Seattle is in the middle of a housing crisis, and we need to act! Every day, more and more families are struggling to make ends meet or forced to move out of the city. This housing affordability and supply crisis is complicated, but Seattle has a proven tool that will allow us to rise and face it: The Seattle Housing Levy. We must renew the levy this November.
The housing levy has generated affordable housing solutions across the housing continuum since 1986. For almost 40 years, the levy has built more than 12,000 units of affordable housing across the city of Seattle and created 1,000 homeownership opportunities—housing more than 16,000 people overall.
The people who benefit from the housing it provides are nurses, grocery store workers, bus drivers, and other working people this city depends on every single day. More housing means more families can afford to live where their kids go to school; more housing means more opportunities for working people to thrive.
The rental assistance component of the levy will help an estimated 9,000 people. The homeownership component will create 360 affordable homeownership opportunities. And the prevention component will help keep thousands of renters and homeowners from becoming homeless due to eviction or foreclosure.
The levy has made a huge difference in Seattle, including through Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King County. Habitat’s mission is to build a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live. It is because of the levy that we can build more homes and support Seattleites like Amber, a Habitat homeowner in our Capitol View community and a cultural worker in Seattle. Before moving into her home in Capitol Hill, she faced rising rents and the possibility of having to leave. Now, she owns her home in Capitol Hill and has stability and peace of mind. The levy lets us make more stories like Amber’s possible.
When renewed, the levy will invest $970 million in creating and preserving at least 3,500 affordable homes and stabilizing 4,500 low-income families and individuals. The rental assistance component of the levy will help an estimated 9,000 people. The homeownership component will create 360 affordable homeownership opportunities. And the prevention component will help keep thousands of renters and homeowners from becoming homeless due to eviction or foreclosure.
Investing in housing is also critical to Seattle’s racial equity goals. In a landmark 2022 report, the state Department of Commerce and state Homeownership Disparities Workgroup found only 49 percent of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) households, and only 31 percent of Black households, own their homes, compared to 68 percent of white households. A history of redlining, land appropriation, racially restrictive covenants, and other discriminatory practices has led to these disparities.
To help right these historical wrongs, we need to invest in affordable housing of all types. The levy allows us to create new homes for first-time homebuyers as well as working, rent-burdened households that are spending more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. Affordable housing projects, such as Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal in Pioneer Square, which includes 80 units of low-income housing with wraparound services, are concrete examples of rental housing solutions that work.
The Seattle Housing Levy is a commitment to housing our people with the kind of love, compassion, and dedication that will transform lives and begin repairing the traumas of previous generations.
As affordable housing developers and providers, we work to build homes for everyday people, because when you provide a home to someone you change the world. Let’s make the right choice. Choose housing; vote yes on Proposition 1 by November 7.
Derrick Belgarde is the Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club. Brett D’Antonio is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties,
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.
Next year, Seattle voters will be asked to approve a renewal of the city’s seven-year housing levy—a property tax that, since 1981, has constituted the city’s main source of funds for affordable housing. Although the Office of Housing is still hammering out the details, the proposal is certain to dwarf the current levy, more than doubling the size of the tax and almost tripling amount it will raise, from $290 million to $840 million a year. Under the latest draft, the owner of a median Seattle house would pay about $342 a year if the most recent version of the levy passed, compared to $114 today, an increase in real terms from 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value to 34 cents per $1,000.
What will Seattle voters get for all that money? The biggest-ticket item, at $640 million: About 2,600 new apartments, or about 200 more than the 2016 levy. Most of those units will be studios and one-bedrooms, although the final number, and mix of apartment sizes, could still change; an earlier version of the plan would have built fewer than 2,200 new homes.
Seattle’s Office of Housing is aware that number seems underwhelming, but says they have little choice but to ask voters to do less with more.
“Seattle’s affordable housing developers are contending with the same increased development costs as market-rate developers,” said OH spokeswoman Stephanie Velasco. “Simply put… it’s expensive to do any new development right now, due to inflation, high cost of land, and high cost of materials.”
Merely “meeting today’s need,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, would “mean we wouldn’t be planning for and building the housing needed for our growing population and the projected influx of residents in the near future.”
The revised levy proposal—an expansion of OH’s original, $758 million plan—would also maintain or expand funding for housing acquisition (buying up existing buildings, which both the city and King County did a lot more of during the pandemic), homeownership assistance, eviction prevention, and operations and maintenance (maintaining new buildings and providing supportive services and rent assistance to residents who need them).
“The Operating, Maintenance, and Services (OMS) program keeps the water running, the lights on, addresses regular repairs, provides maintenance and janitorial work, and supports operating and services personnel in Housing Levy-funded buildings,” Velasco said. “We have heard many times from affordable housing providers over the past year, particularly those providing permanent supportive housing, that these funds are critical to keeping their buildings running.”
One thing that has changed since the last levy renewal is that Seattle now has the JumpStart payroll tax, a tax on the wages of the highest earners at Seattle’s largest companies that passed in 2020. According to projections from OH, JumpStart is likely to produce between 1,600 and 2,200 new apartments over the life of the levy—a fact that could end up being a liability or an asset.
For those who reflexively oppose higher taxes—like, say, the Seattle Times editorial board—the existence of JumpStart could provide an argument against expanding the levy. “Say no to huge tax increase for housing,” the headline might read. “Time to go back to drawing board on bloated housing levy.”
City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart tax in 2020 and has defended it during two lean budget cycles, said the city “cannot look to JumpStart to supplant what the levy should pay for. [The tax] is intended to be additive to the housing levy base, which must still grow. [Merely] meeting today’s need,” Mosqueda added, would “mean we wouldn’t be planning for and building the housing needed for our growing population and the projected influx of residents in the near future.” Seattle continued to grow during the pandemic, and city planners anticipate our population will swell to 1 million in the next 20 years.
Mosqueda’s colleague, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, argues that the JumpStart tax could actually help the levy pass, by showing voters that the city has a plan to build enough housing to alleviate Seattle’s affordability crisis.
“For the first time ever, when you look at all these [housing] resources”—including the city’s Multifamily Housing Affordability (MHA) program and the state Housing Trust Fund, among others—“I think we’re pretty well positioned to be the jurisdiction on the West Coast that makes a real systematic impact on homelessness,” Lewis said. “What I would want to really look at is what role does the housing levy fill in the context of all of our funding streams that are going into housing, and how can we use the levy as tool to close gaps?”
“I take the rapid public shift to a stronger levy proposal as a hopeful sign the [Harrell] administration understands this is a legacy issue, and a great issue to embrace and champion.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness
Velasco, from OH, notes that while proceeds from the housing levy are basically steady—unless home values decline sharply, it will keep bringing in reliable revenues year after year—the JumpStart tax is more variable: Payroll tax revenues fluctuate based on the number of high-paying jobs in Seattle, and that number will ebb and flow over time as big employers like Amazon shed and gain staff. “Because of this, we consider the Housing Levy to be foundational to Seattle’s entire affordable housing ecosystem,” Velasco said. OH’s model shows the impact of JumpStart revenues ranging from $1.1 billion (the current 2023 projection) to $557 million (a 50 percent dropoff).
Some advocates have argued that the levy should be even larger, to build in long-term wage stability for housing provider staff, fund ongoing maintenance at buildings that already exist, and create more housing, especially larger, family-sized size units, which make up just 15 percent of the latest levy proposal.
Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said the success of the levy will depend on whether it will “stand the 2030 test. Will we look back in seven years and say: ‘Damned right! This city made the biggest housing difference possible’? … I take the rapid public shift to a stronger levy proposal as a hopeful sign the [Harrell] administration understands this is a legacy issue, and a great issue to embrace and champion.”
Housing Development Consortium director Patience Malaba—who, like Eisinger, testified in favor of a larger levy at a recent TAC meeting—said the levy still has “room to grow” before OH recommends a final proposal to Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Number one, we should invest in the buildings once we have created them. And number two, we do need to support the people who are working in those buildings” with fair wages, Malaba said. She sees $840 million as “a starting place”—one that should provide the basis for a larger levy that will build more housing and “really push the bounds of what’s possible.”
Historically, Seattle voters have approved the housing levy by increasingly wide margins—56 percent in 2022, 63 percent in 2009, and 70 percent in 2016. But the success of any tax increase depends on whether taxpayers believe the city is investing its tax dollars wisely, and the future campaign against the levy could capitalize on the widespread perception that the region continues to spend more money on homelessness and housing but the crisis isn’t getting better.
Polls, Lewis points out, have consistently showed that voters rank housing insecurity and homelessness among their top concerns—a sign, he said, that “it’s important that we have a plan to actually solve the problem. We have a tendency to get 80 percent there and then hold back a little because we’re worried about overreach. What I would like to do is create a plan and go to the people and say this is the comprehensive plan that the levy [is] a puzzle piece [in] attempting to solve.”
Velasco, from the city’s housing, declined to provide details about the latest iteration of the levy proposal, which the TAC will meet to discuss on December 16. Once OH has finalized its levy plan, it will go to Harrell’s office, and on to the city council, for approval or amendment before it heads to the ballot next year.