By Erica C. Barnett
Next year, Seattle voters will be asked to approve a renewal of the city’s seven-year housing levy—a property tax that, since 1981, has constituted the city’s main source of funds for affordable housing. Although the Office of Housing is still hammering out the details, the proposal is certain to dwarf the current levy, more than doubling the size of the tax and almost tripling amount it will raise, from $290 million to $840 million a year. Under the latest draft, the owner of a median Seattle house would pay about $342 a year if the most recent version of the levy passed, compared to $114 today, an increase in real terms from 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value to 34 cents per $1,000.
What will Seattle voters get for all that money? The biggest-ticket item, at $640 million: About 2,600 new apartments, or about 200 more than the 2016 levy. Most of those units will be studios and one-bedrooms, although the final number, and mix of apartment sizes, could still change; an earlier version of the plan would have built fewer than 2,200 new homes.
Seattle’s Office of Housing is aware that number seems underwhelming, but says they have little choice but to ask voters to do less with more.
“Seattle’s affordable housing developers are contending with the same increased development costs as market-rate developers,” said OH spokeswoman Stephanie Velasco. “Simply put… it’s expensive to do any new development right now, due to inflation, high cost of land, and high cost of materials.”
Merely “meeting today’s need,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, would “mean we wouldn’t be planning for and building the housing needed for our growing population and the projected influx of residents in the near future.”
The revised levy proposal—an expansion of OH’s original, $758 million plan—would also maintain or expand funding for housing acquisition (buying up existing buildings, which both the city and King County did a lot more of during the pandemic), homeownership assistance, eviction prevention, and operations and maintenance (maintaining new buildings and providing supportive services and rent assistance to residents who need them).
“The Operating, Maintenance, and Services (OMS) program keeps the water running, the lights on, addresses regular repairs, provides maintenance and janitorial work, and supports operating and services personnel in Housing Levy-funded buildings,” Velasco said. “We have heard many times from affordable housing providers over the past year, particularly those providing permanent supportive housing, that these funds are critical to keeping their buildings running.”
One thing that has changed since the last levy renewal is that Seattle now has the JumpStart payroll tax, a tax on the wages of the highest earners at Seattle’s largest companies that passed in 2020. According to projections from OH, JumpStart is likely to produce between 1,600 and 2,200 new apartments over the life of the levy—a fact that could end up being a liability or an asset.
For those who reflexively oppose higher taxes—like, say, the Seattle Times editorial board—the existence of JumpStart could provide an argument against expanding the levy. “Say no to huge tax increase for housing,” the headline might read. “Time to go back to drawing board on bloated housing levy.”
City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart tax in 2020 and has defended it during two lean budget cycles, said the city “cannot look to JumpStart to supplant what the levy should pay for. [The tax] is intended to be additive to the housing levy base, which must still grow. [Merely] meeting today’s need,” Mosqueda added, would “mean we wouldn’t be planning for and building the housing needed for our growing population and the projected influx of residents in the near future.” Seattle continued to grow during the pandemic, and city planners anticipate our population will swell to 1 million in the next 20 years.
Mosqueda’s colleague, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, argues that the JumpStart tax could actually help the levy pass, by showing voters that the city has a plan to build enough housing to alleviate Seattle’s affordability crisis.
“For the first time ever, when you look at all these [housing] resources”—including the city’s Multifamily Housing Affordability (MHA) program and the state Housing Trust Fund, among others—“I think we’re pretty well positioned to be the jurisdiction on the West Coast that makes a real systematic impact on homelessness,” Lewis said. “What I would want to really look at is what role does the housing levy fill in the context of all of our funding streams that are going into housing, and how can we use the levy as tool to close gaps?”
“I take the rapid public shift to a stronger levy proposal as a hopeful sign the [Harrell] administration understands this is a legacy issue, and a great issue to embrace and champion.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness
Velasco, from OH, notes that while proceeds from the housing levy are basically steady—unless home values decline sharply, it will keep bringing in reliable revenues year after year—the JumpStart tax is more variable: Payroll tax revenues fluctuate based on the number of high-paying jobs in Seattle, and that number will ebb and flow over time as big employers like Amazon shed and gain staff. “Because of this, we consider the Housing Levy to be foundational to Seattle’s entire affordable housing ecosystem,” Velasco said. OH’s model shows the impact of JumpStart revenues ranging from $1.1 billion (the current 2023 projection) to $557 million (a 50 percent dropoff).
Some advocates have argued that the levy should be even larger, to build in long-term wage stability for housing provider staff, fund ongoing maintenance at buildings that already exist, and create more housing, especially larger, family-sized size units, which make up just 15 percent of the latest levy proposal.
Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said the success of the levy will depend on whether it will “stand the 2030 test. Will we look back in seven years and say: ‘Damned right! This city made the biggest housing difference possible’? … I take the rapid public shift to a stronger levy proposal as a hopeful sign the [Harrell] administration understands this is a legacy issue, and a great issue to embrace and champion.”
Housing Development Consortium director Patience Malaba—who, like Eisinger, testified in favor of a larger levy at a recent TAC meeting—said the levy still has “room to grow” before OH recommends a final proposal to Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Number one, we should invest in the buildings once we have created them. And number two, we do need to support the people who are working in those buildings” with fair wages, Malaba said. She sees $840 million as “a starting place”—one that should provide the basis for a larger levy that will build more housing and “really push the bounds of what’s possible.”
Historically, Seattle voters have approved the housing levy by increasingly wide margins—56 percent in 2022, 63 percent in 2009, and 70 percent in 2016. But the success of any tax increase depends on whether taxpayers believe the city is investing its tax dollars wisely, and the future campaign against the levy could capitalize on the widespread perception that the region continues to spend more money on homelessness and housing but the crisis isn’t getting better.
Polls, Lewis points out, have consistently showed that voters rank housing insecurity and homelessness among their top concerns—a sign, he said, that “it’s important that we have a plan to actually solve the problem. We have a tendency to get 80 percent there and then hold back a little because we’re worried about overreach. What I would like to do is create a plan and go to the people and say this is the comprehensive plan that the levy [is] a puzzle piece [in] attempting to solve.”
Velasco, from the city’s housing, declined to provide details about the latest iteration of the levy proposal, which the TAC will meet to discuss on December 16. Once OH has finalized its levy plan, it will go to Harrell’s office, and on to the city council, for approval or amendment before it heads to the ballot next year.