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.