GIVEN SEATTLE'S $20.3 million surplus, housing advocates and liberal politicians say the year 2001 is the time to cough up dough for low-income housing. "If we can't do it now, then when?" asks City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck. "The point is that we're at our peak economic performance right now."

There's just one problem. According to the mayor's budget officials, the city doesn't have a surplus. "What do you mean by surplus?" asks Budget Director Joan Walters. Sure, Seattle has more revenue than the city council had anticipated. Sure, the city has cash left over from last year, Walters concedes. But she says nearly every dollar of that $20.3 million is already earmarked in Mayor Paul Schell's September 25 budget proposal. However, only $34.6 million of the mayor's $2.4 billion total proposed budget goes to housing the poor--a .2 percent decrease from last year.

Obviously, by saying there isn't a surplus, the mayor's budget office is engaging in political semantics. Ultimately, there's a straightforward question that can cut through the semantics: What are the city's priorities? The answer is clear to Schell: transportation. The mayor has pledged his allegiance to road maintenance by adding $9 million to Seattle's transportation budget in 2001.

Victoria Schoenburg, Schell's communications director, says Schell is being responsible, because the city has put off road work for years. "In the mayor's view, this is the best way to stay abreast of the maintenance needs," she says. Furthermore, she adds, the mayor is smart to give city funds to transportation, because philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates are more willing to donate money for human services (like housing) than they are to pay for potholes. Indeed, the mayor references a $40 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in his housing budget, which he takes credit for helping secure. However, he never says how the city will come up with the required matching money. This little detail has housing advocates worried.

While at first hesitant to complain about the $3 million for housing (that's the amount Schell is adding to last year's housing budget), when advocates actually start talking about the mayor's proposal, they don't sound happy. "We think there's a budget surplus," says Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. "It seems to make sense, with such a healthy economy, that additional funding should go to those most in need."

In an August 18 letter to Schell and the Seattle Office of Housing, Lee estimated that it would take at least $19 million to shelter Seattle's poor. "If the city can spend $77 million for a new City Hall and [$21] million for the aquarium to house fish, the city can find the means to add $19 million to the city's budget to house families and individuals," Lee wrote. Other advocates have asked the mayor to increase funds for permanent low-income housing and homeless shelters, and to help nonprofit developers carry the cost of building cheaper apartments in today's bloated real-estate market.

John Fox, head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, is one of many advocates who says the mayor's $3 million is not enough. "Not to make a greater commitment is wrong," he says. Fox points out that city officials have never been responsible for providing the biggest chunk of money dedicated to low-income housing. In fact, it's the whim of voters, rather than the city's leadership, that decides whether or not Seattle's poor get lucky with housing money. Voters are the ones asked to okay a renewable housing levy that's due to be on the ballot again in 2002. Fox wishes the city would be bolder.

Feeling slighted by the mayor's office, housing advocates are now counting on council members to beef up the budget. City pols like Judy Nicastro and Peter Steinbrueck are happy to take up the charge. In fact, Steinbrueck has already helped convince Schell to scrape up $6 million for shelters, transitional housing, and food programs for homeless people, but that doesn't pay for permanent low-income housing. Steinbrueck vows to keep pushing, as does Nicastro.

"It's a very weak affordable-housing budget," says Nicastro. The mayor's budget does nothing to keep poor people in Seattle, she says, and she characterizes his housing allotment as "laughable." Nicastro is crafting a proposal to reshuffle funding with an eye on renters' assistance to keep poor people in town.

The city council is required by state law to approve the 2001-2002 biennial budget before the end of November.

allie@thestranger.com