The scene at Seattles City Hall as the head tax was passed last year. It was later repealed in a victory for Amazon. Now, Goldy argues, voters need a November win to bring Amazon back to the table on housing.
The scene at Seattle's City Hall as the "head tax" was passed in 2018. The tax was later repealed in a victory for Amazon. Now, Goldy argues, voters need to defeat Amazon's candidates in November to bring the company back to the table on housing. SH

We cannot solve Seattle’s homelessness and housing crisis without the active participation of the Chamber of Commerce, Amazon, and other local business leaders. And the best way to constructively bring Seattle business leaders to the housing table is to soundly defeat them at the polls.

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That’s what it took to build a consensus on how to adopt a $15 minimum wage. And that’s what it will take to build a consensus on housing, too.

In 2013, when local fast food workers first walked out demanding a $15 minimum wage, our business leaders were stubbornly resistant. But after $15 won at the ballot in nearby SeaTac, and socialist Kshama Sawant defeated a four-term incumbent by making $15 the centerpiece of her campaign, the writing on the wall was clear. Businesses had spent big to defeat $15. They had relentlessly opposed it in the courts, on the op-ed pages, and at the polls. And they had lost.

It was only after voters had spoken that the Chamber accepted its members would be better served by helping to shape the $15 legislation than by obstructing it. And so, a committee was formed, bargains were struck, and $15 became law.

The parallels to our current housing debate are striking.

Even some of the players are the same. And once again it will take a humiliating defeat at the polls to push the Chamber to fulfill even the promises it has already made.

Remember, it was in the heat of the “head tax” debate that a who’s who of local business leaders published an open letter begging City Council members to set aside the tax, and instead, “engage us in more dialogue.” The co-signers even offered to “help convene our city’s business leaders, labor leaders, and Council members, to collectively design a plan that works for all groups.” You know, just like they had done on $15.

But we’re now a year and a half since the tax was repealed… and crickets.

Instead, the Chamber has put all of its efforts into a multimillion-dollar tough-on-homelessness campaign to elect itself a more business-friendly, tax-averse City Council—including an unprecedented $1.4 million of political spending from Amazon alone. If they succeed in flipping the Council by electing their pro-business slate, there will be no need to come to the table, because… well… they’ll own the table! And any chance of enacting the new housing policy we desperately need will be lost.

But if they lose—if the Chamber and its allies go down to defeat in spite of their embarrassment of PAC-money riches—the message on the wall will once again be clear: come to the table and constructively engage in crafting a solution… or the voters will craft a solution without you.

The scale of our region’s affordable housing crisis cannot be understated, and head tax or no, local businesses are already paying a price. Ironically, many of the same business leaders who most vehemently opposed $15 as a surefire “job-killer” are now paying several dollars an hour higher—if they can fill their open positions at all. “The overwhelming thing in the labor market right now is that there’s a labor shortage which is driven by the cost of living,” Seattle Minimum Wage Study director Jacob Vigdor recently told the Seattle PI. Rising rents are driving low-wage workers out of the city, explains Vigdor, even as the influx of tens of thousands of highly paid tech workers increases demand. “If $16 were enough to live on in Seattle, then we would see a lot of jobs posts offering $16, but we don’t. We barely see any.”

The question isn’t whether businesses are going to pay for Seattle’s housing crisis. They already are. The question is whether they’re going to pay for the problem or the solution—and further, how the cost of this crisis will be shared.

To be honest, the head tax was never a great solution. It would’ve raised far too little money, and in a kludgy and inefficient way. But when it comes to taxes, the legislature hasn’t given Seattle a lot of options. Far better for a city of such extreme wealth and inequality would be for the Chamber to join the Council in seeking authority to progressively tax income or wealth—or one of the other “innovative solutions” their open letter vaguely promised. But that will never happen if big business succeeds in buying itself a City Council.

If we want to solve Seattle’s housing and homelessness crisis—and we want the business community to be part of crafting the solution—then voters need to send a message by defeating the slate of Chamber-backed candidates in November. Vote the SECB ticket. Only then, after we make it clear that our Council is not for sale, will the business community come to the table instead of trying to buy it.

David “Goldy” Goldstein is a former staff writer at The Stranger, a senior fellow at Civic Ventures, and a co-host of the podcast Pitchfork Economics.