After weeks of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant calling on her colleagues to redirect money intended for a new police precinct to fund affordable housing, a majority of the city council has come on board with her idea—sorta.
Six council members including Sawant have announced a proposal to sell city bonds to fund 500 units of affordable housing. But the bonds will not take full funding away from the controversial North Seattle precinct, as Sawant has advocated.
Under the plan, the city would sell bonds to raise $29 million in 2017. That money would then go into a city fund for affordable housing. Nonprofit housing developers could apply for money out of that fund, pair it with other funding, and build housing, as they do now for money raised through the housing levy. (That's what allows the $29 million to "create up to 500 units" of housing, although the units themselves would cost more than that. Here are some examples of how the $29 million could be spent.)
In a city facing an acute housing affordability crisis, calls to use the city's bonding authority to help build more low-cost apartments have grown. Last year, the mayor's influential housing affordability committee recommended using city bonds to fund loans for affordable housing. But the question of where to get the money to pay back those bonds—especially at any scale that can really make a difference in the crisis—has been divisive.
Sawant has been pushing for a swap that depends on stopping the new police station: Her plan would have redirected real estate excise taxes (known as REET; charged on real estate sales) previously planned for the new north precinct to other city projects that qualified for those funds. Then, it would have used the money planned for those other projects for housing instead. That would have stopped the north precinct entirely.
This new proposal is unlikely to rely on that kind of swap or a full stop of the new precinct, but council members have not yet finalized just how they would pay back the debt on bonds under this new plan.
Five of the six council members who signed on to this new proposal—Lisa Herbold, Sally Bagshaw, Lorena González, Rob Johnson, and Mike O'Brien—said in a press release: "There are several details yet to work through, but, with this proposal, we are signaling our common desire to create solutions in this year's budget deliberations. This proposal does not pit Seattle’s housing needs against other citywide priorities, such as public safety needs."
Herbold says she supports using some REET funds to pay back the debt service on the housing bonds in 2017 and 2018 and then establishing a new pot of money funded by property taxes charged on newly constructed buildings. Using some REET money for the housing bonds may mean building a less expensive north precinct, but would not halt the project altogether, she says.
A couple other things are notable here:
1) Sawant has signed on to this idea, but that quote in the press release isn't attributed to her. She still believes the city should stop the new precinct and is likely to keep calling out her colleagues on that issue. Block the Bunker activists, whose actions pressured the city to temporarily halt the precinct project in September, aren't done fighting it either. Look for Sawant and BTB to keep working on ways to stop the precinct.
2) Council Member Debora Juarez, who represents North Seattle and has repeatedly and emphatically defended the precinct project, is not listed as a supporter of this plan. Neither is Tim Burgess, who chairs the council's affordable housing and budget committees.
We'll get a better idea of just how likely this idea is to become reality on Wednesday, when the council will discuss it during its 9:30 am budget meeting. You can watch live here.