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According to officials, the city needs to build 70,000 new housing units to keep up with growth—27,000 of those must be affordable for those making $50,000 or less. Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Seattle is in the midst of a housing crisis, with a shortage of units for low-income and working people, existing affordable housing stock being sold off to developers left and right, and fast-rising rents causing displacement from neighborhoods. Mayor Ed Murray's response to this crisis has been to charge a 28-person committee, known as HALA, with coming up with solutions by the end of May.

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How's that process going? Well, the committee members have been sworn to secrecy by the mayor! So, your guess is as good as mine! Still, in an attempt to participate in this process, an outside group of affordable housing leaders took matters into their own hands yesterday, releasing their own report at City Hall and laying out a potential roadmap for HALA.

The Community Housing Caucus presents its ideas on how to address Seattles housing challenges at City Hall on Monday.
Sharon Lee speaks at the podium as the Community Housing Caucus presents its ideas on how to address Seattle's housing challenges at City Hall. Alex Garland

Calling themselves the Community Housing Caucus, the group includes legislative aides for council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata, Sharon Lee from the Low Income Housing Institute, John Fox from the Seattle Displacement Coalition, and UW's Hailey Badger. They credited House Speaker Frank Chopp with bringing them together. Real Change and Solid Ground are among the endorsing organizations.

Here's what the group recommends the city should do:

Get behind rent stabilization (also known as rent control). That means passing a resolution in its favor and then lobbying in Olympia to overturn the state ban on regulating rent hikes.

Issue $500 million in bonds to fund the construction of housing for homeless, low-income, and working families on city-owned land. Given that this is a housing emergency, use $100 million from the city's emergency reserve funds, which currently has a surplus of $100 million.

And much more. Read the rest of the recommendations by the Community Housing Caucus—15 pages worth of housing wonkery—right here.

Developers are also attempting to sway the mayor's committee, however, only more stealthily. A group calling itself the Coalition for Housing Solutions sent a letter (PDF) to the HALA committee chairs on March 5 arguing strongly against linkage fees—a fee on new development that would fund affordable housing.

The group includes the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle-King County Realtors, Vulcan, and Roger Valdez of Smart Growth Seattle, among others.

Curiously, if you read the two documents, there's some common ground between the two sides.

Valdez, whose group represents developers, said they agree on several major points: issuing bonds to fund affordable housing; using city money from the general fund for housing, instead of drawing only on the housing levy; and building affordable housing on publicly owned land.

He's insistent, however, citing the laws of the free market, that linkage fees will only drive housing costs up and that rent stabilization doesn't work. (Psst, Roger: there's no such thing as a "free" market.)

There's one guy who sits on both the mayor's HALA committee and the housing justice caucus: City council candidate Jonathan Grant, the former director of the Tenants Union of Washington.

"If we're to get meaningful housing reforms either within or without of the HALA process," he said, "it's going to take a robust community response." In other words—remember, Grant is bound by that whole secrecy thing—there needs to be pressure on HALA, an unwieldy group of 28 people, from the outside to come up with serious solutions.

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But is a press conference and 15-page report really a "robust community response"? At this time last year, as another mayoral committee hashed out how the $15 minimum wage should be phased in, the threat of a $15 Now ballot initiative loomed. This time, there's no electoral threat from the left coming this fall—no ballot initiative, for example, that would implement rent stabilization or build public housing.

It turns out there may be an electoral threat to the housing committee, albeit further off on the horizon. Socialist Alternative's (and Sawant campaign director) Philip Locker was one of the masterminds behind the 15 Now campaign. He said that if the city council and the mayor don't move toward using city bonds to fund the construction of thousands of affordable units, Sawant will consider running a public housing ballot initiative in 2016.

"It's very early days," Locker said. "There is not a ballot threat [this year]. But there needs to be a threat of major political punishment for officials who fail to act to address the affordable housing crisis."

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