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.
“I-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.