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Get ready for the social housing debate in Seattle: Today So Far

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A social housing debate is primed for Seattle as one initiative effort aims to get on the November ballot. So let's talk about Initiative 135 and the social housing it wants to create.

This post originally appeared in KUOW's Today So Far newsletter for April 21, 2022.

Anyone around Seattle who has tried to get into public, affordable housing (what I call "good luck housing") knows that there is a complicated and confusing system of income restrictions (that are far from based on the reality of what renters are contending with around here). Not to mention the application process and the extensive waiting lists.

There is now an effort in Seattle to get around such limitations. And it's likely to spur some debate in the weeks ahead — and months after that if they get the 27,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot. I don't think it will be difficult to get those signatures in Seattle, so let's talk about Initiative 135 and the social housing it wants to create.

RELATED: Affordability issues don't just plague Seattle

Tiffani McCoy is the advocacy director at Real Change and the co-chair of the Initiative 135 campaign. She recently spoke with KUOW's Kim Malcom about the effort.

McCoy explained that unlike current affordable housing, I-135's social housing proposes to accommodate just about everyone, even higher earners. Someone earning $97,000 would qualify. The rent is based on the income level of the renter/family. People who earn more, pay more in rent, but within a specified limit. Remember how your parents said you should only pay a third of your earnings on housing? That's roughly the idea. Money from higher rents goes to subsidize cheaper rents.

Here are a few other basics:

  • I-135 would create a “public developer” in the city of Seattle. Basically, an office that would be tasked with developing housing on surplus city land. The city would provide in-kind support for the first 18 months (office space, supplies, staffing, etc.).
  • The housing produced by the public developer would be “social housing” and would allow anyone from 0% to 120% of the region’s average median income (AMI). Housing would be governed by a board of “renters, community members, labor, and subject matter professionals.”

But, in all my years as a community reporter, there is one question that always comes up when discussing new ideas like this: Where is the money going to come from? The proposed public developer would not have any taxing authority to raise funds. And similar, previously proposed social housing efforts in the U.S. have been marred by how expensive they can be.

So I followed up with McCoy to get some clarification on that.

“Funding will come from the city budget, or state budget,” McCoy said. “But the first day the public developer comes into existence, it has the ability to apply for grants or funds at all levels of government, and/or private philanthropy.”

So in a roundabout way, the funding will come from taxes, just as finances work for any city department, from parks to police. It’s up to the City Council to fund the department. Seattle will also have the option to pursue bonds for the public developer.

“So it will be able to bond on future rents. If we are unable to get funding, we will look to a citizen initiative for progressive revenue.”

The advocacy group House Our Neighbors is ultimately behind Initiative 135. If you've heard that name before, it's probably been in conversations around homelessness, which the group has been vocal about. House Our Neighbors opposed the Compassion Seattle charter amendment that previously prompted a lot of debate around town.

Aside from funding, initiative supporters will also have to contend with a bad reputation that public housing has in the United States. McCoy told KUOW that they see social housing as both being separate to current affordable housing, and complementing it.

RELATED: Politically-risky solutions to our housing woes

"The key differences between social housing and current affordable housing models is that social housing is not going to be restricted by federal financing. Also, this social housing that we are putting forward in the city of Seattle is renter led ... renters will get to create governance councils in each building."

"The reason public housing failed in this country is that the government set it up to fail. It didn't fund it to the scale of the need for maintenance and operations," McCoy told KUOW. "We also need to be very honest about the racial segregation and the classist segregation that took place in public housing. It was about segregating out those folks from city centers and leaving them alone. That's what social housing and the cross-class community is; the integrating of the people who serve you coffee to the folks who drive your kids to school, public school teachers, and even some nurses. (They) would all benefit from this social housing developer that we are proposing."

Hear McCoy's recent conversation with KUOW's Kim Malcolm here.


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