After the election results come in tonight, we’ll get a much better sense of Seattle’s appetite for social housing. The same cannot be said for the city’s leaders.
If things look good for Initiative 135, which establishes a public development authority (PDA) that could pave the way to publicly owned and permanently affordable housing for renters making 0 to 120% of the area median income, then the council and the Mayor will need to appoint a few board members, pay an estimated $750,000 for staff, and provide office space and supplies.
But the initiative does not require the City to keep throwing money at the PDA or find an ongoing funding source to keep it afloat. To scale up and make the public developer a major player in the local housing market, House Our Neighbors! campaign co-chair Tiffani McCoy says it's going to take “a great deal of political will.”
Right now, there’s not much of that going around.
I asked the nine sitting City Council members and the Mayor how they voted on I-135 and how they would further support the PDA’s growth if the initiative passes. Only four council members responded to my questions: Council Members Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Lisa Herbold, and Kshama Sawant. They’re all voting yes.
Support on Council
Lewis said he voted yes on I-135. Speaking in his personal time on his personal phone, he said he’s been a vocal proponent for months. In fact, he’s the only council member to donate to the campaign.
He said he supports I-135 because he supports social housing. Simple as that. Lewis said he would have been open to passing the initiative when it came to the council if the campaign had lobbied him to do so instead of putting the measure on the ballot. But he said it’s better for the future of social housing that it comes as a mandate from the voters.
Should it pass, which he’s confident it will, Lewis committed to funding the PDA. He’s hopeful that the council will continue to support the PDA for years to come. Where that money comes from will be a discussion the council has with the City Budget Office, he said.
Morales also voted yes on I-135. She’s a long-time social housing advocate, and she even wrote her master’s thesis about the model.
“I have publicly supported the initiative because my office believes that everyone has a right to the city. Right now, in the midst of our region’s housing crisis, the City has an obligation to increase our housing options, particularly housing that is affordable for all,” Morales said in an email.
Morales also committed to funding the PDA, citing her proposals to do so for the last two years. She hopes the State Legislature will also pitch in, but she said she will “examine other sources of revenue” for the PDA when the City considers its supplemental budget.
Herbold said she will vote yes on I-135. In an email, she described her support for the measure when the council voted to put it on the ballot as “lukewarm.” But she said support from State Reps Frank Chopp and Nicole Macri sold her on HON’s idea.
She’s particularly excited about the PDA’s ability to issue bonds, an idea she said she “kinda lost [her] mind about passing” in 2016 before the City started funding affordable housing with the JumpStart payroll tax and the Mandatory Housing Affordability program.
Herbold will only have until the end of the year to use her legislative powers to support the PDA. She said she would be happy to sponsor a budget action to fund the initiative’s mandatory in-kind support or co-sponsor a bill with Morales.
Sawant said she and other members of her party, Socialist Alternative, voted yes on the social housing initiative because it sets an expectation for the City to build permanently affordable, high-quality social housing.
She cautioned social housing supporters not to sit idly by if their initiative passes. Unless a strong movement pressures the City to fund the measure, Sawant warned that council Democrats will "almost certainly try to increase regressive taxes on working people rather than tax big business" like they did when she proposed an increase to the JumpStart payroll tax during budget negotiations.
Council Member Sara Nelson declined to comment. Council Members Alex Pedersen, Debra Juarez, and Dan Strauss did not respond to my request for comment.
Council Member Teresa Mosqueda’s office acknowledged my request and then sent another email an hour before the deadline and said, “it does not look like we’ll be able to get you anything by today. We look forward to reading your piece.”
Because her office expressed interest in responding, I extended its deadline to Monday morning but got nothing.
Though the council did not support Morales’s past efforts for social housing, the council’s silence on the initiative still came as a shock to McCoy.
“I'm surprised that folks who tout themselves as affordable housing champions aren't even commenting on this citizen-run initiative that is endorsed by current affordable housing developers,” she said, referencing support from the Low Income Housing Institute, El Centro De La Raza, and Solid Ground.
Mayor Bruce Harrell declined to comment on how he voted on I-135 and how he would support the PDA in the upcoming budget. His spokesperson said in an email that it would be against the Seattle Election and Ethics Commission’s (SEEC) rules to use City resources to express the Mayor’s personal views on an ongoing campaign.
That’s not exactly how it works. According to SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett, Harrell could have commented if his answers went no further than responding to my direct questions. He vetted and approved Morales's responses under this rule.
Barnett said he’s not surprised the Mayor did not respond, as answering direct inquiries with City resources is an exception to the rule that bars elected officials from using their work email or phone to comment more broadly on ongoing campaigns. Also, there’s other ways to comment even if he’s not familiar with the exceptions to the law. For example, Lewis called me on his personal phone on his personal time.
I explained this policy to the Mayor’s office, but I have not heard back.
Despite the City’s initial responsibility for the PDA, McCoy said she’s not worried about the council and the Mayor’s silence because the upcoming election will bring an almost entirely new legislative body that will have more of a say in the PDA’s ongoing success. Current vows of support from 2023 candidates give her hope that the City won’t let the PDA stagnate.
District 3 candidate Andrew Ashiofu is a big proponent of I-135, and he’s even occasionally canvassed for it. Another D3 candidate, Joy Hollingsworth, told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog that she supports I-135 because the City must explore all options to “create and protect” affordable housing.
Alex Hudson, who is also running in D3, told The Stranger she’s not so sure how she will vote on the social housing initiative, expressing concern over how the program would be funded. She later told CHS, still with reservations, that she supports the measure. D3 candidate Ry Armstrong told CHS they agree with I-135’s proposal in theory, but they have concerns about funding.
District 4 candidates Matthew Mitnick and Ron Davis showed no hesitation in their support for I-135. Same with Ryan Krumbholz in District 7.
Still, given the City’s tight budget, McCoy anticipates that HON will have to go back to the ballot box to ask voters for a progressive tax. She’s not ready to say which tax yet, but she will once the campaign’s lawyer gives her the thumbs up. Then, it’ll be back to the streets for what she assumes will be a more difficult fight.