A couple of weeks back, an ad-hoc housing caucus convened by state Speaker of the House Frank Chopp declared the city in a state of housing “emergency.” There’s good reason to agree. Last week, Seattle Weekly wrote about a disabled man who killed himself as he faced getting kicked out of his longtime apartment due to a change of ownership and sharply escalating rent (“Dear Landlord,” March 25, 2015). While most people don’t commit suicide, the subject’s predicament is shared by renters throughout the city. At a press conference last week, stressing the gravity of the situation, Mayor Ed Murray noted that “over 40,000 households in this city are spending more than one-half of their income on housing.”
So why has the press and public paid so little attention to the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee that was convened by the mayor to deal with the problem? In large part, it’s probably because housing policy is such a complicated issue. Unlike with the debate over the minimum wage that preceded it there has not been a simple number or solution—like “15,” as in $15 an hour—to get behind.
Murray’s press conference attempted to change that. In it, he announced that “this year’s number is 50,000.” Earlier that morning, he had told his committee that he had a new goal for it to work toward: 50,000 new units of housing in the next 10 years.
Actually, the more salient number he delivered was 20,000: the number of affordable units the committee’s recommendations should generate, according to the mayor. The rest is to be market-rate housing, which, given the current housing construction boom, is not in immediate need of government stimulation. The mayor argues that might not always be the case, and a variety of urbanists and developers make the case that increasing even market-rate supply will drive down costs.
Murray described the affordable-housing goal as laudably ambitious—“we are stepping up like no other city”—and yet a “stretch.” He offered no recommendations about how to get us there. That, he said, was up to the committee, whose recommendations are due at the end of May. And he left other important questions unanswered, like how those 20,000 units would be divvied up. While he wants all of them to go to people earning under 80 percent of the area’s median income (or $65,800 for a family of four), he tasked HALA with providing a breakdown that ensures housing for those at the lower end of the spectrum as well.
Expect more people to be talking about that—and about housing in general—as this year’s City Council races heat up. Because of the onset of district elections, all nine council seats are up for grabs. Already the candidates are starting to stake out positions and draw clearer policy lines when it comes to housing.
Lisa Herbold, a longtime aide to City Councilmember Nick Licata who’s running for a seat in West Seattle’s District 1, says she believes that the city should direct most of its housing resources to those earning less than 50 percent of the median income, or $44,800 for a family of four. Like many housing activists, she argues that those are the people in greatest need. And she worries that by failing to give HALA a specific breakdown, the mayor is opening up the possibility that the vast majority of those 200,000 units, if achieved, will be for those just beneath the mayor’s 80-percent income threshold.
Herbold is also in favor of issuing city bonds to finance affordable housing, one of the recommendations produced by Chopp’s housing caucus, in which she participated. In that regard, she has a noteworthy ally in Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
The report issued by the caucus recommends that the city issue bonds worth “at least $500 million.” But Sawant, talking to me in her council office a couple weeks ago, upped the ante to a billion dollars’ worth. She called “housing justice” her “next big fight” after successfully leading the charge to raise the minimum wage last year.
In that fight, of course, Sawant famously applied pressure to the mayor and her fellow councilmembers by threatening an initiative if the city didn’t act. Now, as she prepares her re-election campaign—running in District 3, which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District—she’s making noises about the same. If the city doesn’t “stand up for working families in terms of creating affordable housing,” then she will explore a ballot measure, she said.
“Bonds are intriguing to me,” allows City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, running in Ballard’s District 6. “But it’s important to remember that bonds are a financing mechanism, not a funding tool.” Bonds are a form of debt, which requires us to pay them back. For that, O’Brien stresses, “we still need a revenue source.”
Herbold and Jon Grant, who just left his job as director of the Tenants Union to run for one the new system’s citywide seats, suggest that rents from the units created can be used to pay back the money.
In any case, O’Brien’s focus is elsewhere—on so-called “linkage fees.” These fees would require that developers currently focused on building luxury units for Amazonians and the like pay fees for affordable housing. This would take the entire onus off the city, an appealing idea to the seven council members who voted last fall to work on such an ordinance.
The council is not waiting around for HALA to draw up its recommendations before moving ahead with this. O’Brien says he expects proposed legislation to hit the council by summer—in time for it to be fodder for primary debates.
Linkage fees are plenty controversial. Roger Valdez, head of the group Smart Growth Seattle, which advocates for developers, recently took to the organization’s website and penned a post titled “Linkage fees: Will Seattle start the San Francisco death spiral?”
Yet linkage fees are not the most radical idea in circulation. Surprisingly, rent control—which seemed unlikely after the November defeat of would-be legislator, socialist and rent-control advocate Jess Spear—has found new life. “We need to be talking about rent control,” Sawant told me. Herbold says she intends to talk on the campaign trail about the need to strike the state law that prohibits rent control at the city or county level. So does Grant, who wants the city “to go on record and pass a resolution saying if we have authority, we would pass rent regulation.”
Even the mayor, who has expressed little interest in rent control due to the state prohibition, hinted that some form of regulation might be in order. At his press conference, Murray mused about increasing the length of notice property owners are required to give when raising rents, and “limiting the amount of increase over any given period of time.”
Rent control here might not look like it does in San Francisco or New York, two places where the policies come under heavy criticism due to their uneven application and ineffectiveness. “It could mean that you can’t raise rents if you have safety violations,” Herbold says. Or she says it could be that increases would be limited in winter months for units containing elderly people.
O’Brien says he hopes for something more “creative” than has been implemented in other cities. While it’s good that the mayor is talking about creating a specific number of new units, O’Brien says that it is essential to find “tools to help people who currently have housing stay in that housing.”
That’s one point likely to spark little disagreement this campaign season.