The Seattle City Council passed its 2017–18 budget Monday, authorizing key investments in affordable housing, the social safety net and new shelter options for homeless people as the weather turns increasingly cold and wet.
Councilmembers passed it eight-to-one with Councilmember Kshama Sawant opposed on the grounds that the plan had merit, but didn’t push the boundaries enough, settling instead to fix problems “at the margins.” Mayor Ed Murray signaled that he planned to sign the budget soon after the final vote.
Housing and homeless advocates chalked up several wins over the course of the two-month process, including a somewhat controversial element approving up to $29 million in bonds for affordable housing creation and retention, a restoration of funds for transitional housing projects cut out of a regional plan to combat homelessness as well as $900,000 for four new authorized tent encampments.
It was the first time that the council has attempted a budget process under the new district system, and the outcome was robust, said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness.
However, given the uncertain future of federal funding, she cautioned against excessive exuberance with the result.
“It was thoughtful and coordinated, but we should not be fooled that because we made significant investments we don’t need to do more,” Eisinger said.
The additional money for affordable housing drew heat from all sides of the political spectrum.
It was the only single component of the plan that received any formal opposition in the final voting process, an otherwise rubber-stamp affair that was sparsely attended by press, advocates or the public.
Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Debora Juarez lined up with Murray to oppose the measure on the grounds that the city would have to pay for the continuing debt service on the bonds.
Councilmembers in favor of the move sent two memos a week before the vote to allay the concerns. They contended that the increasing costs of land and construction in the city’s white-hot real estate market meant delay would pump up the costs, the same reasoning used by city staff when advocating against further deliberation on the proposed police station in the north precinct, better known as “the bunker.”
It was one of several ways that the plan to produce affordable housing was pitted against the North Precinct Police Station.
That building, met with considerable community opposition, was originally slated to cost $160 million. That debt service would cost $205 million over 30 years, according to the councilmembers’ memo.
“This housing bond proposal is modeled after the funding plan developed for the North Precinct and it is a good use of our public resources,” they wrote, effectively turning the mayor’s plan against him.
The $29 million was a compromise itself. Sawant wanted the same amount allocated for the police precinct, which she said could create 1,000 new units of affordable housing. The $29 million can be leveraged relatively quickly to create at least 200 units, if not 270, said Andra Kranzler, a legislative aid in Councilmember Herbold’s office.
In contrast, the Housing Levy funds are spread out over seven years and rely on federal investment. The recent election cast a pall over what would otherwise be a safe bet that those funds would come through, especially as President-Elect Donald Trump threatens to cut federal funding to cities that do not cooperate fully with his stated intention to deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants.
Murray publicly announced that Seattle would not use its resources to help him with that particular campaign promise.
The City Council did not stop at affordable housing production, choosing to also restore $220,000 for transitional housing projects that had been cut from a recent ask from All Home King County to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Also in an effort to bring people out of the elements, the council stepped up its investment in authorized homeless encampments and expanding services at existing shelters to extend their hours of operation.
Councilmembers set aside $900,000 to fund four new sites, two of which will be low-barrier. That means that they will not be as strict about sobriety as existing tent encampments. The city set aside $2.1 million for operating costs for the new Navigation Center, a 24-hour facility that can house up to 75 people modeled after a program in San Francisco visited by several councilmembers as well as the King County Council.
Another $440,000 went to extending hours at a DESC shelter to remain open 24 hours a day.