PubliCola Picks: “Yes” On Initiative 135

Seattle is facing a historic housing shortage. In 2019, according to one national report, the region had a housing gap of almost 82,000 units, and the problem has gotten worse, not better, since the pandemic began. The lack of housing for people at all income levels has made this a dual crisis: With rents at all-time highs, even people with moderate incomes can barely afford to live in the city, and those at the bottom are suffering most of all. According to a recent study by Challenge Seattle, a business-backed group headed by former Gov. Christine Gregoire, there is a “severe shortage of affordable rental units for lower income households” in Washington state, particularly for those making less than 30 percent of median income—those most likely, in other words, to fall into homelessness.

PubliCola Picks graphicSocial housing—specifically, mixed-income rental housing that would remain permanently affordable and publicly owned—could be a key part of the solution to this multifaceted problem. Initiative 135, on the February 14 ballot, would create a new public development authority— a kind of quasi-governmental organization with the power to build, acquire, and operate housing in Seattle.

People with incomes ranging from 0 to 120 percent of Seattle’s median income would be eligible to rent apartments in these new and repurposed buildings. Renters in social housing wouldn’t get kicked out if their incomes rise; instead, their rents would increase too, though never higher than 30 percent of their income, the widely accepted definition of affordability. Crucially—and in contrast to other types of affordable housing—renters themselves would make up a majority of the new PDA’s governing board, and would also have a say in how their building is run, along with a budget for amenities and events.

This type of mixed-income housing won’t, on its own, fix the city’s housing crisis. What it will do is provide badly needed housing for hundreds of people who have been, or are at risk of being, displaced from Seattle, augmenting other efforts to build government subsidized public and nonprofit housing such as apartments for people exiting homelessness. Many more ambitious initiatives—such as Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent commitment to commit $4 billion to affordable housing and legislation that would allow denser housing across the state—will be necessary to fill the gap. Social housing is a key piece of the puzzle, not the whole solution.

Critics, including the Seattle Times, have claimed the initiative is toothless because it lacks a funding source. This is disingenuous: As supporters of the initiative have pointed out repeatedly, including a revenue source would risk violating the state’s “single-subject rule” for initiatives. Previous public developers, like the Pike Place Market PDA, have been established in exactly the same way I-135’s sponsors, House Our Neighbors!, are proposing: Get the developer going first, identify revenue sources second.

Nor is it true that social housing supporters haven’t thought about how they would pay for it. In fact, they’ve identified numerous potential revenue streams, including federal housing funds, new progressive local taxes, and funding from the state, whose Democratic leadership, including Gov. Jay Inslee, has recently shown a renewed interest in investing in new affordable housing. Longtime State Rep. and housing advocate Frank Chopp, now a senior advisor to the housing nonprofit Solid Ground, has publicly said he would work to secure funding if the measure passes—a strong vote of confidence from someone with a wealth of experience making housing happen.

The measure has also garnered opposition from members the anti-development left, who argue in the King County Voters’ Guide that the measure is a waste of money because it would create mixed-income housing, rather than housing exclusively for homeless or very low-income people. The idea that very poor people should be segregated into apartment buildings that bar tenants with modest incomes (or kick people out if their income rises) has been debated ad nauseam for decades, but the US has broadly abandoned Cabrini-Green-style public housing projects in favor of mixed-income communities where better-off renters help fund the “operations, maintenance, and loan service” for the community by paying higher rents than those making little or nothing.

This element of the plan should give skeptics cause for optimism: Once built, social housing should become a self-sustaining system—one solution, among many that must happen simultaneously, to Seattle’s affordable housing crisis.

PubliCola picks a “Yes” vote on Initiative 135.

The PubliCola editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

5 thoughts on “PubliCola Picks: “Yes” On Initiative 135”

  1. Looking at the history of housing and growth in the USA since say, 1900, housing has been financed mostly by private debt on single family homes. The amount of wealth held in residential real estate is huge in America… I think it’s just been in the last few years that Liberals have woke up to the fact that lower home ownership rates for minorities have meant missing out on billions and billions of generational wealth.

    I-135 is a look at a brave new world. What social housing really does is try to disconnect housing from generational wealth. The problem is it takes wealth to make wealth– there’s not 5 billion sitting around in cash and another 50 billion in credit to jump start “real” social housing. The Governor has preposed 4 billion in credit for housing in Washington State (a good thing). If Seattle got half of that, 2 billion in credit, and came up with another 200 million in cash to jump start the process….. just how many units of social housing would that build? Most low income housing outfits, like LIHI and the like, spend over 400k per unit. That cooks down to rents at least $2500 for each unit for management and to pay a 30 year mortgage on the building? Two billion builds like 2,200, maybe 2,500 units? Help me out here if you disagree… what is the cost per unit you’re looking at? How many units built in next 5 years? How do you average this into something remotely affordable? I’m all ears here.

    I’d guess that Social Housing! ends up exactly like The Monorail! did…. a big nothing burger. I’d even guess that good folks at the Urbanist, Seattle Transit Blog, Publicola and much of the Seattle Left already know the math is whacked on I-135 and it’s sort of the Hail Mary prayer “If you build it, they will come”. Come on, Erica… go talk to developer and ask a price for social housing. Until you know what it costs, it isn’t anything but a (hash)pipe dream.

    And we haven’t even touched the nasty question yet…. over 50% of the population of Seattle will qualify for social housing…. so who gets what few coveted units get built? Artists? …… Liberal Arts grads? ….. White People who know the right people?

  2. I am a “No” on this project at this time. Seattle has has voted to pass one property tax levy after another since the Murray administration to fund “homelessness” resources. 59.5% of Seattle property tax bills are from voter approved levies. We also expect to see at least one new King County levy coming later this year.

    I do and have supported making housing more affordable, but we also need to be selective in how we spend our tax dollars.

    1. I do not understand what is the conclusion of your post. What are you trying to say? Please clarify.

  3. I’m a yes but as a small business owner I think it’s very risky to start a project without established or credible sources of funding already lined up. It’s hard to know that as a voter so we are left to trust the sponsors. Even though the initiative process includes the “single-subject rule”, they should still have lined up some sources of funding, right? Maybe I don’t understand the rule or maybe it’s being used conveniently. Who’s the backup if the funds don’t cover expenses? These questions should be communicated to make voters feel that the initiative is completely transparent.

    Still, because the need is so great, I will be voting yes. Washington and Seattle need a balanced mix of affordable and market rate housing.

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful. It is hard to know what is useful or just another group that won’t integrate and copy others in the space.

    What happening with funding of the tiny homes. I have been involved building them and working at funding thru rotary. I head on going funding is being held up by city council members.

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