Power Players

The Most Influential People in Seattle Neighborhoods

The housing advocates and real estate titans who frame how we use our space.

By Benjamin Cassidy December 9, 2021

Colleen Echohawk. Photograph by Carlton Canary.

Colleen Echohawk Heals with Housing

The nonprofit leader’s run for the city’s top job reinforced the need to right systemic wrongs.

don’t expect the subject of Colleen Echohawk’s mayoral candidacy to come up. I’m sitting across from Jolene Neiss inside a temporary modular home at Chief Seattle Club’s Eagle Village, documenting her housing travails for a story in the last edition of this magazine. It’s emotional. Her journey to a stable living situation was harrowing, full of confidants who’d let her down and others she’d disappointed along the way. But talking about the nonprofit staffers that connected her to this community helps, and even if she’s off on the campaign trail, that apparently requires talking about Echohawk.

“She puts her hands in the dirt!” Neiss tells me, by which she means that Echohawk’s handed out food, socks, and something even more fundamental to those in need over the years. “She looks all prim and proper, but she’ll give you a hug when most people are like, ‘Oh, hi,’” Neiss says, pantomiming an arms-length greeting. “It’s meaningful. It’s not fake.”

Not an empty compliment when describing a politician, which felt odd to call Echohawk during her monthslong run for the city’s top post. The founder of the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness had spent years building Chief Seattle Club into a venerable organization that embeds the urban Native experience into its housing and human services work. As executive director, Echohawk adeptly moved between long-term planning and the urgent demands of a community in crisis. Her nimble advocacy added almost 400 units to the city’s low-income stock, including a new affordable housing development in Pioneer Square designed for Indigenous people. “I believe that part of our healing in the Native community is to reclaim our rights to house our elders and help our families,” says Echohawk.

The member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake didn’t see similar results at the city level. “I was frustrated,” she says. “I believe in our homeless community…I know them.”

Though Echohawk’s bid ultimately fell short, venturing into an election reinforced for her the systemic disadvantages faced by Native communities and other people of color around Seattle. For now she’ll carry that awareness as interim CEO at another nonprofit, YouthCare, that aims to end youth homelessness. Her role is only temporary, she says, because her project is broader. “I am really excited,” she says, “about changing the trajectory of who has the privilege and wealth in this city.”

Rich Barton

Zillow escapism has been so ubiquitous lately that SNL parodied it. Yet the CEO of the real estate tech giant isn’t content with being bookmarked for property voyeurism and valuations. He bet big on flipping homes to fend off other iBuyers—and lost, shuttering the division this fall. His swerve shook the industry.

Tracy Cornell

Starbucks had all of four stores when she came on board to shepherd future locations. Now the Gibraltar LLC broker uses that grasp of real estate mathematics (tenant improvement grants! build-out costs! rent structure!) to place promising local restaurants and shops where they’re likely to thrive. See: Hello Robin in University Village.

Ada M. Healey

A viral time-lapse video documented the ridiculously fast rise of office and apartment towers in South Lake Union over a few years. The chief real estate officer at the late Paul Allen’s development company, Vulcan Real Estate, had a major hand in that glossy transformation. She will again as Vulcan builds a new Amazonia in Bellevue.

Tod Leiweke

Though his Los Angeles–based brother, Tim, initiated the effort to renovate KeyArena, the Kraken CEO played an integral role in bringing the stadium project, as well as a community-centric Northgate training facility, to fruition. Even better: The Leiwekes had Climate Pledge Arena outfitted to the NBA’s liking, meaning we may bring back those Sonics after all.

Nicole Macri

This state representative can call on two decades of work at Downtown Emergency Service Center to inform her housing-first views on mitigating homelessness and mental health crises. Last session she guided new “just cause” eviction protections; the next she’ll try to advance statewide upzoning conversations, taking a cue from Oregon.

Donna Moodie

There are few better places to foster community than a restaurant, but the Marjorie owner decided long ago that she could do more in hers. The executive director of the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and Community Roots Housing leader oversees projects that strive to make the area more equitable and sustainable, such as plans to create a bird and pollinator habitat corridor in Cal Anderson Park.

Julia Nagele

She recently gave us reason to cheer, not jeer, the addition of another luxury high-rise downtown. When the 40-story Emerald rose last year, one of its architects shattered a glass ceiling: The principal and director of architectural design at Hewitt became one of the only women in the world to design the exterior of a building so tall.

Estela Ortega

Nearly 50 years after she joined the occupation of Beacon Hill School to protest a defunded ESL program, El Centro de la Raza’s executive director carries forward the legacy of her justice-oriented late husband, Roberto Maestas, on the same site. Her tribute—affordable housing and a festive plaza in his name—has become a model for responsible, culturally conscious development.

Gordon Padelford

The increasingly Scandinavian look of our streets these days is due in no small part to this urbanist’s advocacy. As infectious aerosols roiled indoor dining, the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways executive director pushed for cafe streets as an alternative. The pergolas are here through at least spring of 2022.

Evelyn Shapiro

Construction projects all across the city halted this fall when the Northwest Carpenters Union went on strike for better wages. The executive secretary-treasurer behind the work stoppage became the first woman to ever lead a United Brotherhood of Carpenters regional council in the U.S. upon her election, representing the interests of 28,000 carpenters across six states, including 12,000 here. But her union legacy is in jeopardy: She has resigned amid an investigation into alleged misconduct.

Maiko Winkler-Chin

Chinatown—International District felt the effects of Covid before any other Seattle enclave, as racism arrived before outbreaks here. In partnership with two other local orgs, the executive director of the neighborhood’s public development authority helped mobilize a grant-funding machine that raised about $1 million for restaurants and other small businesses in the community.

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the nonprofit at which Colleen Echohawk is interim CEO. It's YouthCare.

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