It’s Time For Seattle to Fund Social Housing

Seattle needs thousands of housing units for low- to middle-income earners. House Our Neighbors has sponsored Initiative 135 (I-135) to create a public development authority (PDA; also known as a “public developer”) to create permanently affordable housing for households earning between 0% and 120% of area median income (AMI). I’m proud to be a supporter, with my labor and my money, of I-135, which is on the February 2023 special election ballot.

My support of I-135 represents my opinion alone and does not reflect the opinions of AWS, my employer, or its parent or subsidiary companies.

Why yes?

Seattle has been in a housing and homelessness crisis, officially, since a Proclamation of Civil Emergency in 2015. Seattle’s housing is among the most expensive in the country. A family of four earning over $100,000 per year may be unable to find, say, a 3-bedroom home for a few thousand dollars a month. Being rent burdened means that one is spending more than 30% of their gross income on housing. Public servants, like teachers, shouldn’t be rent burdened. Even at tech companies where I’ve worked, some of my coworkers have found themselves either rent burdened or displaced far away.

I used to consider myself a “market urbanist,” confident that if the city wanted to be affordable to everyone, it just needed to permit as many housing units as possible. I now understand that market-rate housing alone isn’t enough to serve low- and middle-income people. Private-sector landlords (both large and small), existing public and nonprofit housing organizations (some of whom I’ve supported with donations and investments), and low-income-targeted community land trusts are all providing housing for people today. I believe that social housing, built by a public developer, can complement — not replace — these existing models for housing.

Social housing is a public good, run by and for tenants. The public developer’s 13-member board will have at least 7 members who are currently tenants in social housing. The communities will be cross-class, not solely shelters for people without incomes and not projects that are limited to residents making 50% or less of AMI. They should be available throughout the city, integrated with communities, so that people won’t have to endure long commutes to work at good jobs in prospering areas.

The public development authority (PDA) movement has precedent in Seattle. After nearly being torn down for redevelopment in the 1960s, Pike Place Market formed its own PDA after a successful ballot initiative campaign in 1971. Today, the nonprofit Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority preserves the Market’s eclectic assortment of shops, businesses, charities, housing, and health care facilities. Once formed, a PDA like the proposed social housing developer can continue to exist with little interference from local legislators.

Why no?

Who’s going to pay for it? A common “no” argument is that I-135 will require tax dollars to start and will not have a funding source of its own. This is misleading; a public developer doesn’t have taxing authority, but it can borrow money by issuing bonds. While it is true that the public developer will require a small amount of public money to establish, nearly all of the funding for its affordable housing will come not from taxpayers, but from bond investors. The residential buildings that the public developer owns will charge rent indexed to income for the life of the building — not just for a period of time before the building is allowed to revert to market rates.

Where will housing be built? I-135 won’t change zoning rules; social housing will have to obey the same rules as existing housing, so it will be expensive to build or buy homes. The roots of our housing shortage go back about 100 years to the birth of Seattle’s exclusionary zoning in the 1920s. Although multi-family housing existed in “single-family” residential zones before then, today, it is largely restricted to urban villages that are typically close to noisy and polluted arterial roads. To work around the zoning, single-room occupancy “aPodments” sprouted up around the city about 10 years ago, until the city closed the loophole that allowed micro-housing to flourish. The limitations on zoning are also responsible for the development of skinny, expensive, often-derided townhouses like the one I own and live in. The city’s Comprehensive Plan, currently being revised for adoption in 2024, needs to be rewritten to allow for more affordable housing in more places.

Vote yes

I-135 adds another option for Seattle to buy or build permanently affordable housing for the thousands of residents, present or future, who struggle to afford living in the city. More sprawl and displacement will only add to traffic congestion. Low-density housing construction in the suburbs and exurbs requires more land per capita and ever-longer commutes, often by single-occupancy vehicle, which are environmentally damaging. The public developer will complement, not replace, private-sector landlords and nonprofit housing providers. The model has worked in Vienna for generations and is now being introduced in other places, including Toronto and Maryland. If we want to avoid people falling into homelessness and if we want housed people to have a better shot at upward mobility, we need permanently affordable housing. I’m voting Yes on I-135 and I encourage Seattle voters to do the same.