As former City Councilmember Tim Burgess — who would prefer you forget he once tried to criminalize panhandling — has been trying to whip up support for a charter amendment to address homelessness on November’s ballot, civic leaders, advocates and lawmakers are divided. The proposal? To end homelessness without raising taxes.
Burgess and his coalition, which includes strange bedfellows like cautiously-optimistic service providers and the Downtown Seattle Association, have promised concerned neighbors everything they’ve ever asked for: No more tents and also no taxes increased. And, according to their polling, people believe it’s possible — probably because that’s what they’ve been told over and over again.
But the fact is that in a city as wealthy as Seattle, the idea that we would waste time and energy quibbling over whether or not something can theoretically be done — is there money in the budget? Where would it come from? Who’s going to be upset about it? — is absurd.
Just tax the wealthy. It’s really that simple.
Seattle has myriad options when it comes to increasing taxes on folks who can afford it. Here are just a few: A tax on luxury vehicles. A small increase on taxes of moorage fees for non-commercial boats. A tax on homes over a specific number of square feet. A tax on new construction of large, single-family homes (remember linkage fees?). A small tax on high-end rental cars. The list goes on. And these are not unprecedented ideas.
Seattle has long been more than happy to tax items that disproportionately impact poor people, like taxing sugary beverages and cigarettes, under the guise of public health. What about the health of our climate? Our waterways? A tax on the cruise lines that park at our waterfront and emit noxious chemicals into our water isn’t that different.
Rather than wasting time going around and around about whether or not we can pay for the services we need, why not try to find a funding source that ensures we can amply provide for our community? There is no shortage of cash in Seattle. Why bend over backward to the anti-tax crowd to scrimp and cut and cobble together the money when it’s right there?
The charter amendment coalition calls themselves “Compassionate Seattle.” To me, compassion means putting your values to work. If Seattle really wants to demonstrate compassion, we ought to accept that the new wealth created in the city has actively contributed to our homelessness crisis. The compassionate thing to do is ensure that there is enough money in the coffers to help them, rather than implicitly stating that providing a home for everyone is something we don’t really want to pay for.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the co-founder of Seattlish; her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company and VICE.
Read more of the May 5-11, 2021 issue.