By Katie Wilson
I’ve written before about how Charter Amendment 29, promoted by the business-backed group “Compassion Seattle,” was an expensive unfunded mandate with troublingly unclear implications for the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness. Last month, a King County Superior Court judge struck it from the ballot for wholly different reasons: It’s a misuse of the initiative process, conflicting with state law and usurping the city’s legislative prerogatives. The state Court of Appeals denied Compassion Seattle’s appeal of the ruling on Friday.
To be clear, I wasn’t an impassive observer in this process. The organization I work for, the Transit Riders Union, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. TRU is also a part of House Our Neighbors!, the grassroots coalition convened by Real Change to oppose Compassion Seattle.
So yeah, I feel like running some victory laps. But going in circles, even metaphorically, is the last thing to be doing right now. There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.
So, what now? Here are four ways forward.
1. The city should make it easier, faster and cheaper to site and build shelter and permanent housing. CA 29 promised to do this by expediting project applications and waiving land use code requirements and permitting fees. This is one part of the measure that was actually good policy, but it also illustrates why the whole enterprise was so wrongheaded. Land use and zoning falls under the purview of the city’s legislative process and can’t be decided by initiative.
There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.
Siting shelter and housing for homeless people is often controversial. Suppose CA 29 passed and the city began fast-tracking projects; if disgruntled neighbors sued, they’d probably win. The Seattle City Council already took action in early 2021 to make it easier to site and build permanent supportive housing. The Urbanist reported on that effort here. Next year, Seattle’s new mayor and council should work together to make more changes like these the right way, by developing and passing legislation to allow projects to move forward faster.
2. The city should make smart use of new revenue flowing in from the JumpStart tax—a payroll tax paid by Seattle’s largest corporations—as well as the remainder of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation, which will be budgeted this fall. JumpStart’s first year was focused on economic relief from the COVID-19 crisis. But that’s about to change. “Starting next year, two-thirds of the JumpStart funds are for housing and homelessness,” Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “That’s about $135 million annually for emergency housing, long-term housing solutions and everything in between.”
In July, Mosqueda and her council colleagues passed legislation creating a dedicated fund for revenues from the new tax, to help ensure they’re funneled to their intended uses.
This by itself won’t be enough to create 2,000 units of “emergency or permanent housing” in a single year, as CA 29 arbitrarily stipulated, let alone all the permanent supportive housing and deeply affordable housing that’s needed, but it’s a great start.
3. To go further, the city will need to explore new sources of progressive revenue. Last fall, King County enacted the Health Through Housing Initiative, funded by a one percent sales tax, to scale up its efforts on chronic homelessness; that’s not a progressive tax, but it is buying a lot of hotels. Seattle can do its part without further taxing poor people. Should it raise the JumpStart tax? Design a city income tax? Siphon off some unearned wealth? Push for other new options from the state legislature? City leaders should create a task force made up of policy experts and community stakeholders to research what’s possible and report back on the options.
4. One of the most unrealistic pieces of CA 29 was the suggestion that the city should suddenly (and with no new funding) start playing a major role in providing mental health and substance use disorder treatment, services that are currently managed mainly through county and state agencies. The city should acknowledge that behavioral health services are a county and state responsibility and work in partnership with King County and state legislators to fund behavioral health care for people experiencing homelessness.
One promising idea comes from 43rd District Rep. Frank Chopp, who points out that health care is the proper responsibility of state government . He’s developing a proposal called “a prescription for a home,” which he hopes to advance in next year’s legislative session. It begins from the recognition that chronic homelessness is usually related to chronic health conditions, which are nearly impossible to heal or treat successfully without housing. Just as the state now funds health care through Apple Health for qualifying individuals, people experiencing chronic homelessness would have a right to a home and wraparound services.
“The core of the program would be funded right out of the state general fund,” Chopp said. Phased in over time, “it would be part of the state Medicaid budget, like nursing homes, like home care, like prescription drugs.” With the state taking on more responsibility for addressing chronic homelessness, local governments could focus on building housing for the rest of the homeless population and for low-wage workers.
So much for what I think; with CA 29 off the ballot, what are its backers and opponents up to?
“We need to start treating housing as a human right, not an exploitative venture,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change. “For-profit housing will never be the answer to our housing needs. We need to immediately start shifting housing away from the private, for profit sector and into the public sphere. We need social housing now.” The House Our Neighbors! coalition, she says, isn’t going away — it’s planning its next steps.
Compassion Seattle, meanwhile, is urging supporters to pay attention to the city elections.
“We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney,” the campaign said in a statement. “In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”
Reading between the lines, many of the measure’s backers will now throw their weight, and considerable financial power, behind Bruce Harrell for Mayor, Sara Nelson for City Council Position 9 and Ann Davison for City Attorney—the more right-leaning candidate in each race. (Their left-leaning opponents have all spoken out against CA 29.) This won’t surprise anyone who suspected from the start that Compassion Seattle was, in part, about electing city leaders more in line with the priorities of big business.
Here’s hoping that money won’t buy our city elections this year. But money can, actually, buy us housing and other solutions to homelessness—it’s just going to take a lot of it.
“The path to progress, housing, and health for our whole community is the same as it ever was,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. We must “use realistic data to project what it will take to scale up what we know works, and create affordable homes and quality services that serve our whole region,” she said.
If big business really wants to be helpful in this project, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce could start by dropping its ongoing lawsuit against the city’s JumpStart tax. And if Compassion Seattle’s backers have more money to burn than the million dollars they already wasted, maybe just pitch in to build some affordable housing.
Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, a Seattle-based organization advocating for improved public transit and other progressive urban issues.