When the nonprofit Compass Housing Alliance opened its newest subsidized housing project in South Lake Union during the fall of 2014, 1,500 people applied to live there. The building has just 72 units.
"The applications in the first few hours could have filled all the spots," said Compass Executive Director Janet Pope. "And they just kept coming and coming and coming."
This is the current state of low-income housing in Seattle: It's there, but it's not nearly enough to meet the need. One way to address that need—to deal with the single biggest challenge facing this city—is to dramatically increase the property tax levy that helps fund housing projects for low-income and formerly homeless people. That's why today at Compass on Dexter, Mayor Ed Murray, Pope, and others launched a push to double the Seattle Housing Levy for a total of $290 million raised over seven years.
That total is double the amount of the 2009 levy with the bulk of the money directed toward creating 2,150 units of low-income rental housing, according to the mayor's office. Some of those 2,150 will be newly constructed and others will be in buildings nonprofit housing providers buy off the private market.
The levy would also raise money for two other types of programs:
• $11.5 million in rental assistance and other help for renters on the verge of homelessness
• $12.5 million to help first-time homebuyers or low-income homeowners who face foreclosure because an emergency like a medical condition or job loss
The doubling isn't exactly a surprise: Murray's Housing and Livability Agenda Committee recommended doubling the levy and Murray indicated in a special speech on homelessness last week that he intended to follow that recommendation. But that first bullet point—homelessness prevention—is particularly critical as the city experiences an unprecedented homelessness crisis. Such funding has been included in previous housing levies but would more than double in this plan.
According to Pope, from Compass Housing, 20 percent of homeless people who transition into market-rate housing instead of subsidized low-income housing end up returning to homelessness because of the pressures of paying market-rate rent.
"We need affordable housing if we want to end the homelessness crisis," Pope said.
At today's announcement, a woman named Beatrice Holbert said she benefited from that type of assistance when her hours working as a chef were drastically cut and she was left on the verge of homelessness while raising her granddaughter.
Rental assistance helped her stay in her home and a service provider helped her find new work and enroll in college.
"I just want this levy to pass," Holbert said, "because there are other people out there in need who need somebody to say, 'It's going to be OK if we can just work with you.'"
Like last year's transportation levy, this ask is sure to raise concerns from homeowners who say they're being squeezed by property taxes or pundits who worry about "levy fatigue."
One important thing to remember as those issues come up: While the total amount raised by the levy will be double the 2009 housing levy, taxes for homeowners will not double. The 2009 housing levy charged 17 cents per $1,000 and this one would charge 25 cents per $1,000 assessed value. That translates to an increase from about $82 to $120 a year for a $480,000 home. Misinformation about just how much this tax increase really amounts to could threaten the levy. UPDATE: Man, did I fuck that up. While the rate of the 2009 housing levy was originally 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed value (or about $82 per year), that rate decreased over time as property values rose. According to the mayor's office, the owner of a $480,000 home is currently paying only about $60 toward the housing levy. The bottom line: Under this new levy proposal, the portion of that homeowner's property taxes going toward the housing levy would double from about $60 to about $120.
In announcing the levy today, Murray said he thinks housing affordability is creating "fear" among Seattleites.
"I think this is a time not to be afraid," he said. "I don't believe there is anything more important the people of City of Seattle can do this year on the issue of affordable housing and on issue of homelessness."
Murray's office will hold public meetings on the levy over the next month (the first one is tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Southwest District Council, 4217 SW Oregon St.) and then send his proposal to the city council. The council will then consider his pitch, make their changes, and decide in May which 2016 ballot will include the levy vote.
Considering the scale of the problem, the size of this levy, and the brand new makeup on the Seattle City Council, everyone should be following how this debate unfolds.
This post has been updated.