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Housing advocates divided over push for ‘social housing’ in Seattle

A tent sits on an empty street at night in Capitol Hill in Seattle, lit by a neon sign and hazy street lights.
Scott Greenstone
A Sound Transit-owned plot of land in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood was developed with a mix of low-income and market-rate housing.

Across the street from Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, there is one long building that houses two apartment complexes. Both complexes were developed on the same plot of public land, but that's where the similarities end.

The first one is market-rate, and it's really nice: couches and a fireplace in the lobby, balconies, walk-ups on the bottom level, underground parking.

The second one is rent-restricted, for people who make below the average income in Seattle, and it's pretty non-descript. It doesn't have a nice lobby, underground parking or balconies, according to AJ, who lives there — and despite all that, loves it.

"Honestly, this is like the best place I've ever lived," AJ said. "Everybody is just willing to help their neighbors and wants to know each other. It's sweet and really nice. And to a certain extent, there's a sense of community here, which I think doesn't happen in a lot of buildings in Seattle, at least."

AJ asked not to have zir last name published because of a dispute with the management of the building over the rental rate. The building is run by a nonprofit housing developer and provider.

AJ said management always seems overwhelmed, rarely answers the phone, and they often communicate about rules through eviction threats posted on people’s doors. The most recent one ended with "cameras will be monitored daily to keep a close eye on who's not following the rules."

A spokesperson for the housing provider didn't respond to questions about AJ’s experience by time of publication.

"It's very paternalistic," AJ said. "Slightly Orwellian." And probably not the way it is in the other building.

But AJ thinks there could be a better way — and plans to vote for it next week.

Seattle's Initiative 135

In a special election on Feb. 14, Seattle residents will vote on creating a developer for ‘social housing.’ It's like public housing because it’s publicly-owned, but it’s not just for poor people. It would mix in middle-class renters, even people making more than the average income in Seattle.

The measure, Initiative 135, does not raise any money to build social housing. It creates something called a public development authority, with a board run by renters. It would need government funding for setup, and use government bonds to buy and build, paying the bonds off later with profits off of market-rate renters.

"This process allows higher-income residents to support their lower-income neighbors — just by paying their rent," activist and lawyer Nikkita Oliver said in a recent ad for the campaign.

It's backed by a small alliance of left-leaning organizations that advocate against homeless camp sweeps and in favor of housing for all.

But it is divisive among housing advocates. Many of them point to the fact that the city already has several housing authorities and nonprofit developers that manage somewhat similar housing — but not enough money to build the housing experts say the region needs.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh, another program to deal with our housing crisis. Oh, good.' Until I started getting into it," said Alice Woldt, a member of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a homeless and low-income advocacy organization.

"One of my concerns is that people will read this… and will say, 'oh, good, we're going to be able to fix all of our homelessness issues because this, this will create a lot more housing.' Which just is not true."

For the last few decades, the government has moved away from building and maintaining public housing and instead, looked to the private sector to house people who make less than the average income. They might give public land to a nonprofit if they agree to keep most of the units affordable — that's like what AJ lives in.

Or they might give a developer a tax break in exchange for keeping some units cheap. AJ's tried that setup too and it wasn't necessarily better.

"A percentage of the units in a for-profit building are set aside, so your next door neighbors are people who can afford to live there at market rates," AJ said. "It was easy to spot, like, 'oh, the young queers who can't afford to live here. Why are you in our building?'"

Social housing in other cities

Tiffani McCoy is advocacy director at the street newspaper Real Change and one of the main boosters of social housing in Seattle. She said social housing envisions a Seattle with more stability.

"You would know your neighbors because folks aren't moving every year due to rent increases that you don't know what they're going to be," McCoy said. "You actually have some semblance of community and longevity."

Proponents point to social housing models in Vienna, Austria, and Helsinki, Finland. One model in America that's similar is in Montgomery County, Maryland. The county's Housing Opportunities Commissionhas been doing what they call "mixed-income" projects since the '80s, according to Chelsea Andrews, executive director of the commission.

The commission — which rose from the ashes of the county's housing authority almost 50 years ago — came into mixed-income housing by necessity, as a response to the same problem that every public housing authority in America faced: working-class renters were moving out of public housing, taking their money with them. In their place, disabled and extremely-low-income people were getting housed, and there wasn't more government money following them to maintain public housing or develop more of it.

"How do we still have and utilize these properties in a way that can support our mission for affordability? And the only way to do that, in a way that is financially feasible without continued financial support from the federal government by way of public housing contracts we would have in the past, is by thinking creatively around our development model," Andrews said.

"And then the public housing model, the shift really is just based on the concept, and the belief, that the concentration of poverty is not a positive outcome for any community."

Housing advocates are divided

Here’s the thing: In the '80s, the housing and homelessness crisis wasn't as bad. Today, experts and local government leaders say it will cost billions to build enough housing just for low-income and homeless people.

Many housing advocates believe any available lands and public funds should go exclusively to the people who need it most. The government building housing for renters who make close to $100,000 a year, when there are thousands on the street, is a hard sell.

"At this point, it's gross mistake. They want the city now to prioritize use of any surplus land for their model," said John Fox, director of the Seattle Displacement Coalition.

"They're supposed to preference the use of the surplus land for low income housing. And these sponsors want the city... to preference housing all the way up to 120% of median [area income]. That makes absolutely zero sense."

The language of the initiative says, whenever the city considers selling or "gifting" public lands for non-public use, it would need to present a feasibility study on whether those lands should be transferred to this public developer. The city council "would evaluate the feasibility study and the housing needs of the city before transferring such public land for private or non-public use."

Politics is, of course, another reason housing advocates are sweating: Seattle's housing levyis also up for a renewal vote in the fall, and some worry voters won't go for both. Last time the levy, which raised $290 million on property taxes over seven years to maintain and invest in hundreds of affordable units, was up for a vote in 2016 it passed with a 68% margin, its widest-ever. But this year's levy could end up asking taxpayers for more than double the last one — even $840 million or more.

The Housing Development Consortium, an alliance of nonprofits that usually says "yes, more housing," came out against Initiative 135 last year. However, some members did break ranks and endorse social housing. Patience Malaba, executive director of the consortium, said their stance is now neutral.

"I believe that the initiative is not exactly a criticism of the low income housing production efforts now," Malaba said. "It is an outcry from down in the grassroots, to get solutions forward."

What should housing look like in Seattle's future?

The people behind social housing say they think nonprofits and the work they do is good. And they don’t think social housing will end homelessness this year, or next year, or even in ten years – alone.

"If we leave [housing] just to the market, we can have all kinds of really fascinating stories like San Francisco going even further and more haywire than Seattle," said Zach Wood, a professor at Seattle University who is an advisor on the campaign.

"Maybe that's our future. Or maybe our future is something more like Detroit, where something economically completely collapses and the whole thing drops out. What we need to be able to do is have some control, right? Some public control of how that story is going to be told."

For supporters, it’s a question of what housing should look like in Seattle’s future. For opponents – it’s a question of what we should do with the few resources we have now.

"Obviously, some of my neighbors are talking about it," AJ said. "It would certainly be an improvement. It's not perfect."

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.