Push for Seattle ‘social housing’ hits the streets ahead of I-135 vote

Talking to strangers about politics makes Rachel Kay a little nervous. But the 31-year-old retail worker, who rents a one-bedroom apartment with her sister in the University District, believes a surge in the development of “social housing” could be the only way for people like her to thrive in Seattle.

So Kay walked up to a house Tuesday night on Beacon Hill, ignored the yelping dog in the window, rapped her knuckles against the door and stepped back, waiting in the windy cold to make her case for Initiative 135.

The only proposal up for election in Seattle this month, I-135 would create a new public development authority to build, acquire, own and maintain what proponents call social housing: rent-controlled buildings for residents up and down the income scale, with lower rents subsidized by higher rents within the same building. Kay can see herself living in one of them.

“It would help me to have peace of mind and some stability in my life,” the I-135 volunteer said. “I love this city and I want to stay here as long as I can.”

Placed on the ballot by a coalition called House Our Neighbors, I-135 is backed by the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project, the Tenants Union of Washington State, local chapters of the Sierra Club and the NAACP, labor unions and politicians like state Rep. Frank Chopp and King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay.

Some housing advocates and experts doubt the model proposed in I-135, and are warning that a new PDA with uncertain funding could siphon money and attention away from similar work already being done by existing organizations with decades of experience. But other advocates and experts believe the model would work and are supporting the initiative’s positive vision, which has stirred enthusiasm among voters who want Seattle to dream big and do more. Social housing is much more widespread in countries like Austria and Singapore.

Right now, the challenge for the volunteer-powered, cash-strapped I-135 campaign is to reach and turn out enough of those voters, because odd-year special elections are easy to ignore. Ballots are due Tuesday.

“Once we talk to people, they’re super-excited about it,” said Jacob Schear, a Real Change organizer on the campaign. “It’s just the timing that’s strange.”

Grassroots campaign

House Our Neighbors coalesced in 2021 to oppose a business-backed proposal called Compassion Seattle, which would have required the city to keep parks and sidewalks clear of encampments while adding shelter units (legal flaws kept Compassion Seattle off the ballot). The coalition created I-135 almost a year ago but didn’t collect enough petition signatures in time for a November 2022 vote, so the measure got bumped to February.

The I-135 campaign had raised about $240,000 as of Wednesday, including $100,000 from the Group Health Foundation; more than $40,000 in staff time donated by Real Change and Washington Community Action Network; and smaller amounts from more than 300 other contributors. That’s not much money for an initiative (Compassion Seattle raised more than $1 million) and the campaign didn’t mail ads to voters until this week, when a supporter with the group Tech 4 Housing volunteered to bankroll 39,000 mailers.

For months, the campaign has instead spread the word about I-135 via social media and canvassing, sometimes at public events featuring a cute mascot named “Housey” with a red roof and a cartoon face. Kay and Schear were joined Tuesday night on Beacon Hill by staffers from Got Green, a South Seattle environmental, racial and economic justice organization.

The I-135 canvassers have one obvious advantage: They’re pitching a housing solution in a city with an undeniable housing problem. Avenicio Baca, who answered a knock on his door to report he’d voted “yes,” said costs have soared since he bought his house in 2011, robbing the city of diversity.

“I got lucky” but a lot of other people are struggling, said Baca, a 43-year-old data analyst. “We need to slow things down and provide relief.”

Another advantage for I-135 has been the measure’s lack of organized pushback, with no official opposition campaign raising money, canvassing voters or running ads. But some individual critics have spoken out in recent weeks in various forums. They include Al Levine.

“I don’t know that it’s a bad idea. I just don’t think it’s workable” without funds already being tapped by existing organizations, said Levine, a former deputy executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority, which offers public housing for more than 37,000 people. “It’s a distraction.”

The basics

The initiative would create a public development authority called the Seattle Social Housing Developer and require startup support from the city for 18 months (estimated at $750,000). The developer could erect new buildings or acquire old ones, with the latter more likely early on. Before selling off public land for a nonpublic use, the city would have to consider transferring that land to the developer. Like other PDAs in Seattle and across the state, the developer could raise money by issuing tax-exempt bonds in exchange for low-interest loans.

Per the developer’s charter, rents would be capped at 30% of a resident’s income and the aim would be for each building to house residents at various income levels — including up to 30% of the area’s median, 30-50%, 50-80% and 80-120%. Residents could stay housed despite changes in their income. Last year, the Seattle area’s median for a family of four was $120,907, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The initiative doesn’t specify what the unit mix would be among the income levels. That would depend on the finances of each project, said Tiffani McCoy, Real Change advocacy director and co-chair of House Our Neighbors. In the startup phase for the new developer, there could be more units at the upper end of the income scale than the lower end, McCoy said.

The projects would be union-built, held to “Passive House” standards for energy efficiency and publicly owned in perpetuity. The developer would be managed by a board, with members appointed by building residents, the City Council, mayor, King County Labor Council and community organizations.

There are already agencies (the Seattle Housing Authority and King County Housing Authority) that provide public housing in the area, mostly for people with low incomes. I-135 proponents say the new developer wouldn’t rely on certain federal funding sources that place restrictions on those agencies.

There are also existing PDAs (like Community Roots Housing and Seattle Chinatown International District PDA) that can use bonds to help create mixed-income housing, and there are nonprofits (like the Low Income Housing Institute) that develop affordable housing with public funds.

Christopher Persons, chief executive officer at Community Roots Housing, said I-135 “does seem to replicate much of what we’re doing.”

Proponents say incomes in the new developer’s buildings would range wider and residents would be involved in management, among other differences. To the extent that existing organizations are addressing the housing crunch now, proponents say, a lot more must be done.

Policy debate

Some skeptics predict the new developer would need more than cross-subsidized rents to deliver on I-135’s promises — and consequently could end up vying with existing organizations for bonds (which are capped at the state level) and public dollars (like property taxes from the Seattle Housing Levy, which is up for renewal later this year). I-135 doesn’t include any new taxes.

“There are limited resources,” said Faith Pettis, a Seattle attorney who specializes in housing finance. “The [City Council] is going to have to come up with a revenue stream … It’s not going to be cheap.”

Proponents do hope, postelection, to secure new, progressive revenue; I-135 couldn’t do that because PDAs don’t have taxing authority, they note.

“The [housing] problem exists because the government’s not doing their job,” Tye Reed, co-chair of House Our Neighbors, said in a Converge Media debate this week. “This is going to make the government do something.”

Another critique is that the city shouldn’t spend energy trying to help house people with above-median incomes, especially with Seattle mired in a homelessness crisis. “The emphasis needs to go the other direction,” so that more resources are directed to people with very low incomes, said John Fox, the longtime director of the Seattle Displacement Coalition.

But I-135 boosters say people of varying incomes need stable housing and say mixed-income buildings can advance economic integration. They say a city as wealthy as Seattle should be able to help teachers, social workers and nurses alongside people in deep poverty. Social housing, they say, can prevent homelessness by shielding people like Kay from rent hikes and evictions.

“What we want to put forward is high-quality housing for everyone,” rather than low-income residents packed into less-desirable buildings, McCoy said, attributing some of the criticism to an unfortunate “scarcity” mentality.

Social housing

There are housing advocates backing I-135, including the nonprofits El Centro de la Raza, Solid Ground and the Low Income Housing Institute, whose executive director, Sharon Lee, is bullish on social housing versus the status quo. Many affordable units are currently funded using tax breaks for private developers or tax credits for private investors and have rent caps that can expire after a period of time.

“What we have in the U.S. is a Republican model,” she said, whereas social housing takes homes “out of the speculative market.”

Lee hopes to partner with the new developer on projects and to lobby for more revenue, saying a rising tide would lift all boats: “This isn’t a situation where social housing gets funded and everybody else gets defunded.”

Dan Malone, executive director at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides housing for people coming out of homelessness, is neutral on I-135. Malone doesn’t think it will solve the immediate crisis. On the other hand, he isn’t worried about competition, because public dollars designated to house people with very low incomes must be used for that purpose.

“I’m fine with there being more developers doing that kind work, as long as the work gets done,” said Malone, who sees some wisdom in building government housing for people with moderate incomes, as well. Federal programs like Social Security and Medicare have remained popular for generations partly because so many people benefit, he said.

Malone expects I-135 to pass because the typical Seattle voter is desperate to address the housing crunch somehow. Case in point: I-135 volunteer Suresh Chanmugam, who said he wrote a $23,000 check this week for the mailers.

Chanmugam, a tech worker, said his parents emigrated from Sri Lanka because his dad, who died in 1996, considered the U.S. the most equitable country in the world at the time. But in recent years, “the rich have gotten richer and everyone else is struggling,” Chanmugam said, describing his contribution to the I-135 campaign as “a great way to honor” what his dad believed in.

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