In case you haven’t noticed, the people of Seattle are getting absolutely bodied by the housing affordability crisis. Last summer, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment increased 9% year-over-year to a whopping $1,710. Over the course of the last decade, median monthly rents in the Seattle area shot up 64%, pushing the poorest residents out of town or onto the streets.
While state and local politicians nibble around the edges and hike property taxes to fund increasingly expensive subsidized housing, House Our Neighbors (HON), the political arm of Real Change newspapers, has a solution that could eventually get us out of this mess for good: Initiative 135, a new law to create a social housing developer.
Neither HON’s representatives, nor the Stranger Election Control Board, nor anyone else thinks this solution will solve the immediate, pressing need to build thousands of affordable housing units tomorrow. But with enough time and political will, this solution could make the affordability crisis a thing of the past.
By no means is this initiative perfect. But Seattle sucks at thinking ahead, as we have demonstrated time and time again when we’ve killed plans to make this city livable. We owe it to the future to think smarter than the generations before us. And for that reason, Initiative 135 is worth your YES vote.
Initiative 135 takes the first step toward the dream of housing for all by creating a public developer equipped with the tools to “build, acquire, own, and manage” housing that will stay affordable forever. Not market-rate housing, which people with low incomes can only afford when the economy crashes. Not government-subsidized housing, which developers can put back on the unaffordable market in 20 or 30 years. But social housing; publicly owned and operated, with rents forever capped at 30% of a tenant’s income.
This developer would scoop up old hotels or else build new, green housing, all financed with bonds against expected revenue from rents. The units would be available to Seattleites making between 0% and 120% of Seattle’s Area Median Income (that is, between $0 and around $121,000 for a family of four). The mixed-income approach would help service the debt on the bonds and avoid the problems that come along with concentrating poverty. Renters and experts in the housing field would govern the places, with renters maintaining a one-seat majority.
Sounds great, right? Right.
But, as we said, it’s not perfect.
The public developer can’t buy or build anything without any money, and voting “YES” on Initiative 135 doesn’t fund anything except for some in-kind startup costs. But that’s by design: the campaign feared courts would strike down the law if the initiative contained a funding mechanism in addition to setting up the agency.
Thankfully, the campaign has powerful allies in Rep. Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) and Seattle City Council Member Tammy Morales, who could use their leverage to convince their colleagues to invest in the new agency. If the politicians fail, then HON will run another initiative to secure an unspecified progressive revenue source.
But even if they get the money, building and even buying housing takes time–and we don’t have time. As we here at The Stranger have been screaming for years now, we needed thousands of units of affordable housing yesterday.
Then again, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, we can work to solve the immediate homelessness crisis while also steadily building toward a future of cross-class social housing across the city. This is especially true if a future campaign secures a separate, progressive funding source. Then the public developer wouldn't compete with current affordable housing programs for the same pots of money.
But even if we granted the agency the time, does it even make sense to use public dollars on housing half-filled with benevolent tech bros? Yes, because guess what? No one should be spending over 30% of their paycheck on rent, even tech workers making more than the average bro.
Though a public developer wouldn’t solve our housing problem tomorrow, it’s obvious that our current system isn’t solving our problems any time soon, either. But establishing a public developer now would plant a seed that could grow into a sane, sustainable system of the kind already operating in places such as Austria, France, Singapore, and Montgomery County, Maryland (sort of).
Let’s choose to make housing a public good. Let’s choose to run it sustainability with union labor. Let’s think of the future, for once.
Vote yes on I-135.