Jenny Durkan at a recent candidate forum.
Jenny Durkan at a recent candidate forum. Ulysses Curry

On Thursday afternoon, mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan unveiled her housing affordability platform. The platform promises more vouchers for struggling renters and more tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness.

We'll get to all those details in a minute. First, we need to skip to the end of Durkan's policy paper. In the second to last sentence, she says Seattle should lobby the state legislature for a bunch of stuff including:

Explore taxing speculative real estate practices that displace low-income communities and communities of color, including higher taxes or fees on short term flips, second homes or vacant properties.


In case you missed it, this proposal is the very same idea very similar to one of Moon's central policy planks. Durkan has been attacking her opponent Cary Moon for her plan to tax "non-resident" homebuyers for months, calling it racist. (UPDATE: This post originally stated that Durkan’s plan for a vacancy tax is the same as Moon’s non-resident tax. Durkan’s team called us to say that is incorrect. In fact, a spokesperson said, Durkan’s vacancy tax would not be imposed upon purchase of a home. Rather, properties would be taxed while vacant. Durkan’s team also pointed out that she supported a vacancy tax as early as a month ago.

Moon, meanwhile, says they’re pitching the same thing. Here’s where a lot of the confusion is coming from: Moon initially described a vacancy tax as in addition to a non-resident buyer tax. Now she says distinguishing between the two is “splitting hairs.” Taxes, either at the time of sale or while vacant, both aim to reduce speculation in the market. Moon said she uses the term “non-resident” to emphasize that she doesn’t want to tax people for their primary residence, but believes it includes taxes on vacant properties and second homes, as Durkan is now supporting. “Non-resident means not living in the home as a primary residence,” a spokesperson for Moon’s campaign said. “This means investment property purchased by REIT, corporation, or individuals buying second or third properties and leaving it vacant, flipping it quickly, or using for things other than long-term rentals.”)

Since she got into the mayoral race, Moon has made curbing speculation a cornerstone of her campaign. In one of her first interviews of the campaign, she called for a non-resident owners tax. In a plan for her first 100 days, Moon promises to study and consider "taxing corporate and non-resident owners, taxing unoccupied housing, and adding an additional [real estate excise tax] on luxury property and a capital gains tax on sales of non-primary residences." Throughout this, Moon has been careful not to use the term "foreign." (In that interview from April, she told The Stranger's Eli Sanders, "I think people like to use 'foreign' to imply something different than it is.")

But that hasn't stopped Durkan from attacking Moon's proposal as a tax on immigrants (or something). Here's a Seattle Times story where Durkan claims the tax "started as anti-Chinese buyer tax." In her endorsement interview with The Stranger in June, Durkan called Moon's idea "Trumpian." In a debate, Durkan downplays that speculation by non-residents is actually a problem. Here's what she said:

Look, I think whoever the next mayor is is going to have enough real crises and issues without making some up. What Cary Moon has done on this issue is to say ‘this could be a problem and if it is I tax it.’ We don’t know if it’s a problem but if it is we need to have the real solutions and that solution should not be based at all on where someone is from.

Now, Durkan herself is proposing exactly proposing to curb the practices that she's downplayed. Durkan said on a call with reporters Thursday, "We’re talking about those things that lead to displacement and higher costs. They’re not anything about where [buyers are] from or what their national origin is. We’re talking about the problem itself."

Moon, too, says she's targeting the practice, not anyone's nationality. The policy is meant to "disincentivize this activity—not penalize the people, but disincentivize the activity so it’s less profitable and less attractive for them," Moon said during a recent debate.

In an interview, Moon said Durkan is "misleading and twisting my words." When Moon says she wants a tax "non-resident" homebuyers, she means they're not residents of the home they're buying. They're using it as an investment instead of a residence. She doesn't mean they're not residents of the United States. You could be a non-resident buyer from Seattle or San Francisco or Salt Lake City. This is different from a "foreign buyers" tax, which would actually target buyers from other countries.

The Durkan campaign is trying to use two basic arguments for this ongoing attack on Moon: 1) That Moon has mentioned Vancouver's speculation tax, which is indeed on foreign buyers, and 2) the series Moon co-wrote with Stranger writer Charles Mudede, which included multiple mentions of Chinese homebuyers. (Some Chinese-American business leaders also took issue with that piece.)

But these arguments are reaching. Moon says she talked about Vancouver because it's a city that has dealt with a similar dynamic to Seattle's. She said she does not support a tax solely on foreign buyers, as Vancouver has. The series here on Slog mentioned Chinese buyers because it was "trying to clarify what's happening in the global housing market" and in cities around the world including Vancouver and Seattle, Moon said.

"If folks want to move here from other countries, welcome," Moon said. "We're happy to have you here. This is not abut preventing people from moving here, it’s about putting a disincentive on the activity."

Anyway, on to the meat of Durkan's housing proposal. She wants to:

• Create a new city-run housing voucher program to support renters on the verge of homelessness. The vouchers would go to renters who make 30 percent to 50 percent of Area Median Income ($20,000 to $34,000 for an individual) and are rent-burdened. It would be intended to help people stay in housing, rather than serve people who are currently homeless.

Durkan says the voucher program would start in her first two weeks in office with $2.2 million in vouchers for 350 people currently on the Seattle Housing Authority's waiting list for vouchers. Durkan would then launch a pilot program to give vouchers to 8,500 households, then eventually expand it to 23,230 households. The pilot program would cost $13 million and the full program $60 million. At the program's full capacity, the vouchers would cover the difference between a tenant's rent and 45 percent of their income. Landlords who "consistently participate" in the program may get tax breaks. (Using the numbers in Durkan's materials, $60 million a year for 23,230 households works out to just $215 a month, h/t The Urbanist.)

• Build 1,000 new tiny homes in her first year as mayor. These are the individual shelters for homeless people that exist in some encampments throughout the city. At $10,000 each, that would cost $10 million. Durkan says those tiny houses could go on city-owned land or land owned by other governments, churches, mosques, and synagogues.

This is in addition to increased shelter beds, which both Durkan and Moon have called for. (In other homelessness issues: Durkan has defended the city's sweeps of encampments; Moon opposes those sweeps. Durkan has refused to answer whether she supports a proposal from Council Member Mike O'Brien to help people living in cars and RVs avoid tickets and towing; Moon supports it.)

A count earlier this year found 11,642 people experiencing homelessness across King County, 8,500 of them in Seattle. About 3,900 of those in Seattle were unsheltered, meaning they sleep in vehicles, tents, and doorways. More than 50 people have died on the streets of Seattle this year, according to the Seattle Women in Black who hold vigils for people who die while homeless.

Durkan does not specify exact funding plans for either of the above ideas, but says the city could use its recently passed income tax or current $50 million a year in homelessness funding, increase fees on city owned land sold into the market, add a new fee on landlord licenses, or use medicaid waiver funds. (The $50 million in current homelessness funding goes toward short- and longterm programs for people experiencing homelessness. Durkan argues the city will save money on tent encampment cleanups if 1,000 people are living in tiny houses instead and those savings could go toward these programs.)

• Speed up development. The city's current housing strategy, known as HALA, is expected to produce 20,000 new units of housing in the next decade. Six thousand of those are expected to be affordable, achieved mostly by requiring developers to build affordable housing in exchange for the right to build taller buildings. Durkan has said the HALA plan is the city's best shot at more housing quickly. Moon has said the process was too top-down and she would "restart" it. Durkan's new proposal promises to cut permitting and review time for new affordable housing projects in half, but does not say how.

• Advocate for state policies, including more property tax breaks for seniors, tax breaks for landlords who keep rents low, taxes on home sales over $1 million, and those speculation taxes we talked about earlier.