King County levy renewal may not cover affordable-housing costs

Advocates warn that the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy needs to increase to match rising construction expenses.

a four story apartment building is under construction next to a single family house. a construction vehicle is in the foreground

In this Dec. 13, 2017 file photo, a four-story mixed-use building is under construction adjacent to an older single-family home in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

For nearly 20 years, King County’s Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services levy has been a key source of money for nonprofit and government programs for military veterans and their families, senior citizens, people experiencing homelessness, people dealing with domestic violence and others.

First approved in 2005, the six-year property tax will once again be put to voters on the August ballot. King County Executive Dow Constantine has proposed asking voters to renew the levy at the same $0.10 per $1,000 of home valuation as the current levy.

Although the rate would remain the same, the levy is projected to raise $200 million more than the current levy, thanks to the increase in home values throughout the county. The levy is expected to bring in $564 million through 2029. The owner of a median-priced home in King County (currently $803,000) would pay around $83 a year, $17 a year more than the existing levy.

That extra $200 million would be a boon for many of the programs the levy funds. Should the levy pass, the county has proposed increasing spending on gun violence intervention, job training, veteran services, senior centers, legal aid and workforce stabilization efforts in the human services sector.

Affordable-housing and homelessness advocates are sounding the alarm, however: If the levy is renewed at the same rate, it would pay for less affordable housing construction and operations than the existing levy, because construction and program costs have gone up so much.

As with other program areas, the 2023-2029 levy would raise more money for affordable-housing programs than the previous iteration. But the cost of building and operating affordable housing continues to rise, and the increased tax revenues would not be enough to offset inflation. 

Analysis by King County staff found that the renewed levy would pay for construction of 200 units of affordable housing, compared to 400 units the current levy paid for. The analysis said the cost to build affordable housing has risen from $350,000 per unit to $465,000 per unit since 2020. To build 400 units by 2029, the levy would need to raise an additional $27 million.

The cost of maintaining and operating permanent supportive housing — the type of affordable housing that includes on-site residential health and counseling services — has also increased, and staff analysis projects the levy would support operations of 45% fewer units than the existing levy’s 1,923 units. Maintaining operation funding would require an additional $31.5 million.

“Everyone agrees the need for affordable homes and human services has increased dramatically since 2017,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which represents more than 50 housing and homelessness organizations. 

“Surely as we look to renew a levy that will serve our community through 2029, we can also agree to deepen our shared commitment to housing and human services for all our neighbors. … Keeping the levy flat at the 2017 rate would mean we lose ground on housing; I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a good idea.”

The Coalition on Homelessness has called on county leaders to raise the levy rate from $0.10 per $1,000 valuation to $0.15 per $1,000. The increase would amount to an additional $40 per year for the median home owner.

The Coalition is joined by Housing Development Consortium, an advocacy group that represents many of the region’s affordable-housing developers, the King County Alliance for Human Services, which represents social service providers, and Plymouth Housing in its call for raising the levy rate.

“This renewal is an opportunity to meaningfully address systems and communities that have been disproportionately affected by systemic inequities and decades of inadequate funding of our human services infrastructure,” wrote Alliance co-chairs chairs Laura Smith of Empower Youth Network and Anthony Austin of Southeast Youth & Family Services in an email. “With a right-sized levy, services can be strengthened, essential workers can be paid livable wages and we can support all our veterans, seniors and neighbors that use our human services systems.”

County Executive Constantine said he does not support “dramatically increasing the levy rate,” because he is concerned that voters could reject a higher cost measure when it goes to the ballot. The 2017 levy passed 68.6% to 32.4%

“[Failing to pass the levy] would wipe out a lot of services on which the most vulnerable people in our community depend,” said Constantine. “We all agree all these things need to be done. But we all need to recognize that until the state legislature steps up to fix this ridiculous tax system, we’re all going to struggle, even in one of the nation’s wealthiest communities.”

Because Washington does not have an income tax, local and county governments rely on property and sales taxes to pay for programs and services. King County has two housing and human services related levies heading to the ballot in 2023, the new crisis care centers levy in April and the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services levy renewal. Seattle will ask voters to renew its housing levy in November.

“Housing is an enormously expensive undertaking; one that requires local, state and federal support,” Constantine said. “Solving the housing crisis is well beyond any reasonable scope of this levy. We’ve put hundreds of millions of dollars into housing on a regular basis and will continue to work to fill that 0-30% AMI housing gap in our economy that is causing people to fall into homelessness.”

On Monday afternoon, the King County Regional Policy Committee is holding a special meeting to discuss the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services levy and possibly modify and vote on it before sending it to the King County Council for consideration. The Regional Policy Committee includes representatives from the King County Council, the Seattle City Council and mayors and councilmembers from Redmond, Bellevue, Bothell, Kent and Redmond.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated the levy would raise $564 million per year. It is expected to raise $564 million over the course of six years.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors