Irene Basloe Saraf, Action Fund Board President
It’s another chance to Meet the Candidate! A few days ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Representative Cyrus Habib, whose 48th District includes Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Medina, Clyde Hill, and the Points Communities.
Elected to the Legislature in 2012, Rep. Habib is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Rodney Tom. Rep. Cyrus Habib is a superstar: Columbia University graduate, Oxford Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School, and the first blind legislator in our state in more than 50 years.
Rep. Habib views the next session’s biggest challenge – adequately funding basic education as per the State Supreme Court McCleary Ruling – as also its biggest opportunity. “I think the most important thing that we could do in this coming session is comply with the court’s ruling in such a way that we can go back to voters and taxpayers and say we’ve done something substantial to close the achievement gap because [that’s] the real purpose of McCleary. In order to do that, it’s important to remember that it’s not just what happens in the classroom that affects the child. It’s important that we don’t pit social services and education against one another. Rather than have an education agenda, we should have a children’s agenda.” [Emphasis throughout the article is the author's.]
He adds that the legislature can comply with McCleary while enacting robust housing funding and policies. “We have a wonderful program in the Housing Trust Fund that allows us to deploy the capital budget to create housing units at the workforce and affordable housing level throughout the state.” Rep. Habib believes it’s important to fund the Housing Trust Fund adequately given the tremendous need. And he doesn’t see an “either/or” choice when it comes to housing and other safety net issues. “There is no reason why housing should be pitted against education in the general fund. Housing development creates jobs and adds revenue to the general fund. There are also a host of policies around our landlord-tenant law that I believe can help keep people in their homes, providing tenants better protections and rights, whether from discrimination or the expense of tenant screening. So we need to continue reforms in that area so that people can rent and stay in their homes."
Rep. Habib notes that the target groups who make up our homeless population include veterans, people with mental illness, survivors of domestic violence, and LGBT youth. “[A]s we make investments in our mental health programs, we need to realize they will help alleviate strain on shelters and give people increased stability; same thing as we work on domestic violence and substance abuse. We should recognize interconnectedness within the most transitional level of housing needs...For those who are homeless, we want to create policies and infrastructure to accelerate the move to stability. For those who do have a home, we want to reverse the move toward instability and help them maintain housing.”
Rep. Habib may be serious in his approach to the next legislative session, but he knows how to relax, too. Autumn means the start of the theater season, and he enjoys catching new plays and shows. He serves on the board of the 5th Avenue Theater located in downtown Seattle. His favorite comfort food is macaroni and cheese, which he might enjoy with his “comfort TV,” old episodes of The West Wing.
In advice to advocates Rep. Habib says, “The single best thing that a group can do to engage a legislator is to speak through the voices of constituents. The most effective thing for me is when constituents who are passionate and informed about housing meet with me and talk about housing.”
He notes that nonprofits can facilitate the meeting and ensure that the constituent-advocates know what policies they can suggest in response. “It’s valuable for me to hear the story of someone being evicted multiple times or not being able to afford escalating rents. But it’s more helpful for me to hear that’s why we need a particular kind of policy change.”
In addition to advice, Rep. Habib also had praise for housing advocates. “I’m so impressed by the real noticeable progress and increased sophistication of our state’s housing advocacy community. I think legislators have noticed the accelerated advocacy. Keep up the good work, continue to tell this good story.”