Sometimes it feels like we are constantly in election season. Just this year, Seattle voters received ballots for the I-135 February special election, the King County Crisis Care Levy in April and the August local primary elections. This inundation is in large part because our state requires voters to approve taxes that fund critical government programs. In November, voters will have another ballot initiative to consider: the newest rendition of the Seattle Housing Levy.
You’d hardly be remiss if you skipped over this initiative to look at the various city and county council candidates. However, the Seattle Housing Levy is not something to neglect — if passed, it would allocate a whopping $970 million to new affordable housing development over the next seven years. This total is more than triple the $290 million price tag of the previous housing levy passed in 2016. It is being backed by Mayor Bruce Harrell and the Seattle City Council, which voted to put it on the ballot.
The levy has been passed by voters five times since 1986. According to the city, it has led to the creation and preservation of more than 11,000 affordable rental homes and 1,000 homeownership opportunities. Today, roughly 16,000 Seattleites live in homes funded (at least in part) by the Seattle Housing Levy.
Housing Development Consortium executive director Patience Malaba said that the Seattle Housing Levy is scaling up to match the scope of the housing crisis in Seattle. She is part of a coalition that is supporting the levy.
“I think it’s important for us, as a community, to recognize that the deepening housing crisis demands an urgent and proportionate response to it,” Malaba said. “It’s a collective contribution of all of us addressing that challenge but also leveraging a tool that we know has been effective.”
These investments don’t come cheap. The 2016 levy cost a median homeowner roughly $122 annually in property taxes. But the new levy will now cost that median homeowner $383 a year, if passed. This jump is due to both an increase in the tax rate and the massive price rises we’ve seen in the city’s housing market. The median home price in King County has increased by about 70% since 2016.
The new levy has a goal to create and maintain 3,158 affordable homes: about 30% more than the 2016 levy. It will also include money to help nearly 300 new low income homeowners and provide rent assistance for 4,500 families. Most of the money will be routed to nonprofit affordable housing developers who will augment levy dollars with other public and philanthropic funding sources, as well as loans from private banks.
One new component of the levy is that it sets aside $122 million for permanent supportive housing, including money to boost the salaries of housing services workers. Malaba said that this could build off models from organizations such as Downtown Emergency Service Center, which recently raised its wage floor for workers at its permanent supportive housing developments to $29 an hour. Money for those raises came from Seattle’s JumpStart tax on big corporations.
While the levy will deliver more affordable housing than its previous iterations, it is far less cost effective. According to Seattle Housing Levy communications manager Stephanie Velasco, this is because of increased land, labor and construction material costs. She wrote that the city will look at more ways to streamline permitting costs and leverage Seattle’s 2024 comprehensive plan revision to support affordable housing development.
Another factor in the decreasing cost efficiency could be that the levy planners are underestimating the potential housing that will be built. The 2016 levy led to creation of 2,741 affordable rental and for-sale homes, far more than the 2,430 that were initially predicted.
The levy is supported by a broad range of political groups, including progressive and labor organizations as well as more right-wing, business-friendly groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association. In the King County Elections voter pamphlet, a person named Roger Valdez, who claims to be a part of a group called Seattle For Growth, wrote in opposition to the measure. Valdez wrote that the tax was burdensome and that enough money has been invested in affordable housing already.
Despite Valdez’s lonely opposition, it appears likely that the Seattle Housing Levy will pass. Seattle voters seem to have a strong track record of supporting new taxes to pay for services, including the 2016 levy that passed with more than 70% of the vote.
Ballots will be mailed out to registered voters Oct. 18. The deadline to register to vote online is Oct. 30, which can be done at kingcounty.gov/depts/elections. Ballots must be turned in by 8 p.m. on Nov. 7 to be counted.
Read more of the Oct. 11-17, 2023 issue.