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Seattle is long overdue for a well-funded social housing program + How to support I-135

Graphic comparing the social housing developer concept to existing programs.
From House Our Neighbors.

People need homes.

The private market for homes in the Seattle area has been climbing out of reach for many people for many years, and there is no reason to believe it will become affordable any time soon. Meanwhile, the wait lists for existing affordable housing units is very long and getting longer. The city has spent all these years arguing about what to do rather than taking real action. Most of the debate has been about where increased private development should be allowed as though private development was the only tool available to reduce housing costs. But there is another way: Social housing.

The House Our Neighbors coalition, led in large part by Real Change, kicked off a signature drive today to put Initiative 135 on the Seattle ballot in November. You can get involved in the effort by volunteering or hosting a fundraiser. And if you see someone collecting signatures, add your name.

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I-135 would establish a Public Development Authority tasked with building and operating affordable housing. The authority would receive public funds, but it would also have the ability to bond against rent payments to fund further development. Because units are fully owned by the public, they can remain affordable permanently. I-135 does not include any funding, a decision the creators made in order to avoid violating Washington State’s rule limiting ballot initiatives to only one subject at a time, according to Publicola. Instead, it would establish an authority and structure that could be funded later via the city budget or another ballot measure.

When people can’t afford a home, they are kicked out into the street. Our social safety nets are torn to shreds, and many people fall straight through. We need to be using every tool possible to make more homes that are truly affordable, and social housing is one of them.

The proposed Public Development Authority would operate differently than the existing Seattle Housing Authority, which relies on federal investment and financing options. It would also be different than existing non-profit low-income housing developers because the public would own the properties, giving the PDA access to financing options only available to governments. House Our Neighbors explained it this way on their website:

Current affordable housing models and interventions serve a vital role and they need all the resources they can get. A lot of funding for affordable housing is reliant on the federal government, and restricted by the financing available to them, primarily the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and public housing (Section 9). We can create housing not reliant on these funding models, and work alongside these affordable housing strategies to pull more housing off the private market.

This is a very exciting concept. Our city has so much wealth, we need a mechanism to use just a little bit of it to help keep people in homes.

This is also a transportation issue because people need to be able to afford to live in Seattle, especially the parts of the city with great walking, biking and transit access. Building a quality bike network is great and all, but not if only the wealthy can afford to live close enough to easily use it. Biking is an affordable, fun, healthy and extremely efficient way to get around, and more people should be able to safely and easily bike for daily transportation. One way to increase access to safe bike routes is to build more of them. Another way is to build more homes near the quality bike routes we already have. Both of these strategies are needed.

That’s why Seattle Bike Blog supports I-135.

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7 responses to “Seattle is long overdue for a well-funded social housing program + How to support I-135”

  1. asdf2

    So, does this measure actually increase the number of housing units in any neighborhood, or does it merely replace n market rate units with n subsidized units?

    1. Nathan D.

      It legalizes the creation of a Public Development Authority with various powers of funding and self-management, is my understanding. So, it’d be up to the PDA to determine how it will mix purchasing/stabilizing existing housing and constructing new housing.

      1. asdf2

        Right, but even if they do choose to construct new housing, they’re still limited by zoning and NIMBY’ism. So, the n units of new housing they build still replaces n units of new housing that would have been built by the private sector without I-135.

        Unless progressive-minded neighbors are willing to allow taller buildings if they’re publicly run than privately run, the total supply of housing still remains the same. Which means the same number of people housed. And the same number of people unhoused.

    2. RossB

      To answer your question, initially I would say it is more the latter, although in the long run it should help with the former.

      To build a new apartment building, you need three things. First, the city has to allow it there. You also need someone willing to sell the property for the asking price, and someone willing to buy at that price. If rent is too cheap, then no one will build. In Seattle this happens … (hold on, checking my notes) … nowhere. Rent is so high that everyone who is willing to sell has an interested buyer. In a different market (one in which rent was cheaper) this change would result in a significant increase in housing, which in turn would push market rate prices even lower. In this case it won’t add much to the supply, and thus have little influence on the cost of market rate housing.

      It will, however, increase the number of people who will find housing by winning the lottery (not the state lottery, but the lottery for the handful of public housing spots). It is possible the same thing could be done by simply increasing the amount of money for Section 8 housing.

      It is worth noting that this proposal is nothing new. The city has funded public housing for a while now. It is just that the housing shortage, and the zoning laws mean that our public dollars don’t go as far. The cost of land for development is really high, as the city has to compete with private developers who know that they can get really good money for each unit. We need public housing, but the most important thing we can do now (to ease the housing crisis) is change the zoning laws. The two go together. I’ll support this proposal, but to make it really effective, we need to change the zoning laws.

  2. Thank you, Tom. I’m supportive of subsidized housing, but have many questions. I”m sure I’ll see more on this and, of course, I can do my own research.

    Here are a few questions:
    – how would I135 deal with ensuring proper maintenance ?
    – would I135 allow “projects” ? Hopefully not.
    – would I135 promote mixed income level tenancy ?

    And, presumably not part of I135, what can we do to encourage small scale landlords, such as home owners with one or two accessory units ? While they may rent them at market rates initially, empirically it seems that over time they raise rents less often, making rent somewhat more affordable.

  3. eddiew

    Note parallel to the monorail (ETC and SMP) measures of the aughts; the first few had no revenue attached. We also had advisory votes on high capacity transit and the AWV replacement. A key question: do we need another housing agency? Yes, we need more funding, land, and services attached to low income housing. But we also seem to already have plenty of agencies; some may be bickering; see story of tiny house village in Rainier Beach without funding. The SHA can provide developments with mixed incomes.

  4. Benjamin

    I don’t get it. I’ll do some research, but this seems like an unfunded mandate to do… what exactly? I can only see a zero sum straw man that avoids the obvious supply issues in the market. Namely zoning and bureaucratic red tape of the Seattle Process.

    Seems like a real lost opportunity to foster a healthy discussion in the community.

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