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Newly formed Community Housing Caucus issues recommendations for housing ’emergency’

The Bush Hotel on Jackson St. has 95 low-income units. Credit: Joe Mabel

A coalition organized by Speaker of the Washington State House Frank Chopp this afternoon issued a set of recommendations for solving what Councilmember Kshama Sawant called Seattle’s “housing emergency.”

The recommendations, written for presentation to Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council, called for long-term actions, rather than any immediate steps. However, the House Speaker’s involvement and the heavy presence of current and hopeful city council members at a press event suggest the report, from a group calling itself the Community Housing Coalition, won’t fall on deaf ears.

Although Chopp was not present at Monday’s event, Councilmembers Sawant, Nick Licata, Mike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw made brief appearances. Members of the group, which calls itself the Community Housing Coalition, also included Licata staffer and council candidate Lisa Herbold; Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute; Tenants Union Executive Director Jonathan Grant; and  Sarajane Siegfriedt of the 46th District Democrats.

At least 10 candidates for next fall’s council elections were in the audience as well.

Of the United States’ 50 most populous cities, Seattle rents have risen the fastest since 2010, according to a 2013 census report. Seattle is the only city where rents jumped by more than $100 per month and more than 10 percent — $113 and 11 percent.

The census also found that Seattle’s middle class is a mere 5 percent of the total population, 40,000 households earning less than $35,000 a year and 40,000 earning over $125,000.

CHC’s recommendations were predictably focused on those earning under 30 percent of the median area income and those in the 30 to 50 percent bracket. Nearly all the recommendations require either new funding or new regulations.

First, CHC advocated for new laws governing zoning and housing types. For example, developers who demolish low-income housing would be required to replace, one-for-one, the housing they remove with new affordable housing. The coalition also wants the city to preserve certain mobile home parks from redevelopment and guarantee a geographic spread of low-income housing throughout all parts of the city.

For tenant protection, the report champions more dollars in relocation assistance for tenants displaced by rising rents as well as a penalty for landlords who do not provide that assistance. It also expresses support for state passage of a 90-day notice for all rent increases.

In addition to calling for regulations to preserve low-income housing, the report also recommends a “right of first notice” ordinance. This ordinance would require owners of existing low-income housing to offer the sale of their building to non-profits like Solid Ground or the Low Income Housing Initiative before going to the market. Ishbel Dickens, director of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association, called this a “win-win-win” for tenants, building owners and the city.

Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute pointed out that, even at the end of King County’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, Seattle and the county are still seeing a rise in the number of homeless people. The coalition’s report advocates for more shelter for homeless families, expanding resources to homeless youth and fully implementing the recommendations of the Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness.

Among the many recommendations, the most controversial will likely be the coalition’s support of rent stabilization or control. Rent stabilization would, essentially, freeze rents at certain pre-set levels. During her unsuccessful run to oust Chopp in the Washington House, socialist Jess Spear reinvigorated the debate around rent stabilization.

Many, including Mayor Murray, remain skeptical of the idea. The main argument of rent control opponents is that it would discourage new development, which in turn raises both demand and price.

Rent control in San Francisco certainly has mixed reviews, with landlords arguing that it leaves them largely helpless, leading to a shortage of people willing to manage buildings. As a result, they suggest, San Francisco has more than 30,000 vacant units.

However, Grant of the Tenants Union argued that California law allowed too many exceptions to the rent control rule and developers are able to skirt the regulation too easily. Washington state currently bans rent control by municipalities, a major roadblock, but Grant promised there will be efforts to repeal the ban repealed.

While comprehensive housing reform might have political support in the city, the money could be a different question.

“If the city is willing to call this an emergency,” said the event moderator, Rev. David Bloom, “that would solve a lot of the city’s problems.” According to the Community Housing Coalition’s report, portions of the city’s bonding and financing capacity is set aside specifically for emergency purposes.

CHC’s first funding mechanism would be a $500 million long-term bond, issued in increments over multiple years. The bond would likely be paid for by taxpayers and would be the main source of financing for the caucus’ recommendations.

The CHC also points to the city’s emergency reserve, which they say currently contains $228 million. “The city is obligated,” it reads, “to hold a minimum of $100 million…for emergencies. The reserve now contains $128 million above the minimum. Declare an emergency and authorize immediate issuance of $128 million for low income housing.”

Additionally, the caucus saw funding opportunities in increasing taxes on millionaires, courting the private sector and a renewed housing levy.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough money,” said Lee. “It’s about priorities.”

The next step for CHC will be to get their recommendations before the Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency committee. O’Brien and Sawant, who voiced their support for the recommendations, are both members of that committee, although O’Brien is an alternate.

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