Levy is a Mixed Win for Housing


Homelessness is an emergency

All of the $290 million, seven-year levy should have been used for Seattle’s homeless emergency

I’m not happy about the passage of the housing levy. Last night, Tuesday August 2nd, sixty-two percent of Seattle voters supported a renewal of the $290 million housing levy, including me. Since Seattle’s housing needs are vast, I’m relieved that the levy won, but it contained terrible flaws. Now, the Seattle City Council needs to fix Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing and Affordability Agenda (HALA), which has the same problems.

The levy mixes together a true housing emergency—homelessness—and a very serious housing problem—a shortage of workforce housing.

An analogy may help. If your house is on fire, that’s an emergency. That is what homelessness is in Seattle. If you need a new roof for your house, that’s a very serious problem. That is what a shortage of housing for working-class people is in our city.

When City Hall acts on housing, it should deal with the emergency first. Instead City Hall keeps mixing together measures to provide housing for the homeless, the very poor and the working class.

Sadly, there isn’t enough city money to do all of those things. I sincerely wish that there were. Given the city’s fiscal situation, we have to make choices. The correct choice is to spend all of our housing levy money to help the poorest people in Seattle. Instead, City Hall is spreading the money around like a thin layer of peanut butter that fails to cover the bread.

The new levy will spend $200 million on permanently subsidized rental housing for individual Seattleites making $0.00 to $37, 980 per year—the income levels change as the household sizes increase. You can see the problem. This income gap is too wide. (The other $90 million of the levy is a subject for another day.)

The desperate need is at the bottom. According to the city’s own figures, there are over 6,000 homeless people in Seattle (half on the streets, half in shelters or transitional housing). Seattle has 29,000 permanently subsidized rental housing units; those are filled up and have waiting lists. There is basically no available housing for the 6,000 homeless people. The housing levy will only build or preserve 2,150 new housing units.

Despite all this, our leaders keep trying to subsidize housing for single people making over $37,000 a year. People at that income level are hurting, but they are not living on the street. They may be commuting further and further to find affordable housing. I’m not denying that those commutes take a toll on people and accelerate climate change. That doesn’t change the reality of our limited funds and our homeless emergency.

Meanwhile the economic and social trends that make people homeless continue. To name a few: loss of blue-collar jobs to globalization, out-of-control housing inflation and inadequate treatment for mental illness and addiction. Unless the federal government really steps in and reverses decades of terrible housing, trade, tax and social policy, the number of homeless in Seattle will just keep rising. Given the political reality in Washington D.C., positive change seems very unlikely. If Donald J. Trump wins the presidency, the suffering of the nation’s poor will increase beyond comprehension.

If November’s election changes the makeup of state government, more help could come from Olympia. Currently Democrats control the state House and the governor’s mansion. Republicans, however, control the state Senate and have been unwilling to protect, much less expand, programs for the poorest Washingtonians. Even if control of the state Senate flips to the Democrats, there is no guarantee of money for homeless people. Please bear in mind the pithy saying about the political dynamics of state government: “It’s the Democrats against the Republicans; the governor against the legislature; the house against the senate; and everybody against Seattle.”

City Hall should assume that it’s basically on its own. As reported by The Seattle Times, while our politicians just doubled the cost of the housing levy, the rising cost of home construction means fewer units will be built by City Hall in the next seven years than in the previous seven.

There is something the city council can do right now: change HALA. Murray’s “Grand Bargain” is that developers get to “upzone” with bigger and taller buildings and, in exchange, they are required to include housing for poor and working-class people in their projects (inclusionary zoning) or pay into a low-income housing fund.

Again, the housing that will be mandatory in these new developments will be for single people with incomes ranging from $0.00—$37, 980 (higher for bigger households). HALA’s housing requirements must be changed to provide for the poorest among us.

I don’t know exactly where the income line should be drawn—$19,000? $23,000?—,but I am sure that over $37,000 is too high. The city council needs to figure it out.

They must focus all of the city’s housing subsidies on slowing down homelessness.

Questions, tips, comments: 206-877-2952 or georgehowlandjr@gmail.com



About George Howland Jr

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