Is homelessness a housing or a human issue?
It depends which Spokane City Council candidate you ask.
Naghmana Sherazi and Jonathan Bingle pledged to take a sharply different approach to homelessness, which has once again become a central issue to a city election, during a virtual debate hosted by the Rotary Club of Spokane and streamed by The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages book club.
Bingle said homelessness is the biggest issue in the city right now, and he’s spent his entire life “fighting for the homeless,” but distinguished between the temporarily homeless and chronically homeless.
“With our chronically homeless, we have severe addiction and mental illness … I want to focus on treatment-first programs,” Bingle said, adding that it is not the result of a “housing issue, it’s a human issue.”
Sherazi sharply disagreed, emphasizing the role housing plays in homelessness and discrediting the notion that homeless people in Spokane come from elsewhere.
“These are people who are suffering from being priced out of their homes,” Sherazi said.
northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review
northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review
The two candidates are hoping to replace outgoing City Councilwoman Kate Burke, who decided not to seek a second term representing District 1 in northeast Spokane. Each has sought elected office in the city previously but fallen short.
In the debate on Thursday, the candidates offered differing views on homelessness, housing, public safety and the city’s approach to climate change.
Sherazi urged the city to continue the eviction moratorium that has been in place statewide since the beginning of the pandemic, but is set to expire at the end of October. Seattle has extended a moratorium on commercial and residential evictions into January.
Proposed tenant protections have stalled in the city, Sherazi argued, and tenants have “continuously struggled with making their voices heard. She noted that renters are disproportionately people of color.
Bingle focused on increasing access to home ownership and allowing people to more easily construct accessory dwelling units, like mother-in-law apartments.
Bingle criticized the constraints placed on development by Washington State’s Growth Management Act, but also the City Council for voting against some proposed housing developments.
“You can’t have the Growth Management Act and also be turning down developments, we have to chose one,” Bingle said.
Sherazi said she would look to “upzone” areas to create more housing near the city’s arterials.
The two sparred over public safety.
Sherazi said the city has been overburdening its first responders and needs to ensure the police and fire departments are properly staffed.
Bingle, who has made supporting the police department a cornerstone of his campaign, accused his opponent of previously expressing support for defunding the police department. Sherazi denied the allegation.
Bingle credited the Spokane Police Department for implementing reforms over the last decade and criticized the reforms passed by the state Legislature earlier this year.
Sherazi said she supports police transparency and accountability, and said “we have to acknowledge racism.
“There is a reason why these reforms are being put in place,” Sherazi said.
The two candidates offered different opinions on Mayor Nadine Woodward’s proposed 2022 budget.
Though Woodward has endorsed his candidacy, Bingle criticized her inclusion of $4.3 million for a new low-barrier homeless shelter, reiterating his opinion that chronic homelessness is not the result of a housing issue.
Sherazi called Woodward’s low-barrier shelter proposal a “good first step,” but said it will not fix the problem. She said the plan needs to incorporate mental health services and that shelters need to be easily accessible and near a bus line.
The city has about $81 million coming its way thanks to the American Rescue Plan, but has yet to decide how to spend it.
Bingle voiced support for spending money on infrastructure improvements, but he also urged patience. He noted the city does not have to spend the money until the end of 2024.
“We have some time to think through and be smart about this money,” Bingle said.
Sherazi suggested the city invest in community health and human services first, and not wait.
“People need the help right now,” Sherazi said.
Bingle embraced solar energy, but criticized the city’s draft sustainability action plan and warned that it would cause utility bills to skyrocket.
Sherazi said the plan is a good start, but it “needs to be built upon.” She said the city should place an emphasis on increasing the tree canopy in northeast Spokane, modernizing its fleet of vehicles, and promoting better public transit options.
The biggest challenge facing businesses right now is finding employees, Bingle argued. He suggested that every able-bodied person receiving unemployment benefits be required to work.
As it girds for continued growth, Bingle argued the city has to focus on its infrastructure, and noted the number of unpaved roads in District 1.
“We’ve seen our roads failing us,” Bingle said.
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