Tag: Initiative 135

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.

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.

Homelessness Authority Scrambled to Find Shelter Provider in Winter Storm; Displacement Coalition Alums Argue Against Social Housing Initiative

1. During the freezing weather earlier this month, as the city’s two downtown shelters filled up, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority found itself scrambling to find a homeless service provider who could open up a backup emergency shelter at City Hall.

The Salvation Army, Urban League, and Low-Income Housing Institute were all busy operating full or nearly-full shelters at Seattle Center, in Pioneer Square, and in North Seattle, respectively, and couldn’t spare workers to staff City Hall. So the KCRHA landed on an unusual substitute: Tender Angels, a Bellevue-based home health care and senior living operator with no experience operating shelters or working with homeless people.

According to agency spokeswoman Lisa Edge, Tender Angels is “uniquely qualified to meet the needs of folks seeking shelter from … frigid temperatures” despite their lack of experience working with homeless clients. “Their staff is experienced in providing overnight care and maintaining public health guidance in congregate settings,” Edge said. “They are trained in trauma-informed care practices, de-escalation, and conflict mitigation/resolution.”

KCRHA staff were on hand at the City Hall shelter while it was open, Edge said. However, staff availability was limited by the fact that the agency essentially shut down between Christmas and January 3, leaving severe weather response in the hands of “roughly 20 people,” including a 24/7 duty officer, according to KCRHA CEO Marc Dones. On December 20, Dones told PubliCola that KCRHA’s offices were closing “in order to provide staff with an opportunity to recharge[. T]he leadership team and the 24/7 Duty Officer will be available for any emergencies.”

The Salvation Army, Urban League, and Low-Income Housing Institute couldn’t spare workers to staff the City Hall shelter, so the KCRHA landed on an unusual substitute: Tender Angels, a Bellevue-based home health care and senior living operator with no experience operating shelters or working with homeless people.

Historically, the Salvation Army has operated a shelter at City Hall every night during the winter months. Last year, then-mayor Jenny Durkan eliminated all the city’s nightly winter shelters, arguing that the conversion of several emergency shelters to 24/7 operations was an adequate replacement for shelters like the one at City Hall, which now opens only during weather emergencies. This resulted in chaos last year, when the KCRHA ended up sending its own staff to handle transportation away from the City Hall shelter and other logistics during a late-December snowstorm.

KCRHA has lowered the threshold for opening winter shelters so that they will open more often, but virtually all the city’s winter shelters are downtown, making them inaccessible to people living unsheltered in most parts of the city. As PubliCola noted earlier this year, opening shelters downtown does nothing to help people living in areas without easy access to bus service (typically limited or nonexistent during ice and snow) or other transportation options.

2. Several longtime advocates against market-rate development banded together to write the King County Voter’s Guide statement against Initiative 135, a February ballot measure that would establish a new public development authority to build permanently affordable public housing.

The “no” statement, written by John Fox, David Bloom, and Alice Woldt, claims that I-135 would build “mixed-income” housing and that the measure “diverts attention” from the need to pass a robust Seattle housing levy next year.

“Creating another agency to compete for scarce housing dollars that costs several million to set it up before one housing unit is produced doesn’t make sense,” the opponents wrote. “The city’s housing priority must be the 50,000 individuals below 50% of median [income] and 12,000 homeless with little or no income—not prioritized mixed income housing including housing to 120% of median.”

Fox and Bloom co-founded the Seattle Displacement Coalition in 1979; Woldt is a longtime ally of both men and Bloom’s former colleague at the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Displacement Coalition spent much of its time fighting publicly funded mixed-income projects like the Seattle Housing Authority’s New Holly redevelopment, arguing that such projects deprioritized very low-income residents while promoting the neoliberal idea that low-income people are uplifted by proximity to wealthier neighbors. However, the group’s advocacy against new development has often dovetailed with NIMBY concerns about “protecting” exclusionary single-family zoning by banning new multifamily housing almost everywhere in the city. 

I-135 does aim to create “cross-class communities” in permanently affordable public housing, including some units affordable to people making up to 120 percent of median income, currently around $110,000 for an individual or about $155,000 for a family of four. However, unlike the Seattle Housing Authority’s controversial redevelopments, the new social housing properties would not include market-rate housing.

Seattle voters will decide the fate of I-135 in a special election on February 14.