Voters should approve Seattle’s housing levy but demand a better approach before the city asks again.
Seattle’s addiction to levies gets worse by the year, with Mayor Ed Murray doubling every tax measure in sight.
Combined with soaring property values, this spree of tax increases is making the city less affordable to renters and homeowners alike.
Next up is renewal of a city housing levy that Murray is seeking to double, to generate $290 million over the next seven years.
Several aspects of this levy are troubling, and it won’t fix Seattle’s broad affordability challenge.
But voters should nevertheless approve this measure because it provides much-needed funding to help the city’s neediest residents, including the homeless and those on the brink of homelessness.
Citizens should simultaneously challenge the city to improve the housing levy, provide better reporting of its outcomes, and lower its strikingly high administrative costs before seeking another renewal.
Since 2014 Murray has increased his housing office staff by 16 percent, to around 43 employees. The levy would then additionally double the spending for administrative costs, from $13 million to $26 million.
City programs should be able to scale up and provide more services without a proportional staffing increase.
Perhaps the city could find ways to leverage the administrative expertise of the 500 staffers at the Seattle Housing Authority. That’s a separate, but related program using mostly federal money to provide affordable housing to nearly 30,000 residents.
Seattle’s housing levy began small in 1981, as a way to provide senior housing. It’s grown to fund a mix of programs supplementing state and federal housing services, but mostly it subsidizes apartment development.
About 70 percent of the new levy — $201 million — would subsidize development and maintenance of apartments. Recipients would have to rent 60 percent of their units to people earning 30 percent or less than the area’s median income.
The levy increase would also provide $30 million to help developers buy land or buildings. They could use the property to provide housing for people earning up to 80 percent of the area median income, a threshold that’s too high for such subsidies.
Another 14 percent of the levy would provide operating support for 510 units of very low-income housing, including units for residents needing support services.
Four percent of the levy is for homelessness prevention and housing stability. These funds, $11.5 million, would provide rent assistance and other support averaging $2,555 to around 640 individuals and families per year.
Three percent, or $9.5 million, would help about 40 lower-income families acquire, maintain or retain owned homes per year. This support could be in the form of subsidies for low-income housing developers.
Government must help the poor with housing the market is not providing them. But affordability and homelessness are regional issues that should be addressed and funded equitably by cities, counties and the state.
The generosity of Seattle residents helps some but also takes pressure off surrounding cities to contribute as much to these shared, regional problems.
Seattle voters should approve this levy and demand a better approach before the city asks again.
Correction: This editorial, originally published at 4:06 p.m. on July 15, was updated at 4:45 p.m. on July 18. Three percent of the levy would help 40 lower-income families acquire, maintain or retain owned homes each year. The overall total across the life of the seven-year levy would be 280 families.