Banner depicting white text against an illustrated night sky and multifamily housing units. The text reads, "Social Housing for All. House Our Neighbors! Yes on I-135!"

With November Ballot in Question, Seattle’s Social Housing Campaign Soldiers On

by Ben Adlin

House Our Neighbors, the campaign pushing to bring social housing to Seattle, said that its ballot measure, Initiative 135, is unlikely to go before voters this November. But with no end in sight to the city’s runaway housing costs, organizers are still determined to put the proposal on the ballot as soon as possible.

If passed by voters, the initiative would create the beginnings of a social housing program in Seattle, which proponents see as a powerful tool to curb housing costs that have trended sharply upward in recent decades. The proposal would eventually create publicly owned housing designed to be permanently affordable, with rents limited to 30% of a renter’s income. Any profit would be reinvested back into the program, going toward expansion and improvements.

The campaign announced in a press release Friday, July 22, that it fell more than 5,000 signatures short of the necessary 26,520 to qualify I-135 for November’s ballot in Seattle. The campaign submitted 29,552 signatures in June, but only 21,487 were accepted as valid by election officials.

“The majority of challenged signatures were from folks not registered at their current residence,” House Our Neighbors, a political committee of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project, said in a press release. “Renters are moving yearly, oftentimes due to their rents increasing. This further illustrates why so many need social housing.”

The next opportunity to put the measure before voters is February 2023.

“It’s not necessarily ideal. We wanted November,” campaign cochair Tiffani McCoy told the Emerald. “But we need this housing, and we’re deeply committed to the proposal and making this a reality.”

The campaign began gathering the remaining signatures during an extended 20-day window. By Monday, July 25, House Our Neighbors tweeted that it had already collected 785 new signatures. 

But McCoy said it’s “extremely, extremely unlikely” that the measure will be accepted in time for November’s election, even if organizers exceed their goal of collecting 10,000 signatures this week.

“Will there be enough time for the city clerk to do their process and then get those over to King County Elections, and then for King County Elections to do their verification process and then get it back to the city clerk?” she said. “Enough time for the City Council to alert the public to the vote, to put it on the ballot? No. I guess it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, but it is highly unlikely.”

Behind-the-Scenes of the Social Housing Initiative

While social housing is widely used in some cities internationally, including Singapore, Vienna, and Helsinki, it’s still getting off the ground in the United States. Seattle would be one of the first jurisdictions in the country to launch a social housing program.

A newly formed public development authority, the Seattle Social Housing Developer, would build or acquire existing housing, then rent to households making between 0% and 120% of the area median income (as of 2022, up to about $108,700 for individuals or $155,300 for a family of four). Target rents would be less than 30% of a household’s income. If a renter’s income were to go up or down, their cost would adjust accordingly.

Renters of various income levels would also have a say in the program’s operation, both through the creation of a citywide renters commission and through local residents councils at each social housing site, which McCoy described as “essentially a tenants union in each building, so that folks even at the bottom have a say in what happens at the top.”

“We hear over and over how renters have no say, or very little say, and rents are just skyrocketing,” explained McCoy, who is also the advocacy director for Real Change. “So we felt that was a really, really critical component.”

The social housing initiative has drawn endorsements from dozens of groups and individuals, including a number of South End politicians, such as King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay (D-2) and state Sens. Joe Nguyen (D-34) and Rebecca Saldaña (D-37).

Farther north, volunteers from the 43rd Legislative District Democrats, Real Change, and the advocacy group Tech 4 Housing hosted a fundraiser for the measure at Cafe Racer on Capitol Hill on Friday, July 29. Scheduled speakers included state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) and Creative Justice Executive Director Nikkita Oliver, who recently announced plans to move away from Seattle for a job in the Midwest.

“The vast majority of people in this city have a story of how the housing crisis has impacted them personally and the excitement around this initiative is palpable,” Oliver, a member of the campaign steering committee, told the Emerald in an email last Wednesday. They expressed confidence the measure would ultimately make the ballot and become law.

“While November would have been ideal, we feel very confident that regardless of what ballot this ends up on, I-135 will pass,” Oliver said. “The campaign will be more drawn out, but we see school levies pass every time they appear on the February ballot. We have a great field team and dedicated volunteers, so we know we’ll make it happen.”

Support From Seattle’s Arts and Culture Community

Dawn Dailey, who lives in the Eastlake/Portage Bay area and helped organize the event on July 29, is a cultural outreach and museum educator. She said there’s been an outpouring of community support for the initiative from fellow artists and creatives, who see social housing as a way to build a more stable future.

“It’s something that resonates deeply with me as a POC, femme, single working mother in art and culture education,” Dailey said. “We’re not making livable wages in the city, and we are all, including myself, struggling with housing stability.”

Many of the musical artists performing at the fundraiser, as well as visual artists who donated pieces for auction, are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, she added. Those communities have been disproportionately affected by gentrification and displacement in areas such as the nearby Central District, the Chinatown-International District, and much of South Seattle.

“We have all struggled,” Dailey said. “This is a very meta-level moment where we can support ourselves and we can be in solidarity with so many other educators and creatives competing against tech workers with their much larger incomes.”

Another volunteer involved in the July 29 fundraiser is Athena Henning, who lives in Rainier Beach and last year worked as a nurse at Rainier Beach High School. She said it was clear young people in South Seattle feel the pressure of gentrification.

“They see it, like, ‘I’m growing up here, what am I supposed to do when I graduate?’” she said. “They see the gentrification just, like, creeping down here and coming in swiftly in places.”

Henning, who moved to the Pacific Northwest from Missouri, said she’s frustrated by aspirational talk of addressing inequality in Seattle but the lack of meaningful action to address it. “Here there’s all this lofty talk and noses in books, and it’s beautiful and wonderful, but where’s your action?” she asked. “Where’s your fire?”

She encouraged everyone interested in learning more about social housing to attend the fundraiser at Cafe Racer, regardless of whether they live in the 43rd Legislative District or can pay the $10 ticket cost: “If anyone can’t afford the ticket price or whatever, just say, ‘Athena said I could come in.’”

The Tech Industry’s Role in Combating the Housing Crisis

Suresh Chanmugam, a member of the House Our Neighbors steering committee and a volunteer for advocacy group Tech 4 Housing, is a software engineer who bought a house on the southern edge of the Central District in 2008. He believes Seattle’s technology industry has a responsibility to foster an equitable, livable city.

When Chanmugam moved to Seattle from New York City in 1999, he rented a room in a shared University District house for $250 a month. Since then, he points out, the economic output of the Seattle Metro area has nearly doubled, surpassing the gross domestic product (GDP) of both Singapore and Denmark.

Meanwhile, the median monthly price of a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle, now about $1,700, has spiked almost 90% in the past decade. Even professionals with relatively stable jobs, such as school teachers and architects, are increasingly being pushed to their financial limits due to rising housing costs. According to a Redfin report earlier this year, average monthly rent in the city was up 29% from 2021.

Chanmugam describes social housing as a way to curb the outflow of longtime BIPOC residents (he acknowledged his own family’s move to the Central District most likely contributed to the displacement of the city’s historically Black community) and secure permanent housing for middle-income workers who commute longer and longer distances to work in Seattle.

“Seattle’s really become unaffordable to anyone who’s not a software engineer,” he said. “Nobody’s really trying to solve the problem of, as a school teacher, how do you live and work in Seattle?” (Suresh later clarified that he meant that “very few of the existing housing providers are working to ensure a school teacher can raise a family here.”)

Although the construction of market-rate units has peppered skylines in South Lake Union and downtown with cranes, highly paid tech workers keep streaming in to fill the new buildings. “Every time we increase supply here in Seattle, the more highly compensated software engineers will move to Seattle,” he said. “Increasing supply of for-profit housing alone will not address our crisis. We also need social housing to ensure everyone who’s not a software engineer can live here.”

Chanmugam likened social housing to single-payer government health care or municipal broadband insofar as rather than profit, the program would focus on providing quality housing to tenants. “It’s more efficient for us to use our public funds to deliver essential services that collectively serve everyone,” he said.

In addition to displacement and financial strain, rising housing prices also lead to people losing their homes completely. A 2020 analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that economic growth was a leading cause of homelessness in the region and concluded that “additional affordable housing stock must be built.”

Despite politicians’ pledges to address the housing crisis, the city has largely stagnated. For example, It’s been seven years since then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency around homelessness, Chanmugam noted. 

“Where are we after seven years? Right back where we started,” the self-described tech bro said. “Seven years of superficial, emergency, Band-Aid attempts to address the problem.”

Tensions Around Existing Affordable Housing Solutions

Oliver, who ran for mayor in 2017, said social housing could help turn the tide.

“Displacement and gentrification are serious issues that must be addressed whenever developing or implementing housing policies,” they said, “including the classist, ableist, ageist, and racialized nature of displacement and gentrification. Our goal in the construction of this initiative was to take serious accessibility and equity issues like this into consideration and figure out ways to disrupt them.”

Oliver described social housing as “a new way of doing housing that uplifts and protects our communities’ right to deeply affordable, quality, green housing and our right to stay and age in place; especially our Black and brown communities most impacted by displacement and gentrification.”

Not everyone in Seattle’s affordable housing world, however, is sold on social housing. Some worry that by creating another program alongside existing forms of affordable housing, such as Section 8 or the multifamily tax exemption, social housing could divert public money away from programs focused on the poorest of households.

In April, in the midst of I-135’s signature-gathering campaign, the Housing Development Consortium (HDC), a nonprofit housing industry group, released a statement saying that the push for social housing “distracts funds and energy away from what our community should be focusing on — scaling up affordable housing for low-income people.”

“We do not need another government entity to build housing when there are already insufficient resources to fund existing entities,” the group said.

Part of the tension is due to I-135’s failure to specify how social housing developments would be paid for. The initiative provides funding only to establish and staff the new social housing authority. Money to build or buy housing would need to be requested from municipal, state, or federal governments or potentially from private donors.

HDC says in its statement that with no identified funding source, the social housing program “would likely draw from existing affordable housing funding that could otherwise be dedicated to creating homes for our lowest-income neighbors.”

McCoy, the House Our Neighbors campaign cochair, called HDC’s statement “unfortunate,” arguing that existing programs, which rely largely on federal funding, aren’t enough. Unless Seattle creates a broader, more comprehensive solution to affordable housing, she worries widespread displacement will continue.

“I am guided by my work at Real Change and working with vendors and folks that have experienced homelessness,” she said. “I can’t with a straight face promise them that they’re going to be able to live here or find apartments if we keep restricting our ability to build affordable housing to what the federal government will pay out.”

“This is what I think can honestly fill the affordable housing gap that we have, which the federal government just will never ever do,” McCoy added. “It’s not set up to do that. And if we keep talking about [affordable housing] in the confines of that, it’s doing actually a really huge disservice to the community.”

The way Chanmugam sees it, there’s more than enough wealth in the city to fix the housing crisis and ensure everyone in the city has a home. But Seattle’s tax structure — among the most regressive of all major U.S. cities — puts a heavy burden on low-income earners while privileging the wealthy.

“The thing I want to point out is there’s ample opportunity and wealth to fund social housing,” Chanmugam said, quipping that if Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz paid the same effective tax rate as baristas who work at the company’s coffee shops, “we could easily fund social housing for everyone in the city.”

Tech 4 Housing is both a supporter of HDC and an endorser of I-135. “We believe private developers should be able to build more housing,” Chanmugam said. “At the same time, we believe very much that social housing is needed in addition to reforming our land-use regulations.”

He emphasized that social housing programs can be self-funding once buildings are constructed and tenants are moved in. If a lower-income renter moves into social housing and subsequently finds a better-paying job, that person’s rent would go up, and the extra income to the social housing developer would pay for maintenance, improvements, and the acquisition of more housing units.

“When they’re paying that higher, but not punitive, not extractive rent, the [social housing authority] is earning back the investment it made in someone’s economic future,” Chanmugam said. “And that’s a critical difference between this and other forms of affordable housing.”

Future Implications for Social Housing in Seattle

Another key difference from many existing forms of affordable housing is that tenants in social housing aren’t kicked out and forced into the private rental market in the event they make more (or less) money. They’re able to keep their homes at an adjusted rate.

Henning, in Rainier Beach, contrasted that portability with federally funded affordable housing as well as programs like Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid system, where enrollees risk losing benefits entirely in the event of a small increase in income. 

Apple Health, for example, is available only to people earning less than 138% of the federal poverty level (about $18,754 for an individual and $38,295 for a household of four), meaning that picking up a few extra hours of work might put someone over the limit and trigger a search for new, more expensive health insurance.

“It sucks how much people who get some kind of benefit have to constantly be playing a game,” Henning said, having to consider whether earning more money might actually disqualify them from vital services. Social housing would allow tenants to focus on improving their lives, and their success would, in turn, reinvest in social housing. New buildings would need to be built to so-called passive house standards aimed at minimizing the buildings’ ecological impact.

“There isn’t a place that has this kind of vision — the 120% of median income, the people who can stay there and flourish and and move up and create more income,” Henning said. “It’s one way of solving the problem that is also trying to look at sustainability and growth within itself.”

While social housing has the potential to one day reshape Seattle renters’ relationship with their landlords, even its most vocal supporters acknowledge rollout of the program will take some time. That’s assuming the initiative makes it to the ballot and passes.

“This is not an overnight fix. It won’t be,” McCoy said. “And the ability for it to grow rapidly and pull more housing off the private market will also be up to the City Council.”

It could ultimately be years after the measure passes before the first social housing units become available, and if the buildings are as nice and affordable as the campaign says they’ll be, demand would likely far outstrip supply. Applicants would be selected for the program through a lottery.

But as a long-term plan to ensure people of all income levels can afford to live in Seattle and be protected from eviction, McCoy said social housing could eventually be transformative. “It’s just something new to interrupt the trajectory of where the city is going for affordability.”

Chanmugam added that building more multifamily housing always takes time, whether taken up by the public or private sector. “Let’s say, like, Elon Musk wanted to build a luxury high-rise for all of his children,” he said. “It would take him two to three years to complete, even though he has practically unlimited resources.”

Proponents said that while social housing might not be an immediate fix to Seattle’s housing woes, meaningful solutions to secure long-term affordable housing are long overdue. So for now, House Our Neighbors organizers are undaunted as they scramble to get their proposal to voters — even if that’s not in November.

“Every renter that we talk to, unless they’re really, really well off, they’re all concerned about how much longer they have in the city,” McCoy said. “It’s sad to me that this is something we could have been doing all along.”

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 08/03/2022 with specific dates regarding House Our Neighbors’ press release and statements on signatures.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Banner courtesy of House Our Neighbors, Yes on I-135.

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