Advocates Say Housing Levy Is Critical to Keeping Seattle Affordable and Inclusive

Skyrocketing housing prices have reshaped much of Seattle in recent decades, displacing longtime residents, scattering the city’s historical BIPOC communities, and contributing to a growing number of people without homes. And more people continue to arrive: According to recent U.S. Census data, Seattle was the country’s fastest-growing big city during the year ending July 2022.

Affordable housing advocates are hopeful that a nearly $1 billion housing levy, likely to be on November’s ballot, could help to turn a corner in the crisis. Over seven years, it would funnel millions toward creating and preserving affordable housing units, staffing facilities, and investing in homelessness prevention for the city’s lowest-income residents.

“The simple reality is that the need for affordable housing in Seattle is greater than ever, and we need to do everything we can to increase the city’s supply of affordable homes,” Patience Malaba, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium (HDC), told the Emerald. She said the housing levy is the centerpiece of a package of reforms aimed at keeping Seattle affordable and inclusive.

“Rents do continue to rise and displace many people, and the people who are most impacted are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and low-income communities,” Malaba said. “As daunting as that crisis sounds, we know what works as a city. … And one of the critical tools that has been truly foundational is the city’s housing levy.”

Since 1986, Seattle voters have passed five consecutive housing levies, most recently with the approval of a $290 million package in 2016. In March, Mayor Bruce Harrell released a draft proposal that would more than triple that amount, to $970 million. It’s now before a City Council select committee that has held periodic meetings and a public hearing as it finalizes the plan. A second and final public comment session is scheduled for Wednesday, May 31, with committee meetings expected to wrap up by the end of June.

If ultimately approved by the full City Council, the levy would go to King County officials for placement on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Flier depicting the breakdown of the 2023 housing levy proposal.
In March, Mayor Bruce Harrell released a draft proposal that would more than triple the 201 amount, to $970 million. It’s now before a City Council select committee that has held periodic meetings and a public hearing as it finalizes the plan. (Proposal courtesy of the Seattle Office of Housing.)
The new levy would charge property owners 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a typical Seattle home, at a median price of about $800,000, would pay $360 per year.

The biggest chunk of money over the seven-year period, $707 million, would go toward funding new rental units and extending the life of existing units. Another $122 million would go toward operations and maintenance. Homeownership programs would get $51 million, both for new for-sale affordable homes as well as stabilization for low-income homeowners.

An estimated 4,500 households would also see relief in the form of services, including rental assistance, to prevent eviction and loss of housing.

Two-thirds of funds would be dedicated to the lowest-income people in the city, who make between 0% and 30% of the area median income (AMI), noted Malaba: “That’s people with no income, people coming out of homelessness, people with fixed incomes. It’s a broad spectrum of the lowest income levels, and where we know we need more housing.”

All told, the proposal in its current form would create over 3,100 new homes in the city that, through the levy system, are affordable for at least 50 years, said Stephanie Velasco, the city’s housing levy communications manager. It would also assist more than 8,900 households “to prevent homelessness and ensure housing stability.”

“Thanks to nearly 40 years of Housing Levy investments, an estimated 16,000 people citywide are currently living in safe, healthy homes they can afford,” Velasco said in an email. “Each Housing Levy has exceeded its goals, delivering diverse affordable housing options, keeping families in their homes, and assisting low-income households to prevent homelessness.”

In City Council District 2, which encompasses most of southeast Seattle and the CID, affordable housing projects comprise 2,914 units across 46 properties, according to data Velasco provided. Another project, Ethiopian Village, “may be nearing completion later this summer or early fall,” she said, and will add another 89 units.

The current housing levy reflects nearly a year of research and community outreach by city officials. Velasco said focus groups “included organizations that focus on serving communities in South Seattle, such as El Centro de la Raza, Filipino Community of Seattle, and HomeSight, among others.”

Feedback indicated a need for a significant increase in resources “across the entire affordable housing ecosystem,” she said, as well as “needs and opportunities for targeted equity investments for organizations rooted in BIPOC communities.”

Malaba said that as the proposal approaches a City Council vote, she and other advocates are working to build public backing. Initially, the goal will be to lobby councilmembers to approve the levy for the ballot. After that, they’ll turn to a broader get-out-the-vote effort.

“The levy proposal that’s in front of the council right now is big, and it is bold,” Malaba said. “What I think is important to understand is it will take all of us to make sure that it gets through this process and gets referred by the council to the November ballot.”

HDC and partner organizations in development, labor, and business are planning a rally ahead of the committee’s public comment session on May 31, she added, “asking people to show up to speak in support of the housing levy and ask the council to vote.”

If the levy does pass, as history suggests it will, city officials will update its funding priorities over the course of its seven-year run. Documents that guide the use of the housing levy and other local funds are updated roughly every two years. That could provide further opportunities for community input on where and how the money is spent.

“If the 2023 Housing Levy is approved,” Velasco said, “we anticipate these governing documents will be reviewed and considered for adoption by City Council in the first half of 2024, following stakeholder engagement conducted by the Office of Housing.”

One big reason for the comparatively high dollar amount of the current levy proposal is simply that property values have gone up, along with development and long-term maintenance costs. The 2016 levy, at $290 million, created about 2,735 new rental units and preserved 530. The 2023 proposal, at $970 million, would create an estimated 2,881 rental units and preserve 635. While not a direct comparison — funds are allocated differently under the separate plans — it’s a reminder that even for the city, housing costs have spiked.

To put things in perspective, the 2016 levy was twice the amount of the previous one, in 2009, but it was projected to create fewer affordable homes. “The market has changed a lot since 2009,” a spokesperson for then-Mayor Ed Murray’s Office of Housing said at the time. “Land, construction material, and labor costs are all higher and thus our cost per unit is up.”

Asked whether the $970 million housing levy would be enough to keep pace with cost increases and meaningfully address Seattle’s housing crisis, Malaba at HDC said that while she believes the plan is “the single most important policy that we will advance” in the near future, it’s just one of many tools that policymakers must employ to meet the moment.

“We need more density. That’s the reality. And we need all other tools to be used to address the housing challenge,” she said. “Even with the levy at as high of an investment as we have seen, this proposal was still significantly hamstrung by construction, financing, and then costs to a point where the production goals are not at the highest level, but they are significantly investing in what is needed.”

But Malaba remains optimistic, pointing to other new housing reforms aimed at density and affordability. Lawmakers earlier this year, for example, passed House Bill 1110, or the so-called “missing middle” bill, to require cities to allow the construction of duplexes and, for larger cities, fourplexes. Another bill signed into law this session, House Bill 1337, eased the process of building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on properties with existing homes. Seattle voters also passed a landmark social-housing measure earlier this year to create more affordable housing for people making less than 60% of the area median income.

Seattle’s housing challenge is “unprecedented,” but so is the appetite to solve it, Malaba said: “I think we are at the highest momentum for taking action for housing across levels of government.”

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