After an 18-month campaign, Initiative 135 to establish a social housing developer is winning in Seattle with more than 57 percent of the vote, as of Feb. 21. The initiative campaign was led by the House our Neighbors! (HON!) coalition, which is a political committee of Real Change.
Hundreds of supporters celebrated the achievement at a Feb. 14 election night party held at Washington Hall in the Central District. The festivities coincided with Valentine’s Day, and organizers aptly decorated the event hall with plenty of heart balloons and motifs.
The party featured a live DJ, food, drinks, drag and music shows, social housing mascot Housey and Real Change vendor Carl Nakajima, who performed his poems “Sweeps” and “Housing.” A couple of minutes after 8 p.m., as ballot boxes closed, HON! organizers announced that I-135 was winning with nearly 53 percent of the vote. Attendees cheered, hugged and shed tears of joy and relief after a long campaign of gathering signatures, knocking on doors and producing viral get-out-the-vote TikToks.
Over the next few days, as last-minute votes were counted, the margin widened significantly to more than 22,000 votes, King County Elections reported.
The campaign was endorsed by a number of progressive organizations and newspapers, labor unions, environmental groups and affordable housing advocates. Opposition to the measure did not form a political action committee, but criticism came from the influential Seattle Times Editorial Board. Some nonprofit and for-profit developers, such as the Housing Development Consortium, remained neutral but expressed skepticism about the proposal.
Since the initiative failed to collect enough signatures in time to make it onto the November 2022 general election ballot, the campaign also had to contend with low voter turnout and awareness. Roughly 33 percent of registered voters ended up participating in the election, about 30 percent of whom were over the age 65. In recent elections, older voters in Seattle have tended to be wealthier and thus lean more to the right.
At the election party, HON! steering committee member and spokesperson Rebecca Lavigne said that the results were a vindication of the need for affordable housing.
“My instant reaction was one of joy and really seeing that Seattle voters are giving a resounding yes to our bold vision of Seattle as a place that is affordable for all,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne added that the election win was a broader victory for the coalition that HON! has built. “We want to celebrate the movement that we’ve built with folks who’ve been directly affected by the housing crisis,” she said. “We’ve built this coalition of tenant organizers, unhoused individuals, mutual aid groups, urbanists, union members, students and so many folks who’ve struggled with accessing stable and affordable housing. And so this is a huge celebration for all of us and for the city.”
According to Lavigne, the Seattle win is a big boost for social housing advocates who are trying to pass similar initiatives in Hawaii and California.
For Ben Warden, a volunteer field organizer with the campaign, the victory was personal. Coming from a working-class background, Warden was the only one of his siblings who has been able to make it out of poverty. This motivated him to organize for progressive causes such as I-135.
“This is a real step in history if we can make this change,” he said.
Broadly speaking, social housing can be understood as any type of housing that is publicly or collectively owned. However, the HON! coalition drew upon a specific model of social housing that was first developed in Vienna and has since spread to places such as Paris, Uruguay, Singapore and Montgomery County, Maryland.
Under I-135, social housing will be based on four core tenets: public ownership, permanent affordability, cross-class communities and resident leadership. This means that social housing will remain in public hands and never be sold off, cap rents at 30 percent of a household’s income, offer mixed-income housing in every building and appoint residents to be the majority of the social housing developer’s board.
The aim of the campaign is to create a viable, high-quality, long-term alternative for most Seattleites who otherwise would be forced to turn to the private market. The social housing developer is required to contract with union labor, build to the Passivhaus environmental standards — which are higher than the minimums set under current regulations — and prevent evictions at all costs in favor of restorative justice conflict resolution.
Social housing proponents say that I-135 fills a gap that both private landlords and existing public and nonprofit housing developers fail to meet. For example, most affordable homes in the city are reserved for households with incomes at or below 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), which is roughly $95,000 a year for a family of four. Social housing will allow people who make up to 120 percent AMI to live in the homes (about $144,000 a year).
If a resident qualifies for housing originally but then begins to earn more than 120 percent AMI, they will still be allowed to live in the building. That’s different from many affordable housing projects, which kick residents out if they make too much money.
Another difference between nonprofit and social housing is that the social housing developer will be allowed to issue bonds and take advantage of Seattle’s AAA credit rating. Municipal bonds tend to have much lower interest rates and collateral requirements than commercial loans, making the developer more competitive. The social housing developer will likely need some funding from Seattle or Washington to finance its first series of building projects, but after they are built and residents begin to move in, the developer will have another stream of income from rent.
The plan is that, eventually, the social housing developer will earn enough in rent to cover not just building operations but also the financing of additional bonds to purchase and build more housing, thus becoming mostly self-sustainable.
HON! organizers have said that they initially wanted to add language requiring some sort of progressive tax to fund the social housing developer but that it was illegal to do so under the state’s ballot initiative law.
According to a press release by HON!, the 13 members of the board for the new social housing developer will need to be appointed within 60 days of the certification of the election results. Seven members will be appointed by the Seattle Renters’ Commission, two by the City Council, one by the mayor, one by the Green New Deal Oversight Committee, one by MLK Labor and one by El Centro de la Raza. These board members will oversee the establishment of the public development authority and hiring of a chief executive director and a chief financial officer.
The city of Seattle is required to provide in-kind support to the social housing developer for 18 months, including providing office space and funding the salaries of the new staff. According to Real Change advocacy director and HON! co-chair Tiffani McCoy, this will total up to about $750,000.
“This is a win for Seattle, and for the country,” HON! announced. “This is a major win for the social housing movement.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Feb. 22-28, 2023 issue.