by Will Sweger
More than 200 people packed into the Labor Temple on 1st Avenue Wednesday night for the launch of the Housing for All Campaign. The spot made for a setting straight out of the early 1940s complete with lacquered wooden doors and tiled ceilings. Attendees passed under the blue neon Union Yes sign on the way in.
Tammy Morales, emcee of the event opened saying, “I’m here to tell you that we can’t call ourselves a human rights city and allow our police department to issue $500 tickets to people who are sleeping on the streets.” Behind her, a sign reading, “Housing, Shelter, Dignity for All” was hastily taped over the AFL-CIO emblem painted on the wall.
At one-point Morales urged the audience to take out their phones and email the mayor and councilmembers about the housing crisis in the city. She repeated the issues the coalition had formed around including increased funding for housing services, additional low-income homes and hygiene centers, greater shelter capacity, and more tiny home villages in the style of Nickelsville.
Attendees, pressed for seating, sat along the walls on the rosy-hued granite floors. Young people on the thinnest of Macs tapped away next to folks wearing neon pink Nickelsville t-shirts over winter coats. Despite the chill outside, the temperature of the room climbed as speakers took turns at the podium.
Almost everyone agrees the homelessness crisis in Seattle is bad and is not getting any better. A 2017 count in Seattle and King County found 11,643 people without homes.
The newly-launched campaign, led by the Transit Riders’ Union, is focused on supporting a tax on large corporations in Seattle based on the number of full-time workers a company employs. The levy would raise $150 million a year for low-income housing and homelessness response.
Under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and business interests, the city council rejected the employee hours tax last November. Instead, they formed a Progressive Revenue Task Force to examine the issue and issue recommendations in March.
Katy Wilson, the General Secretary of the Transit Riders’ Union, is a member of the task force and was present to speak at the event. She called on Seattle to create another 20,000 low-income family units in the next ten year to end the homelessness crisis, though she admits the measurement is “not an exact science.” She estimated the costs to be around $320 million a year for the next ten years.
Regarding the passage of a tax on big businesses to fund homeless services, Wilson didn’t shy away from political calculation, “over the next three months, we need all hands on deck to get five votes [on the city council] or perhaps six votes if we think that the mayor might veto it,” she said.
“We have seven district councilmembers and they are all up for election next year. Now a few of them are on our side more or less and we’re confident they’re ready to do what it takes. But the others, they are making a calculation. Are they going to pay more of a political price by disappointing us, or by pissing off Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce?”
Kirsten Harris-Talley, a former Seattle City Councilmember and the current Program Director of Progressive Alliance of Washington, also spoke at the event. She tied in the struggle for rent control to the efforts of the organizers in Seattle saying, “We, right now, have an opportunity in Washington State to play at the state-level with some pressure around what rent control decisions are going to look like…we have room at the county level to start advocating.” The former councilmember is also on the Progressive Revenue Task Force with Wilson.
Wilson said there is “some overlap” between the rent control movement afoot, but she indicated the efforts of the new campaign are focused on the city level dealing with the homelessness crisis.
“Ultimately what we need to decide in this city is are people important?” Harris-Talley said. “Are people meant to have dignified lives? And is government, a place where people come together, a vehicle for us to do that? I think it is.”
Will Sweger is a contributor at the South Seattle Emerald and a resident of Beacon Hill. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle and Borgen Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger