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Just What Is Social Housing?

by Erica C. Barnett

Later this year, Seattle voters could take a first step toward building a new kind of permanently affordable, mixed-income public housing known as “social housing.” The House Our Neighbors! Coalition — a project of the housing advocacy organization Real Change — is collecting signatures for Initiative 135 (I-135), which would create a new public development authority (PDA) to build and operate new housing; funding for the PDA would come later, through future State or local legislation.

What Is Social Housing? 

In the U.S., most affordable housing is either public housing (built and maintained by government authorities) or housing built or purchased, and operated, by private nonprofits that receive government funding. (Housing subsidies, such as Section 8 vouchers, are aimed at helping renters afford market-rate housing.) In other parts of the world, including Europe and South America, “social housing” refers broadly to a type of housing that’s permanently affordable, with rents capped at a percentage of renters’ income. 

The umbrella term “social housing” can refer to many different models, including some that incorporate private and nonprofit developers into a public funding scheme, and the term does not refer exclusively to low-income housing. The Vancouver, British Columbia, definition of “social housing” has been a source of recent controversy, because it serves people making up to six figures, as would Seattle’s. 

How Would It Work in Seattle? 

Initiative 135 would achieve a social housing model by creating a public developer to build, acquire, and operate housing that would be funded by State or local revenues, including bonds. This publicly owned housing would have to be permanently affordable (costing less than 30% of monthly income) to a mix of people earning between 0% and 120% of Seattle’s area median income — as of last April, $81,000 for one person living alone, or $115,700 for a family of four. Under the authority’s charter, renters could not be kicked out if their income rises; their rent would simply rise accordingly.

After an initial startup period, the PDA’s 13-member governing board, which would manage the authority, would include a seven-member renter majority elected by residents. Each building would also have its own elected governing board, a kind of public HOA that would advocate to the board on behalf of residents and make building-level decisions, like how to spend the annual budget for common areas. 

How Would It Be Funded?

Supporters of I-135 say they deliberately did not include a funding source in the initiative in order to avoid violating the State “single-subject rule,” which limits ballot initiatives (and State laws) to a single issue.

The initiative would simply set up the development authority and get it going, creating a temporary board and requiring the City to provide “in-kind” support to get the authority ready to build new housing or buy existing buildings once funding is in place. Other public development authorities in Seattle, such as the Pike Place Market PDA, also started without a funding source and pay for the market’s operating budget and capital improvements through rents, investments, and a 2008 ballot measure that increased property taxes to pay for $73 million in improvements.

Supporters have been vague about where future funding might come from, saying all potential sources are on the table, including State- and City-backed bonds, the State capital budget, and private philanthropy. “We are working on identifying progressive revenue sources,” Real Change Advocacy Director Tiffani McCoy said, “but we wanted to put together the structure and the vision and build up that startup support” first. 

Seattle is currently facing a budget shortfall brought on by the end of COVID-era federal support but could be in better financial shape by the time the PDA comes to the City Council seeking funding through the City budget or Council-issued bonds.

State Rep. Frank Chopp, a longtime advocate for affordable housing, says he supports the initiative and will work to find funding for it if it passes. “We clearly need another tool to provide housing that is permanently affordable,” Chopp said. As examples of potential funding sources, Chopp pointed to successful previous efforts to fund housing through the State’s document-recording fee and through the capital budget, which included money for nonprofits to rapidly acquire existing buildings and convert them to affordable housing this year. 

What Else Would the Initiative Do?

In addition to creating a new public developer, Initiative 135 would place a new restriction on the City when it considers selling or giving away public land for a nonpublic use, requiring a feasibility study to determine whether the land should go to the PDA instead. 

This point could cause some friction with the City Council, which passed two separate resolutions requiring the City to determine whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing before selling it (and requiring most of the proceeds on the sale of surplus land to go to affordable housing). The initiative would require an additional specific analysis to determine whether the land “should be transferred to the Public Developer for social housing,” as opposed to affordable housing in general, which could put the PDA in competition with nonprofit housing agencies that have historically partnered with the City to build and manage low-income housing.

The initiative would also give tenants the right to a “restorative justice conflict resolution” to address the root causes of their behavior before the PDA initiates an eviction. And it would require all new buildings to meet “Passive House” building standards, which cost more up front (adding 2% to 3% to the cost of new multifamily buildings) but save money in the long term because the airtight buildings cost very little to heat and cool.

For more information on Initiative 135, visit the House Our Neighbors! Coalition’s website.

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by M-SUR/

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