Kshama’s Next Big Idea

kshama sawant

Sawant wants tens-of-thousands of social housing units (wikipedia.org)

City councilmember pushes for social housing on Civic Square site

Kshama loves social housing. And that’s a great thing.

Social housing is owned by the government or private non-profits and is, therefore, taken off the out-of-control private housing market.

The United States and Seattle, specifically, has way too little social housing. The lack of social housing is not the only reason for our city’s (and the nation’s) homelessness crisis, but it’s clearly one of them. And it’s talked about too little.

According to 2015 census figures, Seattle has 328,000 total housing units. The Seattle Housing Authority’s Kerry Coughlin says Seattle has 29,000 social housing units. That’s a rate of 8.6 percent.

“It’s certainly not really high” even for the U.S., says Rick Jacobus of Street Level Advisors, a national expert on social housing. “We haven’t really put the money into it. All the major cities of Europe have fairly high numbers. It’s the centerpiece of their policy.”

“In the Netherlands, for example,” Jacobus writes, “social housing accounts for as much as 50 percent of the housing in central cities.” Even whole nations in Europe are well above Seattle in their supply of social housing: Austria 20 percent; Sweden 19 percent; United Kingdom 18 percent; and France 17 percent.

Since Kshama Sawant began running for the Seattle City Council, she has pushed hard to expand the terms of our civic debate on many issues, including housing. Sawant has consistently said in order to fight our housing crisis, city government must expand our public housing stock by tens of thousands of units.

A utopian Trotskyist pipe dream? So was the $15 minimum wage at one time. So let’s push and see how much we can get. (In August, Seattle will be voting on a levy that would expand our supply of social housing, but its flaws are a subject for another time.)

Right now, Sawant needs support for her stand on an actual site: the Civic Square AKA the eleven-year-old, 57,000-square-feet hole in the ground next to City Hall.

“This site should be used for affordable housing,” says Ted Virdone, a Sawant city staffer.

Sawant is highly critical of the 2007 deal that then-Mayor Greg Nickels struck with Triad Capital Partners to develop the site. Triad got the site for a 43-story skyscraper in exchange for including a $25 million, 30,000 square-foot public plaza as part of the project. “Basically the city was giving it away for free and [in return] got a small park,” says Virdone.

Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray wisely ended Triad’s effort because the company couldn’t fund construction.

“Right now, the whole project is in limbo,” says Virdone. “It’s in the hands of the mayor.”

In response to my request for comment, the mayor’s office referred me to a press release about his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA).

Let me make a suggestion to Sawant: the social housing at the Civic Square should also be wet housing. That means that homeless alcoholics can move in without getting sober. Seattle’s small experiment with wet housing at 1811 Eastlake Ave. has been very successful. Residents drink less and use fewer public services than they did when they lived on the street.

One of the biggest barriers to wet housing is neighborhood businesses’ and residents’ opposition to its siting. The Civic Square is bordered on one side by City Hall and another by the King County Courthouse. That’s two mighty powerful neighbors who should be in favor of wet housing. Plus, it’s a real big site, so we could put a lot housing units in there.

It’s a small step toward the tens of thousands of units that we need, but it’s a damn good place to start.

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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