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Seattle ‘social housing’ initiative faces early opposition from established housing providers

May 6, 2022 Updated Fri., May 6, 2022 at 4:45 p.m.

By Greg Kim Seattle Times

Developers focused on creating housing for Seattle’s poorest residents have mounted the first vocal opposition to a campaign to increase locally funded, publicly owned affordable housing.

Ballot Initiative 135, which organizers hope will qualify for the fall ballot, would establish a public developer that would create, own and maintain public housing in Seattle that is insulated from private market forces and designed to be permanently affordable. This model is popular in Europe and around the globe.

But the Housing Development Consortium, a lobbying group whose members include King County’s major low-income housing developers, financial institutions and governmental development agencies, doesn’t want to compete with a new organization for funding.

“We are concerned that Initiative 135, filed by the House our Neighbors coalition, distracts funds and energy away from what our community should be focusing on — scaling up affordable housing for low-income people,” according to a statement from the Housing Development Consortium last week.

It is unclear whether the consortium is speaking for all its members. Organizations like the Seattle Housing Authority and the Downtown Emergency Service Center said they have not taken official positions on Initiative 135, despite being listed as members.

The “social housing” initiative had, so far, gone largely unchallenged since it was announced early last month. Supporters say it is focused on solutions to a growing homelessness crisis, a goal that it shares with the group opposing it.

“We’ve made super-clear to them that we’re not going to go after any of the funds that they have,” said Tiffani McCoy, co-chair of the coalition behind the measure, House Our Neighbors, and advocacy director at Seattle’s street newspaper Real Change. “And in fact, we want them to keep that funding and keep doing what they’re doing.”

The coalition behind the initiative, House our Neighbors, was created in 2021 in opposition to Charter Amendment 29, also known as Compassion Seattle. That measure, which proposed requiring the city to build 2,000 shelter units while keeping parks and sidewalks clear of encampments, was kicked off the ballot when the Washington Court of Appeals ruled it would have interfered with state law.

The Housing Development Consortium argues that Seattle should focus its resources on the existing system for developing and operating affordable housing, which involves a collaboration between the largely federally funded Seattle Housing Authority, local public development agencies and other nonprofit organizations.

The group’s members are the primary funders and builders of affordable housing in the region. The consortium says Seattle doesn’t need new players but more money.

“We know what works,” the consortium wrote in its statement. “The primary constraint on our ability to scale proven affordable housing models is the limited public resources available to fund affordable housing.”

The statement says that the region’s focus should be renewing the Seattle Housing Levy, which it calls “the most important affordable housing tool the city of Seattle has.” Since 1981, Seattle housing levies have funded more than 13,000 affordable apartments and provided homeownership assistance and emergency rental assistance to thousands more.

Backers of the initiative disagree with the “scarcity mindset” that they say the consortium is operating in.

McCoy, of the sponsor coalition, says the initiative would supplement, rather than replace, existing affordable housing programs in Seattle.

The “social housing authority” the initiative would establish would also be independent of federal requirements for affordable housing, which many of Seattle’s existing programs are subject to because they use federal dollars. McCoy says those requirements are “incredibly onerous, and restrictive and are not set up to ever meet our needs.”

“We need so much more housing than our current strategies — that are dictated by the federal government — are able to provide,” McCoy said.

However, the campaign has not identified a long-term funding source for its program.

McCoy said that the House Our Neighbors Coalition is working with elected officials to identify a funding source for its initiative.

“The onus is on them to argue why we shouldn’t be funding every different tool to build that housing that we so desperately need,” McCoy said.

State Rep. Frank Chopp, D- Seattle, agrees.

“The raw reality of it is that the current system is not working,” Chopp said. “We’ve got rent increases through the roof, we’ve got home prices through the roof, so we need a new tool, and Initiative 135 could be a new tool.”

Another state representative, Nicole Macri, D- Seattle, shares the opposition’s concern that there is already a lot of competition for limited public resources, but she believes the model of housing that House our Neighbors is trying to build could fill a real need in Seattle.

“They want to do housing that is deliberately climate-friendly, that is governed by renters, that is deliberately cross-class, cross-subsidized, a diversity of families in one building. So that seems intriguing,” Macri said, speaking from her position as a lawmaker. Macri is also the deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which operates much of Seattle’s emergency shelter capacity. The nonprofit does not have an official stance on Initiative 135, but it is listed as a member of the Housing Development Consortium on its website.

Initiative 135 would create housing that is community controlled by a renter-majority governing board that would decide how the development authority operates. People who make up to 120% of the area’s median income would qualify — a higher threshold than current requirements.

Seattle’s median household income was $102,500 in 2019.

To qualify for low-income housing through the Seattle Housing Authority, the people in a household cannot, combined, earn more than 80% of area median income.

The hope in raising that bar is to help people who might earn closer to the median but still struggle to afford rent in a city where the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom is more than $1,600.

The Seattle and King County housing authorities say they already do much of what supporters say Initiative 135 would do.

Seattle Housing Authority spokesperson Kerry Coughlin wrote in an email that tenants whose income increases beyond 80% of area median income are permitted to stay in Seattle Housing Authority units; however, their rent increases as their income does. She also pointed out that two members of the housing authority’s seven-person board are Seattle Housing Authority tenants.

The King County Housing Authority, although it does not operate in Seattle, does oppose Initiative 135.

“I don’t think you need to create a new system to create social housing,” said Dan Watson, interim executive director of the authority, another member of the Housing Development Consortium. “The argument that I’m making is that there are existing organizations and funding mechanisms that support something like this. You don’t need to start from scratch.”

The campaign started collecting signatures for ballot Initiative 135 two weeks ago, but it declined to share how many signatures it has collected.

It needs almost 27,000 signatures to make the November ballot.

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