Making Big Bets on Housing in Seattle

The Seattle metropolitan area continues to grow at a torrid pace, adding over 1,000 new residents a week, yet the city remains largely opposed to building new housing. Gentrification, displacement, homelessness, and the escalating cost of housing continue to be major concerns. Being a good little capitalist, I’m putting my money and the Amalgamated Compassion Fund’s to use in the fight for more accessible housing. The Amalgamated Compassion Fund is my donor-advised fund from which I grant most of my charitable donations.

I learned of Forterra through some of their recent press coverage. This organization started by conserving natural spaces in the Seattle area, such as parks and wilderness, and recently pivoted to urban development. Its Strong Communities Fund works with local nonprofits to build affordable housing by purchasing derelict properties, partnering with an organization to redevelop them, and then selling them for a relatively modest return. As of this writing I’ve filed paperwork to invest in the Strong Communities Fund and I’ve made the Amalgamated Compassion Fund’s largest grant yet to Forterra to support its operations. (The investments are not charitable donations, so I’ll be making them from my own money.)

Lately I’ve been disappointed by Seattle’s “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” approach to homelessness. Our city has the U.S.’s third-highest number of homeless residents, behind only New York and Los Angeles. (We’re the 18th-most populous U.S. city overall.) At Lowell Elementary School, in my neighborhood, about 20% of students are homeless. Our spending on social services continues to increase, yet our homeless count does as well, leading some particularly negative commentators to suggest that we stop giving the city more money until it can figure out what the hell is going on. McKinsey and Company estimates it would cost $410 million per year, twice what we pay now, to meet our homeless population’s needs. A $47 million “head tax,” negotiated down from $75 million, on large-revenue employers will cover only a fraction of that. Some of those employers, including my own, have gone on the record opposing such a tax. The petition of the moment calls for the head tax to go before Seattle’s voters, who have historically supported taxes that disproportionately harm the poor (e.g., sales taxes) and the middle-class (property taxes) more than taxes that target the rich (income taxes, which are illegal in Washington).

While the city’s elected leadership and voter base dither over tax policy, thousands of Seattle residents struggle without the basic services they need to escape poverty and get off the streets. That’s why in this mid-year update, I’m highlighting grants to organizations that specialize in urgently-needed services.

In addition to Forterra, the Amalgamated Compassion Fund has made grants to DESC, which provides key services to the homeless and to the formerly-homeless with a “housing first” strategy; to Solid Ground, which assists needy families with services including housing assistance, food assistance, and transportation; and to Weld Seattle, which targets its assistance at people who are just leaving prison and rejoining society.

In Seattle we have a long way to go. We need to respect and welcome our new residents, be they rich or poor, rather than consider the city “full” to those not rich enough to occupy our increasingly expensive housing units. I encourage all my neighbors to give generously to causes that help with our social ills no matter what happens with our tax policy.