This month's special election could bring social housing to Seattle

On the Feb. 14 ballot, Seattle voters will decide whether to launch and fund publicly owned, mixed-income affordable housing.

photo of an apartment building in seattle

Kristin Benson Place, a nonprofit affordable-housing project in Queen Anne, photographed on May 20, 2022. House Our Neighbors is a ballot initiative campaign to create social housing in Seattle, which differs from the current model of affordable housing. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Seattle voters are about to decide whether they want to experiment with social housing — a model of publicly owned, mixed-income affordable housing that’s popular in other countries and gaining interest in the United States.

Supporters say social housing is an important tool for combating a housing affordability crisis that is increasingly affecting middle-income residents the way it long has with low-income and homeless residents. Detractors say the proposal duplicates existing models, shifts resources away from those least served by the private market and will be another competitor for scant affordable-housing money.

Initiative 135 is on the ballot for Seattle’s Feb. 14 special election.

Social housing, in the vision of the I-135 campaign, is affordable housing that serves a broad range of incomes within each apartment complex, from homelessness to people earning 120% of the area median income (currently about $144,000 for a family of four) and remains in public hands in perpetuity. 

It is that range of tenant incomes that differentiates social housing from existing subsidized affordable housing. Whether because of the stipulations of government funding sources or because of a nonprofit’s mission, subsidized housing in Seattle is typically built for people earning less than 80% of the area median income, and often targeted at people earning 60% or less.

Proponents often look at Vienna, Austria, for inspiration. Two-thirds of city residents earning a wide range of incomes live in government-owned and subsidized housing. Montgomery County, Maryland’s housing authority is the lone U.S. example of a public-housing developer building mixed-income developments with both subsidized and market-rate rents. Hawaii and California’s state legislatures have also debated social housing in recent years.

The I-135 campaign has garnered a lengthy list of endorsements from politicians, labor unions and nonprofits, including a few affordable-housing providers such as Low-Income Housing Institute and Solid Ground. There is not an official opposition campaign, but several longtime affordable-housing advocates and others in the affordable-housing world have spoken against the measure.

If it passes, I-135 would create a public development authority (PDA) to acquire and build social housing that remains in public hands in perpetuity. PDAs are public corporations that have the legal authority to do things like apply for and administer grants and develop land.

Seattle has a number of existing PDAs, such as the Pike Place Market PDA. Community Roots Housing and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority are both Seattle-based PDAs that develop affordable housing.  

The Seattle Social Housing Developer would not be a new city department. But if the initiative passes, the city is on the hook for 18 months of startup costs including providing office space and hiring staff, which the city estimates would cost $750,000. State Representative and longtime affordable-housing advocate Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, told Crosscut that if the initiative passes, he will seek funding in the state budget to help with startup costs.

After startup, the developer would be on its own to find the money to acquire buildings on the private market to convert to social housing, or to build new housing from the ground up. Affordable-housing developers rely on a mix of local, state and federal government loans along with philanthropic and private dollars to pay for housing construction.

Seattle and Washington have steadily increased the size of their affordable-housing loan programs in recent years, but the demand from affordable-housing developers always outstrips available funds. Federal loan programs are also oversubscribed. I-135’s opponents fear the social housing developer will just be another applicant vying for an insufficient pool of money.

“When all is said and done, if it were to pass, it’s just going to be another program out there trying to build housing,” said David Bloom, a longtime affordable-housing advocate and founder of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. “Regardless of the language they use about not competing with existing nonprofits, they don’t have a funding source.”

Tiffani McCoy is I-135’s campaign chair and the advocacy director at Real Change, the homelessness nonprofit and street newspaper. She said the social housing developer does not plan to apply for existing government housing loans. Instead, the campaign is looking at money available from the federal Build Back Better and Inflation Reduction acts. 

McCoy said the campaign has also identified a potential progressive revenue source that the City Council could adopt, though she didn’t want to share further details of the tax idea while they dig deeper into the city’s legal authority to impose it. It is unclear how that tax idea would intersect with the city’s ongoing work to identify new progressive revenue sources to balance the city budget.

If created, the social housing developer also plans to use its authority to issue bonds to generate money for acquisition and construction. The King County Housing Authority has used that tactic for decades to acquire thousands of units of housing. 

“Why do we, especially on the left, keep espousing the scarcity message that there’s only one way to solve homelessness, only one way to address the housing crisis?” asked McCoy, pointing out that they see social housing as additive to the existing affordable-housing landscape. “We need a multitude of options. We’re so far behind on scaling up to meet our housing needs.”

Another sticking point for Bloom and other I-135 skeptics is the idea of subsidizing middle-income housing during a crisis that most severely impacts low-income and homeless residents.

“I think I-135 is a distraction,” Bloom said. “It doesn’t address homelessness. It doesn’t really do anything to alleviate affordable-housing problems. I don’t understand why they’re doing this.”

“Obviously the current system isn’t doing enough good to help renters across the board,” said Rep. Chopp in response to I-135 critics. “I’ve helped all those nonprofits and public housing authorities in their projects, and I’ll continue to do that because they do great stuff too. We just need to do more because the market isn’t doing enough.”

A recent city-commissioned report on Seattle’s housing market found that those earning less than 50% of area median income, or $45,300 for an individual, have the fewest housing options in the city. But the report found that even for those earning 80%-100% of the area median income with options on the private market, there isn’t enough available housing. In the past decade, the city has seen a net loss of households with incomes between 50% and 100% of the median.  

Solid Ground is an anti-poverty nonprofit that has a portfolio of subsidized housing for people exiting homelessness. Executive Director Shalimar Gonzales supports the idea of mixed-income affordable housing, both in recognition of how the housing crisis has impacted Seattle’s middle class and because social housing would let residents stay in place as their economic conditions improved.

“We don’t want to see folks get into communities, like where they’re at, then because they have reached some sort of income threshold they’re pushed out,” said Gonzales. “We see this as part of the continuum of care that folks need rather than being strict about income limits the way a lot of our affordable housing is currently.”

Having a mix of incomes within each project is meant to serve two purposes. The higher rents paid by higher-income tenants within a given building help subsidize the rents for lower-income tenants and offset operations costs. It is also meant to limit the class segregation of Seattle residents, with low-income residents in low-income-only affordable housing and higher-income residents in housing on the private market.

Jesse Simpson, policy manager at the nonprofit developer trade group Housing Development Consortium, said while the rents paid by higher-income tenants will help offset ongoing costs, he thinks it’s unlikely they will be sufficient to fully cover ongoing operations, meaning the project would need some form of outside subsidy. The Consortium initially came out against I-135, but has since softened to neutrality on the measure.

Some affordable-housing developers are starting to experiment with more mixed-income projects in recognition of the decreasing supply of housing affordable to middle-income residents. Community Roots, one of Seattle’s housing PDAs, will soon open a new apartment complex in the Central District with units available to people earning 60%-100% of area median income.

Ballots must be dropped in ballot return boxes or postmarked by Feb. 14. 

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