As I read the Seattle Times early this week, I was struck by two articles that more or less tell the story of where Seattle is headed. The first was a story of millennials looking for other places to live due to the high cost of living in the city, the second, a story on millionaire investor Nick Hanauer’s plans to fund a campaign to raise property taxes to address the homeless crisis.
While I appreciate a wealthy person from the Highlands caring about the homeless issue in Seattle, I thought it strange that the goal was for him to single-handedly fund a campaign to get other people to pay a tax that he will not.
I also thought it strange that nobody ever seems to make the connection between ever-increasing property taxes, housing affordability and middle-class families being priced out of Seattle. That’s particularly odd because all of the families I know, who send their kids to Seattle Public Schools, talk about it all the time — and they don’t understand how city leaders talk about how much they care about middle-class families and working people while making it harder on them to stay in Seattle.
Right after those stories, Times columnist Danny Westneat detailed how older apartment buildings in Seattle are getting property tax sticker shock from increases of as much as $750 more per unit for the year. Landlords who have kept rents stable over time are forced to increase rents, driving more people out of the city. The people who will be hurt the most – the elderly, low income and all those on fixed incomes – are the ones city hall always says it wants to help. How is this helping?
Hanauer is clearly somebody who doesn’t worry about the rising cost of living. He tells the Times: “I’m going to donate enough money to that campaign to make sure that we would win. It’s so far below the amount of money that I care about that.” Wow, he can really relate to the average homeowner worried about how they’re going to get their kid through college — or when, if ever, they can retire? Oh, well, it’s only money!
Hanauer’s comments make it easy to see how little regard he has for those who may disagree with him. He tells the reporters that once the bus gets going (presumably his bus) our only choice is to “get on or get run over.” It’s almost as though the wealthy in our society have lately decided to drop all pretense about exercising their monetary power over our public institutions. But at least it’s out in the open now.
It’s also remarkable that someone who talks so much about getting big money out of politics is threatening to self-fund a city ballot measure campaign to beat down anyone who questions his strategy for helping to reduce homelessness in our community.
But just because money is no object to some, it doesn’t mean accountability should go out the window. We need to ask hard questions and respect how our government spends people’s tax dollars. The lack of respect and concern about accountability in our city, as personified by Hanauer’s comments, is truly mind-boggling and insulting.
Seattle now spends about $60 million per year on homelessness. We have the third highest number of homeless people on our streets behind only New York and Los Angeles. Our general population size ranks 20th in the U.S. What are we accomplishing? Will doubling the money we currently spend do any better? Where is the plan for this extra money? These are questions that must be asked — and a glitzy multi-million dollar campaign doesn’t change the fundamental facts that they have not been answered. Shouldn’t we first make sure reforms get results before we put even more economic pressure on people struggling to make a go of it here?
The proposed $290 million levy would add about $55 million per year. Unfortunately, as best anyone can tell, the current spending has a rather lackluster history in terms of results.
One has to ask: Do we have more of a policy and political problem than one of resources? And does pouring more money into a bad system really do anyone any good? To Mayor Ed Murray’s credit, he has said he will re-bid contracts with homelessness service providers and require accountability measures. Going back decades, the city has a poor track record on holding non-profits accountable. The non-profit industrial complex in Seattle and King County can be ferocious defenders of the status quo. Maybe we should see if change is possible before doubling the amount of money we’re currently spending? The pattern thus far has been to spend more to make matters worse.
If past is prologue, the Hanauer-financed campaign will have no trouble convincing the 30 percent or so of Seattleites who bother to vote that this latest property tax levy will solve the problem and everything will be great. The campaign will play to our emotions and portray the opposition as heartless. City leaders will tell us the tax increase is only temporary — for an emergency. Then, it will come around again for renewal and will be doubled.
And when people see young people head off, their rents rise, or their property tax bill go so high that they have to sell and move out of the city, they will wonder how this all happened. Maybe Mark Twain was right: "It's easier to fool people, than convince them that they've been fooled."