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.
Social 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.