Common Threads Northwest spoke with Von Emeth Ochoa, who is running for Bellingham City Council At-Large.
CTNW: Why are you running for election for your position, and why do you believe you're qualified for it?
Von Emeth Ochoa: So, there's a little bit of a back story. This winter, this last winter during the emergency weather, I was helping as a volunteer with HomesNOW and there was an emergency weather chat. Because I had been working remotely from Birch Bay while I was trying to help with communications between HomesNOW and the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and everybody who was trying to drive the vans and volunteer and help people and be out there on the streets. So, on the old emergency weather chat, somebody had encouraged people to run for office to at least have a challenger. And I was nervous about it, but I asked volunteers I worked with on their page, and asked them, "you know, what do you think about this, should I give it a shot?" And they said, "go for it!" And I'm like, "well is anybody 'hell-no' about this? You know, not just 'hey is it good,' but are you really encouraging me to do it?" And they said, "yeah!" Then I posted it on my personal page, and I got a lot of encouragement then too, and the reasons were because they wanted to see a candidate who was coming from a lot of lived experience.
I've been in the housing gap/homelessness quicksand for five-and-a-half years since I got hit by a car five-and-a-half years ago—it'll be six years in December—and I have been struggling ever since then. Because I'm part of the working poor: I have a job. I have a clean background check. everything there is fine. But, I can't work enough to make [the] cost of housing, and I'm too high-functioning to receive benefits, except for food stamps which I'm really grateful for. So, there's this purgatory that I've been stuck in, and people encouraged me to go for it. So, there was that: my personal experience with the homelessness quicksand; and then the fact that I'm a person of color, and I'm a queer person of color, and I'm a mixed-heritage person. I'm the child of an immigrant from Colombia and a refugee from the Vietnam War, and so I have this perspective that I'm a third culture kid. So, I'm running because of the encouragement that I received from other volunteers that I've worked with. And I want to do the best I can to be the person I want to see up there in the seat: someone who represents that kind of diversity who knows what it's like in certain types of hardships.
CTNW: And those are also why you feel that your qualified?
Von: The lived experience is part of it, but also, who I am now as I try to be someone who can synthesize a lot of different solutions all at once. I try very hard not to think only in absolutes, and I try to think in terms of synergy and syncretism, which is taking the great ideas from different perspectives and different viewpoints and trying to come up with a solution that is elegant and nuanced, and alleviates suffering as much as possible and benefits the most people as possible.
CTNW: What do you believe is the City of Bellingham's biggest financial challenge and how should it be addressed?
Von: To be honest, I've been wanting more of an insider look at the budget. I'm going to need to be in close communication with the Finance Committee to talk numbers a lot. That's definitely an area that I need more knowledge. Financially, what I'm thinking of right now is the housing [problem] and trying to find where the funds will come from. I really like what HomesNOW is doing in terms of the tiny homes. I think that's one solution; that's one tier of solving the problem. In terms of Garrett O'Brien's housing innovation project, I like the idea that there's a set amount. There's like 30-to-40 percent of a parcel of land that's sold, 30-to-40 percent of the units that are built are set at an affordable housing level, and everything else is sold at market rate. And then I went to the Bellingham Housing Cooperative Resource Center, and there from Paul Schissler I learned that where there's some shortcomings in the housing innovation project is that it still caters too much to the investor class. Whereas a housing cooperative, there's communal financing.
The City of Bellingham might annex, might extend its city limits, get some more land and sell it to a group of however many people, 20 people. Say, there's 12 of the 20 units, houses that are built on that land, and it's permanently affordable; it's a 99-year lease. The Home Fund, that's based off property taxes. I like that solution; I think we need to keep going with that. And then in Vancouver B.C. in 2016, Housing Priority Initiative, Bill 28, they have deterrents set up so that people who have the money don't just keep making more money, that people who already have multiple pieces of property can't just keep accumulating property. So, there's some deterrents set up. For a primary residence you have a certain amount of property tax, but for a secondary or tertiary residence there's an additional tax.
CTNW: But you'd like to see some type of a tiered property tax.
Von: Yeah, and a vacancy tax so that if houses that are not primary residences are sitting empty, there's an additional tax there. So that money will come in. From Vancouver BC, they also have a foreign buyer’s tax that they put on, too. So that money that comes in from those taxes then gets put into building permanently affordable housing. The housing cooperative also looked at the Vienna model, but that's less to do with money and more about having environmentally responsible building, green building.
CTNW: How best do you believe the City of Bellingham can build the tax base to pay for financial challenges such as infrastructure and services?
Von: I don't know how to answer that question right now.
CTNW: What do you believe that the City of Bellingham is currently spending too much money and too much time on, and/or not enough money and not enough time on?
Von: Beside the housing, one of the things that's been at the forefront of my mind is becoming a sanctuary city. I know that part of the concerns for not making it a definitive sanctuary city—they said it's a sanctuary city in everything but name—but part of the concern of taking on that label of "sanctuary city" is that they're afraid of backlash from the federal government and not being able to get those funds. I don't know how much they were talking about, but I think that's a legit concern in terms of if Bellingham loses however much money because it becomes a sanctuary city, we need to figure out where that money's going to come from or how to make adjustments, make adaptations.
That's the other thing with housing, I would also like to see some housing be offered to people who are refugees and who are immigrants. So regardless of immigration status, I don't want people who are immigrants or refugees to be left out of the housing solution.
CTNW: How do you think Bellingham is doing in balancing infrastructure improvements and controlling borrowing costs?
Von: I'm not sure how to answer that question. But when I was thinking of infrastructure—in terms of the costs I don't know—but I went to one of the Port of Bellingham meetings and there I saw a presentation by Jennifer Novak that was a proposal about partnering with Flow Analytics, a data company, to do a land survey. Like do a whole I-5 corridor build-able land survey, so that they could look more in detail as to what the infrastructure currently is and how it can be expanded along the I-5 corridor, how far the reach and where building can be done responsibly in terms of not being harmful to the environment and doing the least amount of harm to the environment. That's what I thought of when you say infrastructure.
CTNW: So, you do believe that there should be improvements to the infrastructure and as far as the controlling borrowing costs, that's something that you need to know more about?
Von: That's right. I need more knowledge there.
CTNW: How do you believe the City of Bellingham can address homelessness and poverty?
Von: I know that it has been in support of the Lighthouse Mission. The Lighthouse Mission has its place; we need it there. A low-barrier shelter is important. I'd like to see more effort toward a secular place to be. It's a tough one; I have mixed emotions. I know that with HomesNOW, there was a lot of tension and a lot of difficulty. And it seemed like there were more barriers, especially up until Winterhaven was allowed, the tent city encampment was allowed, it was difficult. Currently we're on the right track. If we had the Lighthouse Mission and if we had another organization or secular non-profit—I know the First Congregational Church, they stepped up and they have the ground floor set up for queer youth—I'd like to see more partnerships with non-profits and even other religious institutions to open up their doors. So, for example, when the fires and the smoke [struck Bellingham and] this winter it was the freezing temperatures, I wish there had been a way to open more doors, in terms of buildings to keep people safe. And then when the fires are coming and the smoke is here, I hope people open their doors and their churches to protect people.
In terms of poverty—gosh, it's tough. I feel like what we have right now, the system right now perpetuates poverty, keeps things tough. Without a really set livable wage put down, it's hard to survive, it's really hard to survive.
CTNW: How can the City of Bellingham support and strengthen communities and neighborhoods?
Von: I love things like Sunnyland Stomp and the York Crawl, those kinds of neighborhood things. Keeping up the enthusiasm for those things, I think. I would like to see more neighborhood community gardens. I know Birchwood Food Desert Fighters; they have their community garden that they're just starting up right now. I'd like to look into– Paul Schissler told me about a surplus properties map that the city has, and you can look things up, and I think an urban food forest would be awesome. And I think that having a tiny home village, that we're the stewards of that urban food forest, would build community between the folks who have been homeless for a while with the people in the neighborhood who have been there for a while, and then having this urban garden, this urban food forest, that could bring it all together. Food brings people together—good food. I think there's a good amount of, like, the Boulevard Park Music Series, Elizabeth Park Music Series, Maritime, those are great, that builds community. Downtown Sounds builds community. So Sunnyland Stomp, the York Crawl, and then like urban food forests.
CTNW: You would like the City to continue to promote more of these types of events?
Von: Yeah! Sure.
CTNW: The City of Bellingham will consider a recommendation by the Climate Action Committee to create an ordinance that the city would have all new housing and buildings fossil free. And they are currently, through the Climate Action Committee, considering that same mandate to buyers of existing buildings and homes, to be retrofit to power from fossil fuels at the time they are sold. So, what does that mean to you? How realistic is their timeline for accomplishing that? And what do you believe that's going to cost the residents here?
Von: I like it; I do recommend it. The challenge is—I spoke to someone who's in real estate—and the retrofitting is going to be tough for people. What she was saying was it's going to be tough for everyone to make those changes to their houses and meet those costs without some sort of assistance right off the bat. So, the idea to be 100-percent renewable energy by 2035, I want to say: "yes, yes." I also feel like it's going to be difficult to get all those houses retrofit. Could it be that they don't have to do like a 100- "now your house is 100-percent renewable energy; now you can sell it." What if it's like: "okay, your house has to be 30-percent to 50-percent renewable energy before you can sell it." And have something that can be met depending on where people are in terms of how much they have saved up to be able to work on their houses.
CTNW: How could Bellingham help to support the creation of more opportunities for young adults? And by young adults, I'm talking about high school graduates, technical school graduates, Whatcom Community [College] graduates, and WWU. And I say this because currently a large percentage of the kids that graduate from any of those levels of schooling can't afford to stay here and they leave.
Von: The thing that comes to mind is more AmeriCorps jobs. I know the City of Bellingham works with the Washington Conservation Corps. They have, I think, still two crews. Then there's the Washington Reading Corps that I was a part of; I was a part of both Washington Reading Corps and the Washington Conservation Corps. I would like free college, secondary education, or at least more assistance that way; but in terms of the city helping out, I'm not quite sure how to do that. If the city became a sponsor for more AmeriCorps programs, that would really help because they have that loan deferment program, you automatically get food assistance, and you get training within a field just by being there, by receiving that stipend.
CTNW: What do you believe is the City of Bellingham's biggest economic development opportunity or opportunities?
Von: Well, we only have two solar companies right now—Western Solar and Ecotech Solar. If we could combine the solar industry—100-percent renewable energy solar industry—combine that with the housing and building, all of these facilities, and do that in conjunction with the WTA's [Whatcom Transportation Authority] goal to have a 100-percent renewable fleet by, I think it's 2022. And if there's like a "dig once" policy, every time we dig into the ground and we have room for that dark fiber for broadband—city-wide broadband. Right now, I think Bellingham could be a cornerstone area for renewable energy. And I listened to the book called "Tides" by Jonathan White, and he talks about trying tidal energy. It's trickier, but we have such consistent tides. If there were a way to manage that energy coming in and going out—that tidal power—that could help. But right now, I think solar, I think renewable energy, it's just right there. And having the school bus system go 100-percent renewable. There needs to be improvement there, but they have a plan, at least the WTA does. The school buses not right now are what I have learned.
CTNW: What basic services in Bellingham need improvement? Services like safety, transportation, water...
Von: In terms of services for families, families that are at poverty level and about to go homeless... I mean, I work in the school district, and I've worked at several different schools on extended assignment. The main school that I work at has the highest percentage of diversity, and we have a lot of homeless kids. Opportunity Council can only do so much. DVSAS [Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services], I mean, they have the niche. There's just such a high need, and all the resources that we do have are already over-extended. So, for example, and my personal example, I have these disabilities and get pushed to DSHS [Dept. of Social and Health Services]. DSHS tells me to go to the Opportunity Council to get housing and essential needs. The first two-and-a-half years of my recovery, I was able to get housing and essential needs and support from the Opportunity Council. But then I started working just a little bit too much and I lost their support, and then got put into that purgatory. And then I went through it again: DSHS recommends that I go to the Opportunity Council, they say housing and essential needs, housing and essential needs told me they're capped because they're spent, they can't take any more in. So, for me, it goes back to housing.
CTNW: What can the City of Bellingham do to improve the city's environment and parks?
Von: When I think about the work that I do with the Conservation Corps and how much of the land is taken over by Japanese knot-weed and Himalayan blackberry, if we took some of the land—that city land—and really just worked at it to build lots of... I don't know, not mini-food gardens. But just to have the trees that we do put in, the shrubs that we do put in, they can be aesthetic and provide nourishment to the people at the same time. That Post Point Great Blue Heron Rookery that they're trying to build on, if we could protect that and make it into a protected area, I want to see that.
The equipment that's put in for parks, have somewhere ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] for youth and kids. Have swings with seat-belts in them and have musical instruments and different ways to play these musical instruments in the parks. Have more texture so that kids that are just more tactile but they're not going to jump around or something like that, at least they have something that they move their hands across or move a limb across or something. Like the Big Rock Garden, their paths are pretty good; Boulevard Park, the paths are pretty good. And ADA equipment for folks at, like, Lake Padden or even at Lakewood. Have some sort of boat or canoe that you can have a wheelchair go out in there, too. So yeah, more edible plants, and more ADA accessibility.
CTNW: So, what style of leadership would you bring to the council, and what do you think that the City of Bellingham needs with regards to leadership?
Von: I listen pretty well—I try—and when I listen, I try to really take in things. I'm a pretty absorbent person. And I don't want to just nod my head and say "yeah, yeah I heard you," and then somebody doesn't see any results of what they tried to communicate. I understand that it's a team. I go back to the idea of syncretism and trying to take in everybody's perspective and try to synergize it in such a way that we come up with a solution that reduces the amount of suffering that's going on in our city, and is most beneficial to quality of life. So, listening, a synergistic focus on teamwork, and just a sincere desire to understand.
CTNW: Governor Inslee recently declared the State of Washington a "sanctuary state." What does that mean to you? Do you agree or disagree with it? And how will our local cities and county deal with the compliance issues? How will it affect them? How will they comply with it?
Von: I agree with it. I'm nervous about—because just the other day off Birchwood, there's an area in Birchwood where there was a bunch of ICE activity there. I think it's [going to be] really tricky. How local law enforcement is going to handle it: I think we need to look at what jails we build or do not build, and make sure space doesn't get leased to ICE. Locally, I know that Chief Dahl, he was saying they're not just going to pull people over and they're not going to racially profile, and they're not going to do, like, you can't ask for immigration status right off the bat.
I terms of specific protocol, I don't know how far to go into that because even as a school, like as a staff, we've talked about like, how do we do this if ICE shows up at our door. As a school, I know they're one of the sensitive areas, and hospitals are too. You're not supposed to just go in and just start taking people. I think there needs to be trainings now for, if, and when ICE comes in for schools, hospitals, all sensitive areas. And then further training for—like, Community to Community, when they gave the "know your rights" training, like ICE needs to have a warrant signed by a judge in order for them to take you—but like what do we do even if there's an illegal detention, which has been happening too.
CTNW: So, is there anything you'd like to share with us, something you wish that we had have asked you, or that you would want people to know?
Von: I just hope the next couple of years are as prosperous as possible for everyone.
You can find out more and Von Emeth Ochoa and his campaign at vonforthepeople.org, or on Facebook: Vote Von for the Peoples of — Por Las Gentes de — Bellingham.