Initiative 135, Seattle ‘social housing’ ballot measure, leads on election night

A ballot initiative that would create “social housing” in Seattle is leading in the initial results from Tuesday’s special election. 

Initiative 135, which would create the Seattle Social Housing Developer, was the only measure on Seattleites’ ballots. 

The tally on Tuesday night showed almost 53% of voters want to create the social housing developer, a public authority to develop, own, acquire and maintain social housing in Seattle. About 47% of voters, so far, say “no.”

Voter turnout is slightly more than 21% for the odd year special election. As more votes are tallied, King County Elections said it expects a 33% voter turnout — about 165,000 ballots, according to elections spokesperson Halei Watkins.

Supporters felt confident Tuesday night that the final tally will uphold the early results. Shortly after 8 p.m., as local drag performer Diamond Lil danced in the center of the room at Washington Hall adorned with Valentine’s Day balloons, supporters of Initiative 135 began quietly raising up phones with results and high-fiving in the background of the performance.

“Seattle voters really said a resounding ‘yes’ to our bold vision of a Seattle that is affordable for all,” said Rebecca Lavigne, spokesperson for House Our Neighbors, the campaign that introduced the measure.

Lavigne said the organizers would reconvene after the election is certified to decide what to do with what they see as newfound momentum, but that Tuesday night they were celebrating a win on social housing. 

“The best part about this, we did it through grassroots efforts. We did it through organizing. We did it without big money. And because we knew we needed it and we believed in it,” said Nikkita Oliver, a former local organizer and lawyer, who delivered initial results to the rest of the party.

If the initiative passes, the authority will be tasked with creating “social housing” — permanently affordable, mixed-income housing that is publicly owned and insulated from private real estate market forces. The city of Seattle would be required to provide startup funds, estimated at about $750,000, for the first 18 months to pay for office space and two staff members.

To pass, the initiative needs more than 50% approval in the final election results. 

House our Neighbors first introduced the measure nearly a year ago and spent much of the summer working to get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

Few people dispute that Seattle needs more affordable housing as the city faces a growing homelessness crisis. The city needs upward of 20,000 units that are affordable to households earning 80% of area median income or less — which equals to slightly more than $96,000 for a family of four — according to a recent city-commissioned housing study

Last year, Seattle’s median income for a family of four was $120,907, according to a city report.

Proponents say a social housing authority would provide more options to help meet Seattle’s affordable housing needs, rather than block existing developers from the market. This mixed-income housing would serve anyone making up to 120% of area median income and organizers say that buildings would be cross-subsidized by people who earn more paying more to live there. 

There was no formal opposition to the ballot initiative. But critics question whether introducing another subsidized housing developer — on top of Seattle’s Office of Housing, three federally funded housing authorities, other public development authorities and several nonprofit developers — will create too much competition for limited dollars.

The social housing developer would be run by a governing board made up mostly of renters. In addition, every social housing building would have a governance council, similar to a homeowners association model.

“It’s a solution that is working around the world,” said Helmi Hisserich, a social housing expert at the Global Policy Leadership Academy, which promotes housing and homelessness policy reforms.

Hisserich, a former deputy mayor of housing in Los Angeles, has closely studied the leading example of the model in Vienna, Austria, and said that “they essentially treat housing as a public good, rather than a commodity for capital gain.” 

Initiative 135 is backed by several labor unions, local chapters of the NAACP and the Sierra Club, Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project as well as some low-income housing providers, including Solid Ground and the Low Income Housing Institute.  

If passed, the social-housing sites would be union-built, publicly owned in perpetuity and would follow high-efficiency energy standards. 

Some state and local elected leaders have come out in favor of the measure, including King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay; state Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat who represents West Seattle; and Seattle Democratic state Rep. Frank Chopp, who co-wrote the voters guide statement in favor of the measure.  

So far, people 65 and older are reporting the best voter turnout with more than 44,000 votes cast. That’s more than double any other age group, according to the King County Elections ballot-return dashboard Tuesday evening. 

A $253 million Enumclaw School District bond was the only other election held in King County on Tuesday night.

Seattle Times staff reporter Sarah Grace Taylor contributed to this report.

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