Initiative Would Pave the Way for Social Housing in Seattle

Wohnpark Alterlaa, a social housing project in Vienna
Social housing in Vienna; photo by Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

The House Our Neighbors coalition, a project of the homeless advocacy group Real Change, will file a ballot initiative on Monday to create a new public development authority (PDA) to build publicly owned, permanently affordable housing—also known as social housing—in Seattle. Funding for the PDA would come later, through future state or local legislation.

Social housing, according to Real Change advocacy director Tiffani McCoy, differs from other types of affordable housing because it’s permanently affordable, including to people whose income changes; because it gives renters a say in policies that impact them; and because it’s publicly owned, rather than subsidized or operated by a private nonprofit, like much of the affordable housing in Seattle.

“Developments MUST be permanently protected from being sold or transferred to a private entity or public-private partnership,” the proposed ordinance says.

McCoy says the coalition backing the initiative “didn’t want to just advocate for more money for the [Seattle] Office of Housing or affordable housing in general, because while those are obviously very, very important programs, they can be very restrictive in terms of what [income levels] you can serve. The proposed new authority would build housing for people earning between 0 and 120 percent of Seattle’s Area Median Income, currently $81,000 for a single person or $115,700 for a family of four.

The initiative would set up a PDA—a type of public developer—and require the city of Seattle to provide “in-kind” startup support to run it for the first 18 months; funding to actually build new housing would come later and could require the state legislature to approve a new funding mechanism, as it has for other large local projects like Sound Transit. State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43), a longtime advocate for affordable housing, is supporting the initiative and could be instrumental in creating a funding source for the authority, if the measure passes; he did not immediately return a call for comment last week.

The initiative would also require the city to do a feasibility study before selling off public land to determine whether it could be developed as social housing and transferred to the PDA. In 2019, the city sold a three-acre piece of land in South Lake Union known as the “Mercer Megablock” to a real estate equity firm for $143 million; the sale required the buyer, Alexandria Real Estate, to build 175 units of affordable housing and a make a one-time $5 million contribution to help the city address homelessness. Affordable housing advocates criticized the sale as a missed opportunity to build a much larger number of permanently affordable units on the site.

By adding the requirement that the city study the feasibility of affordable housing before selling off public land, “we just wanted to set up some accountability mechanism,” McCoy said: “A record of [the city] saying why they want this land to go to a private developer, as opposed to being for for public use.”

Initiative backers will have to collect around 26,500 valid signatures to get the measure on the November ballot; since some signatures are always ruled invalid, that means collecting around 35,000 signatures total.

5 thoughts on “Initiative Would Pave the Way for Social Housing in Seattle”

  1. “Affordable housing advocates criticized the sale as a missed opportunity to build a much larger number of permanently affordable units on the site.” Others criticized that the city left a billion dollars in land rent on the table, about $12 million per year annualized for 99 years, that would have funded a lot more than the affordable units promised.

    Social housing would be a great addition but it needs land. The 22 acres of vacant land just “discovered” in Laurelhurst would be a great site to put it but there are many others. Seattle has a lot of underused or unused land (the parcels near Dearborn and 10th on these pages last week come to mind) but the speculative market puts them out of reach of any affordable housing project. The old SPD HQ site, vacant since 2005 and only just being developed now, could have been used for this. The Northgate site would also have been a great opportunity.

    Between failure of imagination and lack of will, it’s hard to imagine any of this happening. The entrenched land cartel (every homeowner and commercial landlord in Seattle) doesn’t really want more housing if they can be convinced it will eat into their pile.

    As these tech companies raise starting wages — $150,000 for a recent graduate — what happens to housing prices, either to rent or buy? If housing costs could be forced down, these companies wouldn’t have to raise wages so high. But no one in Seattle’s business community seems to get the connection between the high price of land and the higher wages they are asked to pay. “With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.” Doesn’t matter if they are cattlemen or pixel farmers, there is only so much land to be divided out. We’re all playing the landlord’s game, whether we know it or not.

  2. Isn’t this what Seattle Housing Authority already does? What is the value add?

    1. SHA is woefully inadequate on many levels including available units. I should know. I’ve lived in SHA housing for over 20 years and would do anything to leave for better run properties. A few years ago they even took disguised preliminary steps to privatize which fortunately failed.

      1. Thanks for the SHA explainer. I’m still scratching my head over why is “social housing” the new buzzy term since exactly last week it seems. It is all the same stuff nonprofits have been working on for years: homeownership programs, subsidized rent, mixed income housing, alternative ownership models, etc etc. Why are we calling an old thing a new thing?

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