May 6, 2009
Vol: 16 No: 22

Feature

Downtown business groups say proposal too high

By Cydney Gillis / Staff Reporter

Whom would new Housing Levy serve?

Donna Steensland wound up homeless after a debilitating on-the-job injury, but moved back into an apartment with the help of the city's voter-approved Housing Levy. A renewed levy will be on the ballot this fall.

Photo by Joshua Huston / Contributing Photographer

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Donna Steensland never imagined she would end up homeless. It’s just not something she thought could happen to a working person, she says.

For many years, Steensland, 55, was a postal carrier in Monroe and lived what she calls a wonderful life with her husband and a home on six acres. But while delivering the mail one day in 2004, she got hit by a car, requiring two back surgeries and two years of therapy just to walk.

Despite the on-the-job accident, the federal government cut off her workers’ compensation—and the income she relied on for her end of the mortgage. In May 2007, the couple lost their home, then got divorced. Six months later, Steensland says, she moved into Seattle’s Salvation Army shelter and out of the stability she had always known.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my god, what’s happened?’ and cried myself to sleep,” she says.

If it hadn’t been for Seattle voters, she might still be on the streets, she says. But with the help of the YWCA, Steensland moved into Capitol Hill’s Jubilee Women’s Center, a transitional housing program that received funding from the $86 million Seattle Housing Levy passed in 2002.

On April 29, Steensland and others who have gotten housing through the levy stood with Mayor Greg Nickels as he announced a proposal for a new seven-year measure of $145 million that, if the City Council approves it, would go on the November ballot. But it’s already facing resistance from downtown businesses over the amount and questions from housing advocates about the mix of who the levy will serve—people like Steensland who are homeless with little or no income, or wage earners at $45,000 a year who can afford to rent or even buy housing on the market.

The proposal, which the council could change or scale back, as it did with the 2002 levy, would raise the average Seattle homeowner’s property tax $30 a year. The money would go to build or buy 1,670 low-income rental units, provide emergency rent payments to about 4,000 households and make down-payment loans to 180 first-time home buyers.

In a first among the four housing measures that Seattleites have passed since 1981, a new acquisition loan fund would also let affordable housing developers borrow money for the first three years of the levy in order to buy unsold condos, apartment buildings or land while the market is still low.

Except for the acquisition fund, the housing numbers are roughly the same as in the current levy, Nickels says, but, given inflation, it will cost $145 million—a figure, he says, that he reduced from his levy advisory committee’s recommendation of $167 million. Office of Housing Director Adrienne Quinn says the larger amount would have included $9 million more rental units and more funding in each category overall.

In a telephone survey conducted with 800 Seattleites in March, Quinn told councilmembers in a housing levy briefing last week, a wide margin of respondents—73 percent—said a bad economy is the right time to fund low-income housing, compared with 24 percent who said it wasn’t.

Sixty-four percent of those questioned expressed support for the levy before knowing its details, she said, and more than half also picked $167 million as the preferred levy option, compared with 20 percent support for a $144 million levy.

But Seattle’s Building Owners and Maintenance Association, the Downtown Seattle Association and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce say that, in tough economic times, both are too much.

In letters sent to the mayor, the Building Owners, DSA and the chamber have called for scaling back the levy to $86 million, perhaps reducing it to three or four years or having no levy at all.

In response, Nickels said at his news conference, he reduced his proposal to $145 million. But Rod Kauffman, president of Building Owners’ Seattle-King County chapter, says he’d prefer the number be $107 million. “We very much support renewal of the existing housing levy,” he says, but “the $86 million passed back in 2002 would equate to a levy of $107 million now”

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