A week after Americans elected Donald Trump to the presidency—thrusting blue cities like Seattle into an uncertain future—the Seattle City Council was back to the budget-making grind. But in the face of the anti-poor, anti-cities administration that's preparing to take power in DC, the local haggling over some of this city's most familiar issues took on a new urgency—particularly when that haggling was connected to Seattle's ongoing housing affordability crisis.
In the Trump era, cities like ours likely won't be able to count on much federal help for the publicly funded programs that make Seattle and other metropolitan areas refuges for people who'll be most harmed by the Trump presidency. To make due, we'll need to aggressively address income inequality, homelessness, and rental costs on our own. Impressively, the Seattle City Council just took a small step toward doing that.
On November 16, when the council voted on a list of significant changes to Mayor Ed Murray's 2017 proposed budget, one of those changes was the addition of $29 million in new funding for affordable housing. That city-improving change came thanks to Lisa Herbold, a freshman city council member who has emerged as a powerful independent voice.
Herbold offered some of the most interesting changes to the mayor's proposed budget this year, and while some of her ideas failed (like a business-fee increase to fund labor-law enforcement and a proposal to hire more multilingual police officers), the success of her housing proposal underscored her effectiveness.
The story behind how Herbold's proposal became reality is a familiar one by now. First, Council Member Kshama Sawant staked out a far-left position. She said the city should cancel its plans for a controversial new police station in North Seattle and spend that money on affordable housing instead. Then the mayor's office and many on the council balked. They said the new precinct is necessary, and some disputed whether Sawant's plan, which involved swapping out several different sources of funding, was even possible. But Sawant and her supporters kept up the pressure to do something. Then Herbold offered a viable alternative.
Where Sawant's plan would have redirected $160 million away from the police precinct and toward affordable housing, Herbold pitched a plan that doesn't require killing the North Precinct and instead sells city bonds to raise $29 million for affordable housing. (The specifics of how that debt in Herbold's plan will be paid back have not yet been finalized, but she hopes to use property taxes from new construction.)
The mayor and Council Member Tim Burgess, who chairs the budget and affordable housing committees, opposed both the Sawant and Herbold proposals. But Herbold won over six of her colleagues while Sawant's proposal failed because she was able to gather support only from herself and Mike O'Brien.
The $29 million Herbold has succeeded in getting for affordable housing will be available next year for nonprofit housing developers to pair with other funds, or to be used in building or preserving rent-restricted housing. It remains unclear just how many units Herbold's money will fund. And while the number of affordable housing units created is sure to fall short of what the city needs—about 3,000 people were sleeping on the streets of Seattle at last count and Sawant's proposal would have helped build 1,000 units—getting the money allocated at all was an accomplishment for Herbold in the face of mayoral opposition.
Without the pressure built by Sawant's "Build 1,000 Homes" movement, it's unlikely Herbold's proposal would have been at the table at all. (Herbold herself acknowledged that fact at the final budget vote on November 21.) Yet it's Herbold's particular brand of scrappy wonkery—a wonkery informed by her nearly two decades in former council member Nick Licata's office before she herself ran for council last year—that led to this achievement. Herbold was more willing than Sawant to compromise—her $29 million proposal is just 18 percent of Sawant's $160 million ask—but she wasn't content with doing nothing. And the result is tangible and important.
In her first year on the council, Herbold has shown herself to be unpredictable and fiercely independent. She's willing to dig into the details of policy, but her positions are sometimes surprising. She does not align fully with either the leftist wing of the council (Sawant, O'Brien) or the more conservative wing (Burgess, Debora Juarez).
Sometimes she has staked out a far-left position, joining Sawant and O'Brien in questioning the mayor's response to homelessness and helping lead the fight for secure scheduling legislation for hourly workers. But she has also taken fiscally conservative tacks, siding with Burgess earlier this year to oppose spending $1.4 million to bail out the Pronto bike share program and, despite being a strong advocate for tenants, declining to support a budget add from Sawant and O'Brien this year to increase funding to the Tenants Union of Washington State. (Herbold says she was focused on restoring lost human services funding instead.) Herbold has also expressed fears about displacement caused by upzones, putting her at odds with some urbanists.
It's a complex ideological picture, but in the face of a presidential administration that is unlikely to offer cities much help with challenging problems like homelessness, and given Sawant's slim track record of assembling council majorities behind her demands, we're likely to see Herbold offering more leadership on important issues in the years ahead.