Saturday, Washington took a big step toward helping define the nations’s most important political campaign of 2016. In August, Seattle’s largest political question will be answered. With Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to renew and expand Seattle’s longstanding housing levy already rolled out, the campaign to get the measure on the August primary ballot is underway.
But first: legislative process. The levy first has to go through the City Council and get approved to get put before voters in the fall. The council committee on affordable housing, neighborhoods, and finance began to pick through the mayor’s levy proposal last week. The committee will, after debate and any wanted changes, send the package to full council for a vote on whether or not to put it on the ballot—ideally by late April or early May. A full presentation from Thursday’s session is embedded at the end of this post.
A steering committee will be formed in in late April or May after the council vote and fundraising and official campaign outreach efforts will start then.
Former council president and current chair of the housing committee, Tim Burgess said that—judging from conversations with his council colleagues—he doesn’t anticipate any major changes to be made to Murray’s proposal. “I would be very surprised if the council changed the core essence of the levy,” Burgess told CHS last week. “I think generally it has been well received.”
The levy itself is widely regarded as the backbone of affordable housing development in Seattle. When asked what would happen to the city’s efforts to house the bottom end of Seattle’s economic spectrum if the levy doesn’t get renewed, Marty Kooistra, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium, an association of nonprofit affordable housing developers and architects grimly said, “don’t even go there.”
Since 1981, Seattle voters have approved property tax levies (of increasing size and duration of time) dedicated to constructing and preserving affordable housing for seniors, low-wage workers, and homeless youth and adults, as well as providing low-income homebuyer assistance (the 1981 housing levy was also the first of its kind nationally). The city Office of Housing boasts that the levy has funded over 12,000 affordable units—by preservation and construction—over its lifetime. Local affordable housing projects such as 12th Ave Arts and the preserved Haines apartments for seniors on E Olive Way have received levy funding. The proposed Liberty Bank project will also
likely be partially funded by levy funds. Back in December, the Office of Housing awarded its largest ever investment in new affordable housing projects, utilizing a combination of levy dollars and revenue from the city’s incentive zoning program.
Now, as per the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee’s recommendations, Murray’s wants to double the existing housing levy—which has collected $145 million since 2009—to $290 over the next seven years. This amounts to an annual increase by $122 for the median Seattle homeowner (up from $61 annually) as per city estimates. The blueprint for utilizing the revenue is essentially the same, with the majority of the funds going towards increased investment capacity in the development, preservation, and operating and maintenance of projects, as well as $11.5 million in rental assistance for families at risk of eviction and homeless and $9.5 million in financial assistance for low-income homeowners and prospective homebuyers.
Housing levy dollars also leverages other sources of affordable housing funding, the State Housing Trust Fund, tax credits from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, and the Community Development Block Grant Program via the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. Office of Housing spokesperson Todd Burley estimated that every dollar of city funding leverages
30 three dollars from outside sources. (Correction: Sorry for the error!).
“The levy package is a thoughtful proposal and a good investment that builds on a proven track record of previous success,” said Kooistra. “[The mayor and HALA asked] that we reach 20,000 units in the next ten years in income and rent restricted homes. That’s a huge stretch. And the levy is a vital key part of that element.”
Steve Walker, director of the Office of Housing, said that while the council will likely not make any significant changes to Murray’s proposal, the prospect of including funding for temporary homeless housing may come up, given the current ideological standoff between Mayor Murray and homeless services providers on whether to focus on long-term housing or more flexible solutions including short-term shelter (the levy has traditionally only funded long-term housing for homeless populations). PubliCola reported last week that housing committee member Rob Johnson may be looking to bolster Murray’s original levy package.
Though no formal endorsements have been announced as the campaign has yet to officially get going, the levy renewal will seek support from Seattle’s business community, social and economic justice groups, homelessness advocates, and, of course, the developer and non-profit housing community (representatives from the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, the Downtown Seattle Association, and Puget Sound Sage were reportedly at Murray’s press conference when he rolled out his proposal). This would be the same broad-based, Murray-style coalition that backed both the HALA recommendations and the $930 million dollar Move Seattle Levy that passed with good margins last year.
But the proposal’s backers aren’t expecting no fight at all. “The housing levy coming after a string of hotly debated (yet successful) local levies. “This is Seattle so I will not be surprised if there’s opposition,” said Burgess. “If there is it will probably come from the anti-tax folks who believe that our taxes are too high.”
Move Seattle faced vocal and feisty opposition from some Seattle property owners and the well financed anti-tax activist Faye Garneau, along with the League of Women Voters, who said the levy would raise property taxes to “unmanageable levels.” A ‘for’ or ‘against’ endorsement from The Seattle Times Editorial Board, which opposed Move Seattle, won’t come out for awhile, but the paper has already run a letter to the editor decrying the tax increase under the 2016 housing levy (both the Times and the league opposed 2014’s successful measure to create the Seattle Parks District, citing concerns with accountability and the potential property tax increases). Adding to the levy pile, the eventual—and very large—Sound Transit 3 package is also coming down the pipeline to voters in the fall.
Amanda Clark, president of the Seattle League of Women Voters, told CHS that the league has yet to thoroughly vet Murray’s proposal, but they are keeping their usual levy skepticism in mind. “We’ll be very concerned about accountability and the [tax] increase,” Clark said. “It’s just a matter of concern. Not that we don’t need it, but with all the levies these days and the property taxes it’s getting difficult for some people.”
Last Monday, the Sightline Institute published a defense of Murray’s housing levy package, noting the small size of the housing levy as a share of all the city’s property tax revenue, as well as how Seattle’s property tax rates stack up with other cities (in short: they’re comparatively pretty low).
“We’ve gone to the voters 5 times in the last 35 years and each time we’ve been successful,” said Walker confidently. “The track record of the levy is very strong.”
Even with face-level optimism, there’s a sense of urgency and necessity of getting the levy renewed among proponents.
“Some folks in the past have described this [the housing levy renewal] as a cliff event; as it relates to HALA, as it relates to the health of a vibrant community, what we know we need to do in this time of urgency and crisis, the levy is a critical part in all that,” said Kooistra.
Katie Porter, Capitol Hill Housing’s senior housing Developer, said that her organization is “in initial conversations” about possible additional affordable housing projects in Capitol Hill and the Central District that would likely need housing levy dollars (but nothing is set in stone so no details on those potential projects yet).
“[Not renewing the levy] would severely reduce our ability to provide new projects, to provide new housing for people with low incomes. It would make it exceedingly difficult to continue to develop affordable housing in Seattle without the housing levy,” said Porter.
A public hearing on the proposed levy will take place at City Hall on April 4, 2016 at 5:30 PM.