Long before COVID-19 became a household term, our region suffered from some of the worst housing-affordability levels and highest rates of homelessness in the nation. This severe housing shortage meant that when COVID-19 hit us in earnest, our region developed a short-term housing emergency on top of a continuing long-term housing crisis.
To fix these twin emergencies, we will need unprecedented focus and investment — immediately, to help keep thousands of households from losing their homes, and also to address the longer-term challenge of providing housing affordable to people at all levels of income in our county.
In 2017, recognizing the problem, King County and representatives of our cities convened a Regional Affordable Housing Task Force to find ways to address runaway housing costs. Kenmore Mayor David Baker and I co-chaired the task force. Our work revealed that over 124,000 county households were “severely cost burdened,” spending more than 50% of their income on housing. We also found great racial disparities. For example, more than half of the Black and Hispanic households in King County are severely cost burdened, compared to about one-third of white households.
These were not just numbers: We heard from seniors facing the possibility of losing a family home after 40 or 50 years, mothers considering having to live in cars with their children, and young people unable to see how they could ever afford to stay in King County. We saw over and over how housing challenges fell hardest on people of color, immigrants and other people who are consistently disadvantaged by our economy.
In sum, far too many people in King County have been one missed paycheck away from losing their homes, and for too many years.
The task force issued a series of recommendations in the form of an action plan. By early 2019, this action plan was approved by King County, the city of Seattle and the Sound Cities Association, whose members include all 38 other cities in King County. The task force set an overarching goal of eliminating the cost burden for low-income families. Accomplishing this goal will require a host of actions, from increasing density around transit stations, to identifying publicly owned land suitable for affordable housing, to engaging disadvantaged communities to protect their neighborhoods, to adopting consistent rules to protect tenants and support landlords, to creating an accountability mechanism to track our progress toward our goals.
In recent years, we have begun to make progress. We’ve seen increased investments in affordable housing from the state of Washington, King County, coalitions of cities and the private sector. King County allocated $180 million in affordable housing through lodging tax bonds. The Legislature approved a sales-tax swap that will enable local jurisdictions to invest an estimated $200 million over the next 20 years without raising taxes. Microsoft made a commitment to our communities by pledging $500 million to support workforce housing, and Sound Transit modified its policies to support affordable housing around its light rail stations, including the now-under-construction 254-unit affordable housing development at Roosevelt Station in north Seattle. Although these efforts were only denting our enormous housing shortfall, they offered signs of hope and a path forward.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and people who might have been one missed paycheck away from a financial crisis saw that paycheck disappear. What had been a housing crisis turned into a housing disaster, virtually overnight.
This obviously calls for immediate relief for people who are now at risk of losing their homes. Some steps have already been taken — from temporary state and local bans on evictions, to public and private rental assistance programs. We must continue these efforts and scale them to the size of the problem and effectively target our efforts to the communities hardest hit in this crisis.
But as we respond to the immediate challenge of job and housing loss, we cannot afford to lose our focus on the long term. A large part of the reason so many people are suffering so badly now is because they were too close to a financial cliff in the first place. We must look beyond just “recovering” and instead think about how we reset to a better future that gives everyone an opportunity to have a stable home in King County.
There is a way we can respond to the immediate concern of job and housing losses, correct our long-term housing shortage and stimulate our economy to providing desperately needed jobs. But all levels of government can and must pull together to turn today’s crisis into an opportunity.
First, following the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of the HEROES Act, we should encourage the Senate to take immediate action on the legislation that will provide $100 billion for rental assistance, $11.5 billion for homeless emergency solutions, and institute a nationwide eviction and foreclosure moratorium. Looking to the future, we will need a federal stimulus package to kick-start our economy. A major national investment in housing could help solve two problems at once.
Closer to home, we must continue to update land use codes to allow a variety of housing such as duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings, affordable to people at all income levels. We should increase regional cooperation to make life easier for builders by standardizing building codes and streamlining permitting requirements. We can incentivize the private market to build more affordable housing with tax credits that reduce property taxes on new affordable rental units and through inclusionary zoning, which enables developers to build more market-rate units if they are accompanied by affordable units. Last year, a multidisciplinary group of leaders representing public, private and nonprofit sectors convened the Affordable Housing Committee to develop solutions, but the current crisis necessitates even more urgent and comprehensive action.
Local leaders should work together across city lines, both to make the most of existing funding, and to identify new sources of funding to dramatically increase subsidized housing. The tools currently available to increase funding for housing are a double-edged sword — especially sales tax. We can raise these revenues to help with housing for low-income people, but when we do that, we place a disproportionate tax burden on those with the least income. When we look at resetting to make a future that is fair for all, we need to take on the task of updating our antiquated taxing system. The proposal in the Legislature last year to enable counties to impose a tax on the highest earners at our largest companies to pay for homeless services and affordable housing is the most concrete proposal for a progressive tax in memory. We should revisit that proposal in the next legislative session and, in the future, continue to think creatively about how we can pay for basic infrastructure like affordable housing.
Our efforts must be broad and local. We need investments in housing so people can find homes near jobs and schools to reverse the trend of income segregation. Government efforts must partner with our residents, especially in communities of color and immigrant communities, to be sure that solutions address the impacts of systemic racism and empower rather than further displace those communities.
We still live in one of the wealthiest, most innovative and creative corners of this nation. If anyone can figure this out, it should be us. We can correct the mistakes of the past and boldly prepare this region for a better future. Now is the time.