Don’t Believe the Seattle Times—Social Housing Will Play a Vital Role in Solving Our Affordability Crisis

Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to the Seattle Times’ endorsement of a “no” vote on Initiative 135, a Seattle ballot measure that would create a new public development authority (PDA) to build, acquire, and operate publicly owned, permanently affordable mixed-income housing in Seattle. The PDA would be run by a majority-renter board, giving residents a direct influence over issues that impact their community.

The Times’ editorial made a number of bombastic, questionable statements in its argument against the initiative, including many PublICola found misleading. We offered advocates for the initiative an opportunity to respond to some of the factual claims the Times made in its editorial advocating a “no” vote on this measure.

Initiative 135 will be on the February 14, 2023 ballot in Seattle.

By House Our Neighbors! Coalition

The Seattle Times editorial board decided they were against Initiative 135 before the endorsement interview even started. It seems as though they simply worked backwards from their “no” position to find reasons that they were going to present to the public, including many they didn’t even ask about during the endorsement interview. The editorial board has yet again contradicted itself, holding I-135 to a completely different set of standards than past measures it has supported while flaunting the deeply flawed arguments we’ve highlighted here.

Yes on I-135I-135 has no funding and no accountability for public dollars.” When they raised this concern, we reminded the editorial board that they didn’t have concerns about the lack of funding in the proposal for Charter Amendment 29—the “Compassion Seattle” initiative, which would have required the city to add thousands of new housing or shelter beds with no additional funding—which they endorsed.

Unlike the CA29 campaign, we’ve been honest with the public from day one that state law prevented us from including a funding source for the Seattle Social Housing Developer in the language of the initiative. We made it clear to the editorial board that public development authorities do not have taxing authority. In fact, it would be illegal to give a PDA taxing authority. However, the new PDA would receive bonding authority, creating leverage to finance new housing without large infusions of funding.

While we couldn’t provide ongoing funding for the PDA, we wanted to secure some start-up funds so it wouldn’t start out with no financial support. This is why we included 18 months of in-kind support from the city, which the city’s own budget office has estimated at a cost of just $750,000— a sliver of the $7.4 billion annual budget the council recently passed. It is important to note that from day one, the PDA has the authority to seek out funding on its own from private foundations and all levels of government, including the state.

The Times also complains that Washington State already spends millions of taxpayer dollars on housing, which is precisely the point: Social housing, which includes housing affordable to people making between 0 and 120 percent of median income, is a model that leverages rental income to reduce the need for outside funding.

While the housing I-135 would create wouldn’t be considered “homelessness housing” in a legal sense, it would nonetheless be housing that would be available to people coming out of homelessness or transitioning out of the city’s limited supply of permanent supportive housing, including families with housing vouchers that many private landlords won’t accept.

Housing experts say it ultimately doesn’t pencil.” The editorial board makes this claim without saying who they consulted with, nor what numbers they used to reach this conclusion. There are no examples of social housing in Seattle, so it could not have been from here.

Furthermore, our research shows that the social housing model would indeed work in Seattle. Utilizing publicly accessible financial statements from an existing recently constructed housing development, affordable housing expert and PhD candidate Julie Howe, as well as economists Paul Williams and John Burbank, assisted in the creation of a pro forma that demonstrates the model remaining financially sustainable for more than 80 years.

The theory is that people would be willing to pay above market rates to subsidize the lower rents of their neighbors in the same building. Where did they get this from? Whose theory is this?

Let’s root this assertion in an actual pro forma, drafted from the financial statements and construction costs of a recently constructed apartment complex, the Station House.

If this were a social housing building, renters making 120 percent of the area median income would pay $2700 a month, compared to the current market rate of $2800 a month with utilities.  They would be living next to the light rail station in a high-quality Passivhaus building. Their building would have a resident governance board, and community spaces dedicated inside the building. They would be living in a space with no fear of retaliatory evictions or drastic rent increases, a place with inherent protections from the typical practices of predatory private property owners. Additionally, their rent would be going directly to the social housing developer to buy and build more housing (especially after the 30-year loan is paid off), not a private equity firm or for-profit rental corporation.

 Real Change has traditionally focused on advocating for those who are experiencing homelessness” and is straying from its mission. This is simply laughable and further cements the disdain the Seattle Times editorial Board has for Real Change. The board describes Real Change as “a social justice advocacy group that runs a newspaper.” The editorial board is well aware that Real Change has an Advocacy department and a separate Editorial department, and that journalists staff, and write, our paper. Real Change also served on the Times’ Project Homeless community advisory board, until the paper disbanded that board last year.

The editorial board takes umbrage with the fact the I-135 “ordinance does not concern homelessness housing” exclusively—instead, it would enable new housing for people making between 0 and 120 percent of the Seattle median income. This criticism shows how little they know about what is permissible in ballot initiatives and what isn’t. Housing for people experiencing homelessness is the direct purview of the City Council and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and cannot be superseded in a ballot initiative. Our lawyer advised us to make this point explicit so it couldn’t be seen “to interfere with or exercise the City Council’s powers” under state law, including the state law about homelessness housing.

And while the housing I-135 would create wouldn’t be considered “homelessness housing” in a legal sense, it would nonetheless be housing that would be available to people coming out of homelessness or transitioning out of the city’s limited supply of permanent supportive housing, including families with housing vouchers that many private landlords won’t accept. What’s more, it would help keep additional families from being pushed into homelessness by creating more affordable housing options for those struggling with unrelenting increases in housing costs.

We have to be honest with the public that our current affordable housing production levels will never meet the scale of our need. We need a new model.

We are deeply curious what the Seattle Times Editorial Board thinks the city should be doing to address the homelessness and housing crisis. They repeatedly push for the criminalization of homelessness. They speak out against increasing the housing levy so that affordable housing providers can do more. They don’t find it wise to increase our debt limit to build more affordable housing across the state. In spite of overwhelming evidence that homelessness is primarily an economic issue, they continue propping up the narrative that the homelessness crisis is actually a drug crisis. They take issue with the fact that I-135 would make it harder to evict people, in spite of clear evidence that evictions overwhelmingly lead to homelessness. They support the unlawful placement of eco-blocks in public rights-of-way, which make it harder and harder for our unhoused neighbors living in RVs to find a safe place to sleep.

Unlike the Seattle Times Editorial Board, here at Real Change we have the privilege of interacting with our unhoused, and low-income, neighbors and hearing directly from them. We know that they want deeply affordable, quality housing that won’t lose if they start making a little bit more money.

Here is what some of our Real Change vendors have to say about the need for social housing:

Darrell Wrenn, “The whole process is outdated. Housing needs to be reimagined and housing needs to be a human right. Things can’t change without social housing and Initiative 135.”

Susan McRoy: “It’s not something that is an experiment or a dream. It’s being put in place around the world. And Seattle can step up to the plate and say ‘We don’t need to be victims of gentrification. We can do something where we have stability in our community.”

Carl Nakajima: “We need to create more affordable housing for people at every income level, not only low-income, but all-income housing.”

At Real Change, we know that homelessness is a housing issue. While there are several non-profits and current public developers doing tremendous work to house our neighbors, we have to be honest with the public that our current affordable housing production levels will never meet the scale of our need. We need a new model. One that works in tandem with current affordable housing developers, to rapidly scale up housing outside the private market. Housing that is owned, and operated, as a public good. Housing that more Seattleites are eligible for. We can create a Seattle where all can afford to live and thrive. We can create this vision with social housing.

House Our Neighbors! is a political committee of Real Change.

12 thoughts on “Don’t Believe the Seattle Times—Social Housing Will Play a Vital Role in Solving Our Affordability Crisis”

  1. I urge you to vote NO on I-135.
    I’ve been involved in affordable home ownership for 35 years in WA. We do not need the city to become a developer and landlord.

    To quote the article below, “I-135 would have the city create and fund a new Public Development Authority (PDA) to acquire and build “mixed-income” housing, but there are more than three dozen existing agencies, most community-controlled nonprofits, that have been doing this for decades. ”

    Existing experts in the field of affordable housing development and administration are woefully under-resourced. The only barrier to these agencies fulfilling their mission is capital.

    The city is attempting to reinvent what’s already being done, and spend our money doing so.

    “I-135 would not only duplicate the efforts of existing agencies, but the city would also be on the hook for the new PDA’s startup costs for at least 18 months. Since I-135 includes no new funding, this means more limited housing dollars going to bureaucracy and staffing before even one unit of housing is produced.”

    We need affordable housing, both rental & owned that is developed BY AND FOR the community. Community Land Trusts & affordable non-profit financing organizations both provide access to home ownership that remain IN THE HANDS OF THE COMMUNITY. Many existing orgs develop and manage affordable rentals. They too are in need of capital.

    All of these agencies will be forced to compete with the city for funds, likely starving organizations who are doing the work now.

    YES, we need more housing, and lots of it. FUNDING THE EXISTING EXPERTS will get housing online sooner. Setting up a behemoth agency within the city will delay and delay – we cannot afford this.

    “One of the most egregious aspects of I-135 is that it allows the new PDA to acquire existing unsubsidized low-income apartments and, as tenants move out, convert those units to market and above market rates to fulfill its “mixed-income” goals, further depleting our supply of low-cost units and contributing to homelessness.”

    YIKES.

    Please join me in taking a stand for community based housing that’s AFFORDABLE and stays in the hands of our communities, and for funding those who are already making this happen.

    Here are my questions.

    1. What landscape analysis was done prior to launching this initiative?
    2. Where’s that research & how can we read it?
    3. Who of the people currently doing the actual work in the affordable housing development field in Seattle were interviewed and consulted with?
    4. How can we view the projected budget documents behind the financing assumptions?
    5. For instance, what’s the strategy regarding the municipal bonds sales?
    6. Since these are essentially loans made to the city, what are the commitments with the cities making regarding interest payments?
    7. What is the maturity date of these bonds?
    8. How much money are they projected to generate?

    The Housing Development Consortium came out early and opposition to this initiative. HDC is comprised of those with knowledge, experience, & expertise in effective affordable housing development.

    This initiative is a shiny new thing that is gathering some attention, while existing organizations doing incredibly good work are massively undercapitalized. Vote NO.

    1. Rebecca Lane – There are mistakes in your statement needing correcting. First and foremost, the public development agency is not the City. Read the text. At the outset, the resolution looks to make it very clear the City wants no part of the liability of and is separate from the public development authority. Second, you talk about this organization converting market rate apartments to “above market” rates. Those don’t exist, or if they do, they don’t get rented. Who pays more than market rates for housing? Third, this IS “community” housing. It is retained by local, public ownership and has a governing board. Its literal mission is to add local affordable housing units to Seattle. Finally, low income housing proponents are mixed on this one, some in support and some against. The funding mechanism is bonds taken out on future rent, which is not the same as HUD dollars and low income tax credits that fund so much other low income housing. I mean, I don’t think the handful of low income housing producers are making enough affordable housing, do you? I don’t think our current system is working great and let’s just keep doing that, do you?

  2. I think the concept of social housing isn’t a bad idea…… but how will it ever be paid for?

    If PubliCola wants to be taken seriously, please dive into the finances of social housing. What kind of money does it take to build an apartment building (per unit)? and what sort of rent would be needed to pay off a 30 year bond? (on average, I understand that the rent would be sliding scale). There are builders who can go over this stuff with you in a few hours. Please, Ms. Barnett, get some baseline numbers.

    Also look at the last 5-10 or so projects done by the Seattle Housing Authority and find out how much they paid per unit. That should give you a half way decent baseline number to judge I-135 from.

    Here’s an article about a project in in Tacoma by Shilo Baptist Church building 60 units of low income housing for 25 million (over 415k per unit). https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/tacoma/tacoma-church-builds-low-income-housing-hilltop/281-52509a3b-b152-4a72-931f-a0b06c7ddc7e The 30 year bond payment and upkeep per 415k unit? Around $2500 a month maybe?

    So what are the real numbers? How is this “social housing” going to be paid for?

  3. Right Erica ! And the Seattle Times, who doesn’t like I-135, and in another editorial today (1/24) doesn’t like Gov Inslee’s raising state debt to pay for housing, has the audacity yesterday to publish, “Don’t Allow 2023 to Set a New Record for Homeless Deaths”. Well, these things are related, Seattle Times. If we don’t have any affordable housing, then people die in the streets. Homelessness is a Housing Problem (read G. Colburn’s book).

  4. No thanks, no thanks, no thanks. We can see what all the zillions of spending has gotten us. No more. And btw, highly disingenuous to argue that bonding authority is not a funding mechanism–who do they think will be paying for those bonds? Not the beneficiaries of this giveaway, that’s for sure. We have gotten not very much at all for all the money we’ve dumped, into the pockets of the “leaders” of all these homeless services non-profits, and we’ve gotten in return highly paid people who live well and accomplish nearly nothing as evidence by the condition of our streets and parks and other public spaces. We are done with this. Go away.

    1. You may be right to criticize the high salaries of the leaders of the non-profits in our local “Homeless Industrial Complex”, but keep in mind that homelessness is an acute problem now in many cities across the country. There is a general shortage of affordable housing, here and elsewhere in America. If the non-profits are raking in a fortune for applying band-aids, we should re-evaluate what we’re doing. But solving the housing crisis is a real problem that we can’t ignore.

    2. Bonds are paid by future revenue streams, renters. Nobody forcing you to live in social housing or fund it. C’mon dude, do yer research.

      1. A tent on the sidewalk sits my budget…if only people would quit kitchen about it…

    3. You know bonds are debt? The bonds are paid off by the renters who will be living in the housing. Voters/taxpayers do not pay for bonds.

      1. They don’t? They won’t subsidize at least some of the renters who’ll be living in that housing? Not buying that. We will end up paying one way or another.

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