A ballot initiative filed Monday afternoon by a new housing and homelessness advocacy coalition would establish a public developer that would create, own and maintain public housing in Seattle.
The effort is known as “social housing,” and it’s essentially publicly owned housing that is insulated from private market forces and designed to be permanently affordable. This model is popular in Europe and other countries around the globe including Vienna, Austria.
“This is kind of a referendum on all elected officials,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Seattle’s street newspaper Real Change and co-chair of the coalition behind the measure, House Our Neighbors. “We’re very serious about solving the affordable housing crisis. We can’t wait another year.”
If the ballot initiative succeeds, it would create a public development authority, called the Seattle Social Housing Developer, which would be entirely separate from city or county government. The ballot initiative would create a renter-majority governing board to oversee the work and would establish a charter to determine what the authority can or cannot do.
The announcement about the initiative did not specify how much the new authority would cost or where the funding would come from. McCoy said that there are currently talks underway with state and local government leaders on how this new housing authority could acquire an infusion of startup funds to begin purchasing land and existing properties.
Once the development authority is established, it will be able to apply for grants and establish bonds based on future rent, McCoy added.
There are a few key differentiations that separate social housing from more traditional public housing models, such as the Seattle Housing Authority.
Because this ballot initiative would operate outside of government, it wouldn’t have to follow federal housing stipulations, which generally creates certain low-income criteria that people have to meet to live there. A social housing provider, similar to many in Europe, could allow people from more diverse economic backgrounds to live side-by-side. The renter-owned governing board would determine who lives in the housing units, rather than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For example, the Seattle Social Housing Developer ballot initiative says it would create housing for people ranging from 0% to 120% of area median income. Most federal housing funds go to people who make 80% or less of area median income. Seattle’s median household income was $102,500 in 2019.
“The Seattle Housing Authority is keenly aware of the need for more rental housing in Seattle that is affordable for people with lower incomes,” said Kerry Coughlin, spokesperson for Seattle Housing Authority.
Coughlin couldn’t speak to the specifics of this initiative.
“We cannot continue relying on the private housing market to meet our housing needs,” said a statement released Monday by the House Our Neighbors coalition. “Each year that goes by where the city of Seattle is not proposing radical improvements to our affordable housing landscape, rent continues to rise, more of our neighbors are pushed into homelessness, Black and Brown communities are displaced and low-wage workers are pushed out of the city.”
The homelessness advocacy organization, funded by Real Change, formed in response to Charter 29 — more commonly known as the campaign Compassion Seattle, which would have added into the city’s charter document a mandate to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on shelter and housing and to enforce camping laws.
The proposed amendment was kicked off the ballot by the Washington Court of Appeals, which ruled it would have interfered with state law.
However, Mayor Bruce Harrell pledged to adopt its main tenets when he was elected and has already started to take a more aggressive approach to clearing encampments.
Harrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed initiative.
After forming to oppose Charter 29, the coalition has continued to work on housing and homelessness issues. The group is also organizing mutual aid efforts, as well as the proposed ballot initiative.
The city clerk’s office will review the new ballot initiative to ensure it has been filed correctly. Once that has been settled, the initiative will receive a ballot title and then members of the coalition will begin collecting signatures from Seattle residents. The coalition needs almost 27,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
If the initiative hits that, voters would get to weigh in on it this fall.