Posted on April 9, 2015 by Thalia Syracopoulos
[Note: to be published in the PSARA Newsletter at a later date]

By the end of 2014 the “10 Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County” had been declared a total failure.

On 03/26/2015 Mayor Murray held a press conference to announce that he is directing a housing advisory panel to “develop specific proposals” to build and preserve 50,000 new housing units over the next 10 years within the city limits. Of these, 20,000 would be “income-restricted” affordable housing for seniors and 30,000 would be at market rate. The project is to be paid for by asking the voters to substantially increase the housing levy which comes up for renewal next year.

Ten days earlier, on 03/16/2015 the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee (HALA) presented an “Immediate Action Agenda” to Mayor Murray and the City Council. The report is 17 pages long and is easy to read:
(http://sagacitymedia.com/pdfs/publicola/ForPressOnly-CHCReport.pdf).

The HALA report addresses many options including Tenant Access/Protections, Preservation of Existing Subsidized Housing, Preservation/Creation of Affordability in existing Market-Rate Housing, New Affordable Housing Resources (including public land availability), Place based Strategies and Sustainable Homeownership.

The first section of the report addresses financing. Three of the recommendations are readily available to the City and do not involve increased or additional taxes.

1. Councilmanic bonds do not require a vote of the people, and do not increase taxes. Among the many projects these bonds have been used for are the new City Hall, McCaw Hall, remodeling Key Arena, Interbay Golf facilities, Fire/Police Stations, and Community Centers. While admirable and even necessary, very few of these projects qualify as emergencies. If it so chose, the City could issue at least $500M in $100M increments over a few years and still stay within the current bond cap for low-income and housing for homeless families and individuals.

Councilmanic bonds are the source of the $34M the City is contributing to the Pike Place Market expansion. If it goes as planned the expansion would include 40 units of low-income senior housing.

2. The City presently has a $228M “emergency reserve” and could spend up to $128M of that and still maintain its $100M obligatory reserve. Homelessness and its consequences (and costs, human and financial) are already an emergency. One has to question why the City does not consider the thousands of people sleeping on the streets and hundreds more in “emergency” shelters “an emergency”.

3. The Real Estate Excise Tax [REET] each year generates approximately $50 million for the City. Until it was discontinued by former Mayor Nickles, there was a “Growth Related Housing Fund” (GRGF), which took 20% of the incremental increase in property tax revenue from new construction and used it for the development of low income housing. Restoring the GRGF would provide ~$10M/yr that could be dedicated to housing for those who are homeless.

All three of these options are readily available and easy to implement if only the City chose to do so.

The section under “Zoning and Housing Types” has a number of suggestions, but it is the first that is most pressing and easiest to do. “Expand the city’s authority to require developers who demolish low income housing to replace 1 for 1 the housing they remove and at a comparable price (pg. 9)”. The absence of this authority has resulted in the loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing. The most recent example is Yesler Terrace which contained 520 units of housing affordable to families. Only 420 of those units will be replaced on-site and, if this project follows the path of other such “renovations” the 100 “off-site” units might well never be replaced.

I do not understand why the Mayor, 10 days after receiving the HALA report, touted a plan to use an increase in the housing levy, which requires voter approval, to fund 20,000 “income restricted” housing units. What I do understand is that we have to raise our voices and convince the City to implement readily available solutions outlined in the HALA report.

CONTACT THE MAYOR (206)684-4000, ed.murray@seattle.gov   and THE CITY COUNCIL (206) 684-8888 council@seattle.gov

Thalia Syracopoulos is member of the Board and former President of Seattle NOW.