Housing advocates are pushing to put an initiative on the November ballot that would put local government directly in charge of affordable housing production.
The new ballot initiative, filed by House Our Neighbors! (HON) — a political committee of the Real Change advocacy department — would create a special development authority to build social housing in Seattle. “Social housing” is a housing program that is explicitly public: The government owns the land and all buildings on it. It is also mandated to be affordable across income levels; the initiative text caps rent for units in the proposed social housing at 30 percent of household income.
Some affordable housing projects in the United States involve partnerships between the government and private developers, which supporters of social housing say ties affordable housing too closely to market forces because developers ultimately need to turn a profit.
“We cannot continue relying on the private housing market to meet our housing needs,” said HON in a press release. “By establishing a public developer, Seattle will have a powerful new tool to create publicly owned, permanently affordable housing throughout the city to combat homelessness, displacement and poverty, and to create a city where all can live and thrive.”
Social housing has been tried in several places, including Singapore, the Netherlands, and several countries in South America. Its most successful iteration is in Vienna, where more than half of all housing is social housing, and the city has repeatedly been rated the most livable city worldwide.
The initiative comes as calls for more housing in Seattle have reached a crescendo.
“Virtually every elected leader and every individual working in housing and human services agrees that we urgently need more housing for very low income workers and income-restricted residents,” said Tiffani McCoy, Real Change’s advocacy director and HON co-chair.
A new book by University of Washington professor Gregg Colburn and local data scientist Clayton Page Aldern, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns,” lays out the city’s urgent need for more housing. The book uses Seattle as a case study to show the ways that housing shortages exacerbate homelessness.
“Without looking at housing markets, you can’t explain why Seattle has a much higher rate of homelessness than Chicago, Minneapolis, or Dallas. The fundamental conclusion is that the consequences of individual vulnerabilities are far more severe in locations with less accommodating housing markets,” the authors concluded in a March 16 Sightline Institute article.
Beyond its basic goal of increasing the overall stock of affordable housing, the initiative includes other provisions that promote environmental justice, require the use of union labor and involve residents in governance of each housing project. The initiative lays out plans for the authority to have a 13-member board that would include seven renters. Within that group, there would be one renter who had experienced financial eviction, one who had experienced housing insecurity and another who had been displaced.
In the realm of environmental justice, the initiative dictates that social housing meet the “Passive House” standard, an extremely tight energy efficiency and sustainability regime.
“Building to the Passive House standard is an investment in future-proof and climate-adaptive homes. With incredibly low energy costs, it is a buoy against energy poverty. It is an investment in buildings that are resilient to cold snaps and heat domes,” said Michael Eliason, founder of green urbanism and architecture thinktank Larch Lab. He also noted that the improved ventilation required by Passive House certification would protect residents against air pollution and wildfire smoke, which disproportionately affect lower-income residents.
Existing buildings acquired by the development authority would be retrofitted to meet the Passive House standard.
Another tenet of the social housing program is “cross-class” housing, which appears in the initiative as a mandate to create a mix of income levels. This would include those with extremely low incomes of 0-30 percent of area median income (AMI) all the way up to moderate-income households making 80-120 percent AMI. According to the Seattle Office of Housing, 30 percent AMI in 2021 was $34,700 for a family of four.
While the initiative would not displace existing residents of any acquired buildings, it would replace departing tenants in a way that ultimately achieved the desired AMI mix. The rent cap of 30 percent of income would apply to all tenants regardless of income, and the initiative specifically bars the development authority from ejecting tenants for making too much money.
The goal of including a mix of incomes, per the HON website, is for tenants with higher incomes to contribute more towards the program’s costs — maintenance, management and the acquisition of new properties — effectively subsidizing it for those with lower incomes. It is also to “capture all income brackets who are dealing with housing insecurity and rising rents,” McCoy said, noting that housing affordability affects a much broader range of incomes than affordable housing is currently targeted to.
“Everyone deserves the right to healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable housing,” she said.
Once the City Clerk approves HON’s paperwork, the organization will need to collect 26,500 valid signatures in 180 days to make it on the November ballot.
Should the initiative pass, it does face a major hurdle in the form of funding, which is not built in. While the initiative would have the city set up the new development authority and run it for 18 months, the authority would not have the power to levy any taxes of its own. Thus, it would require the city or state to fund it.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Apr. 6-12, 2022 issue.