazing communities in Seattle, each with their own quirks and history, it is too hard to say!

What do you most value in your friends?  
I am so thankful for my friends who can sometimes drag me away from my work, and encourage self-care.

Who are your real life heroes?
Timothy Harris, the Director of Real Change, and Michael Woo, the Founding Director of Got Green. Both have been an inspiration and role models for me in my work at the Tenants Union, as well as inspired community partners to collaborate with.

What are your thoughts on how to close the gap in educational equity between north and south Seattle schools?
Obviously, early childhood education is the first step. I am supportive of the pre-k program passed last year and would work harder to establish a stronger relationship between the city and early childhood educators to make sure they are champions of the program and paid fairly.

The city has also done great work with the Families and Education Levy founded by former Mayor Norm Rice. In the last doubling of the levy, it was exciting to see more resources allocated to tutoring programs that help students who are falling behind.

The city can and should do more to improve after school programs. We need a youth summer jobs program to help give students a sense of responsibility, financial literacy and discipline as they move toward their college years.

Finally, we need more higher education opportunities in the south end. We need to look into either a community college or a vocational technical college in the heart of the Rainier Valley especially as the jobs in this global economy get more scientifically and technically specific and the needs for specific skills training increase.

How can we improve safety for bikers, pedestrians and drivers on Rainier Avenue?
I favor a road diet for Rainier Avenue South, there have been far too many injuries and accidents and we must institute changes to our infrastructure and allow more modes of transportation. However, I would only support a road diet with single lanes in either direction as long as there is also a center lane for turning and to allow traffic to flow around road obstacles like parked buses. In addition, I would seek more illuminated traffic signals for crosswalks where pedestrians often risk their lives just to reach the business across the street.

How can we improve public safety in the south-end?
We must be able to address crime in our neighborhood in a way that is culturally sensitive given the diverse ethnic makeup of the Rainier Valley. The Seattle Police Department must do more to be accountable to the needs of the community, and increase its presence in ways that encourages trust and relationship building over strict enforcement. The police should hire cadets from within the community, and prioritize multi-lingual skills. Rather than just ramp up car patrols, we should have more foot and bike patrols so officers have more opportunities to interact and build relationships with community members.

Why should we vote for you?
For the past ten years I have been fighting hard in many Seattle neighborhoods, in particular the South End, to organize among residents to keep their homes and fight against the economic forces of displacement. During my tenure at the Tenants Union I vastly increased the services my organization provides to the community, with a focus on South Seattle. Our neighborhood has a disproportionate amount of substandard housing, which negatively impacts the health and safety of our residents. Through 5 years of concentrated organizing and advocating I played a key role in the passage of the “Healthy Homes” rental inspection ordinance that will finally address the substandard housing that an estimated 27,000 Seattleites suffer from, many in the Rainier Valley.

I have strong social justice values and will always align myself with community interests over the profit motivated interests of developers and landlords. Seattle City Council needs a strong advocate for working class and low income people, especially now as economic inequality continues to soar. I played a key role in blocking the sale of public land that was illegally permitted to allow a private developer to build million dollar condos, right at the height of our housing crisis. If elected I would use my position to be a watchdog for this kind of squandering of public assets, and make sure our city’s resources are used equitably.

What else should we know about you?
I believe government must be equitable, accountable, and proactive. Our communities have suffered for too long by inaction or leadership that defers to profit motivated interest groups. I believe in equitable development that empowers communities to have control over their neighborhoods, so that the long term residents of communities can receive the same benefits of development as the newcomers to our city. This will be one of the biggest issues facing the South End as light rail and increasing property values will work to change the makeup of our neighborhood, much as it is in other parts of Seattle. I believe that if we work together as a community we can channel development for greater equity for all.

Photo/Jon Grant


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