In 2010, President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. From a progressive standpoint it was, and is, a deeply imperfect piece of legislation. For example, Medicaid still underpays for surgery, and tens of millions remain uninsured.
Yet for all its blemishes, the ACA made important strides in American health care. Since implementation, the percentage of Americans without health insurance has plummeted by nearly half. There are Americans who would not be alive today without it.
Like the ACA, Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan is imperfect but, under the circumstances, optimal. It would mitigate Seattle’s affordable housing crisis by allowing and demanding more from developers in terms of density and tax revenue, respectively. More development tax revenue means more subsidized housing, which means more low-income renters can afford to stay in the city. More density means more housing supply overall, which means fewer renters bidding for each unit, which means lower rental prices across the market. In short, HALA says to developers, “Build more housing, including for poor people.”
HALA hasn’t lacked critics. Some call it a “giveaway” to developers and fear that cheaper, older housing stock (in which decades of rent payments have eroded capital costs) will be replaced with expensive new condos. Others worry in the opposite direction: that by overly burdening developers with taxes and requirements, HALA will discourage new housing development and thus amplify the price crisis it’s trying to solve. A significant minority of Seattleites would halt development entirely and redirect immigrants elsewhere.
This last position is delusional. Hundreds of thousands of people are moving to Seattle in the coming years, and we who are privileged to already live here have a moral and practical obligation to find space for all of them. Pulling up the drawbridge would turn Seattle into a museum of itself. If we want our city to thrive, the question facing us is not whether to grow, but how.
Both Murray’s major challengers in his re-election bid this year, lawyer and activist Nikkita Oliver and former mayor Mike McGinn, have broadly endorsed HALA’s plan to increase density and developer taxes. Their disagreements with HALA are in the details: Where? How tall and how wide? Who gets taxed at what rate, and where does that money go? What does “affordable” mean in an hourglass economy? And so on. For example, Oliver has called for rent control—not to supplant upzones and developer taxes, but to supplement them as another “tool” in the city’s toolbox.
This broad consensus is a good thing. For all HALA’s warts, its basic approach is right: allow developers to build more while also taxing them more to fund the preservation and development of housing for poor and working-class people. This sensible approach uses both market forces and socialized spending to expand Seattle’s stock of housing, “affordable” and otherwise. If we want to remain a welcoming city, we have to build a hell of a lot more housing. Ignore anyone selling snake oil that promises otherwise.
HALA is Seattle’s ACA: a big, complicated policy package with a thousand imperfections that tries to address a massive, thorny problem. Both Oliver and McGinn should be commended for prescribing affordable housing solutions that build on HALA’s density-and-subsidies approach, rather than undoing it, just as Murray should be commended for midwifing HALA in the first place.
Earlier this year, Republicans ignominiously failed to repeal the ACA, despite finally holding both houses of Congress and the White House. After the party used “Obamacare” as a scapegoat for seven years, it was sad and funny to see this gaggle of squawking ideologues finally silenced by the realities of governing.
Happily, this spectacle has no parallel in Seattle’s current mayoral race. All major candidates seem to acknowledge that promoting housing affordability involves trade-offs, and that density-for-subsidies is the correct basic framework. This sobriety is encouraging in an election year when ugly, unwieldy policies make for easy rhetorical punching bags.
HALA is not a perfect plan. Its implementation will be inevitably marred by embarrassing failures, which are the price of innovation. Getting affordable housing right means getting it wrong at first—and then getting it less wrong, and less.