By Patience Malaba and Jane Hopkins, RN
Nearly every day, our organizations hear from workers, employers, and housing providers about the tremendous need for more housing options across Seattle. Just how big is the need? The Washington State Department of Commerce just released new projections that the city will need about 112,000 new units over the next 20 years.
To get there, we’ll need to maximize all the tools in our toolbox. The good news is that there is momentum. The state legislature went big and bold for changes that will make an impact, by investing in the housing trust fund and adopting reforms that allow more missing middle housing around the state.
In Seattle, these improvements work in concert with a proven housing program that is up for renewal this year: The seven-year housing levy. Mayor Bruce Harrell released his levy proposal in March and the city council is leading a process to place it on the ballot this November.
For nearly four decades, the housing levy has been our city’s voter-approved funding source to build and maintain thousands of units of permanent, affordable homes for vulnerable and low-income residents. It is an unparalleled success story—not only supporting the construction of housing, but providing assistance to seniors to mitigate displacement, emergency rental funds to prevent homelessness, and targeted homeowner support to address inequities and build generational wealth.
The proposed $970 million levy package builds on this record of accomplishment, and is supported by a diverse coalition of leaders and stakeholders who have been rethinking how we leverage levy funds to meet urgent needs while better coordinating with other funding sources. Our shared goal and commitment has been to partner with the mayor and city council to present voters with the best possible levy proposal this November, to make the largest—and most lasting—impact on the diverse housing needs of our communities.
The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.
First, we must expand our commitment to the basics: Thousands of units of affordable homes for low-income, working, and vulnerable families and individuals. These include new construction, restoration and preservation of existing buildings, and purchase of buildings to maintain or improve affordability.
Second, we need to emphasize the importance of permanent, supportive housing solutions for people we are helping back into stable housing or those at risk of slipping into homelessness. Levy funds have, and must continue, to be part of the larger solution as we address the acute and individualized needs of people experiencing mental health and addiction crises. The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.
A third critical element is maintaining funds for emergency rental assistance—making sure a low-income worker who loses a paycheck or has an unexpected medical bill doesn’t lose their home, resulting in greater downstream costs and trauma. These simple and proven programs to prevent eviction and homelessness are essential to community stability and economic independence.
Finally, our levy renewal should continue progress in addressing past inequities that have led to lower rates of homeownership for communities of color, and greater rates of displacement and gentrification in historically redlined neighborhoods of Seattle. Thoughtful investments in down payment assistance, home repair, and other programs not only allow families to place and maintain roots in our city but provide for future generations to achieve goals of homeownership and financial equity.
Seattle voters have demonstrated a commitment to affordable housing again and again, dating back to our first housing levy in 1986. But we are not taking this commitment for granted. Voters need to know that the investments they approve are making an impact at a scale that makes a significant difference. The levy is not a cure-all for every housing need facing our city, but it is an integral part of the solution and must expand to continue serving as the foundation for a broader set of investments.
Now, with the need greater than ever, it’s critical to unify around a bold vision for affordable housing. We look forward to building on this record of success with a 2023 levy renewal that meets this moment and provides a foundation for the future.
Patience Malaba is the Executive Director of the Housing Development Consortium, a 200-member association of affordable and low-income housing developers, providers, and advocates.
Jane Hopkins, RN, is the President of SEIU 1199NW, a union representing nurses, care providers, and other healthcare professionals.