Only Community Power Can Solve Seattle’s Housing Crisis

Originally published November 14th on The North Star 

The Crisis

Since November 2015 a state of emergency on homelessness has been officially declared in Seattle and King County by Mayor Ed Murray and County Executive Dow Constantine, as official King County estimates surpassed ten thousand individuals who experience homelessness sometime in the course of the year.i While this writing focuses on the details of Seattle, undoubtedly lessons can be abstracted, as homeless crises have been officially declared by government leaders in Los Angeles, Portland, and other cities – not to mention the largely unspoken ongoing poverty across the United States. In Mayor Ed Murray’s statement on the state of emergency, he reminded the city that “more than 45 people have died on the streets of the city of Seattle this year and nearly 3,000 children in Seattle Public Schools are homeless.”ii

This tragedy is directly linked to the continual rise of apartment rental prices across the city, indicated by a 2013 national study which found a 15% increase in metropolitan homelessness per each median rise in rent by $100.iii Per a June 2015 analysis by KUOW, “(s)ince 1998, the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment has risen 38 percent, measured in 2014 dollars. That’s pushed the average cost to $1,412 per month.”iv From January 2015 to January 2016 alone, rent rose 7.3%, resulting in an average apartment rent of $1,649.v That’s an increase of $119 each year for the past two years, and the increase of the King County homeless population has far outpaced the 15% per $100. This year’s One Night Count of the County’s homeless in January found 4,505 without A 19% increase over 2015’s count, and 40% increase from 2014, however even this was acknowledged by organizers to be a low estimate. This number balloons to over ten thousand when those in shelters and transitional housing are taken into account, as the 2015 count showed.vii From 2010 data provided via the Mayor’s July 2015 Housing Action Plan, between 15 to 20% of Seattle’s households are considered severely rent-burdened, including 21,500 households making under 30% of Seattle’s area median income. Between 2000 and 2011, the poverty rate of the suburbs around Seattle grew 78.9%. A larger share of the region’s poor today live in the suburbs,viii while increasing enclaves of poverty grow within the city limits.ix

The market absolutely cannot be depended upon to correct this process. Over 8% of Washington State’s workforce is in the tech sector, where the average yearly salary is $130,000.x In Seattle neighborhoods with the largest share of South Lake Union tech workers, the median cost per square foot of an apartment went up $0.60 from 2011 through 2015 to $2.19. In the neighborhoods with the lowest resident SLU tech worker density, the increase was $0.38 over the same period.xi From 1998 to 2014, the city has experienced a 118% increase in one-bedroom apartments, however rents went up 38% over the same period, with a large portion of that hike occurring in just the last five years.xii In 2015, nearly 13,000 new apartment units were opened up across the Seattle metro area.xiii These units largely targeted incoming wealthier tenants, with rent in newer construction being upwards of 40% greater than existing buildings.xiv By one estimate, an income of $72k is necessary to live comfortably in Seattle.xv Even with a $15/hr, $30,000 a year job, the average one-bedroom rent would consume well over half of a person’s income.

The City of Seattle, for their part, even while playing lip service to much of the above, have put forward policies that rely exactly on the marketplace which has failed working people. The Mayor’s convened Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report reads:

“Market forces alone will not build sufficient affordable housing for lower income households, nor can sufficient quantities of subsidized housing be produced in high amenity and opportunity neighborhoods without the participation of and partnership by market-rate developers. Therefore, to ensure more affordable housing is built and that our neighborhoods individually and collectively reflect the demographics of our city, the City should: (1) boost market capacity by extensive citywide upzoning of residential and commercial zones; and (2) match this increased capacity with a mandate to build affordable housing in emerging market-rate buildings. To achieve these goals, this program will encourage market-rate housing developers to produce units versus paying a fee in lieu of performance.”xvi

Murray is calling for a drop-in-the-bucket of 20,000 affordable housing units, either new or preserved, over ten years which is to be accomplished via various proposals completely dependent on private forces. Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is one of the central plans, incentivizing developers to integrate affordable housing in future construction, 5-7% of building units by current language, by allowing for increased height limits. In spite of the policy’s name, very little is mandatory, as developers can pay a fee to have affordable housing built elsewhere, which could reinforce the concentration of the impoverished into the exterior and less marketable areas of the city. In other cities which have put forward similar policies, the portion of mandated affordable units have been much higher, with little or no option of fee payment as alternative. However, from San Francisco to Kirkland, the number of affordable units developed through these policies have been underwhelming to the scale of the crisis at hand. xvii
“Affordable housing” is itself a broad term. What is considered affordable housing isn’t objective, but is relative to the income of the individual or family seeking housing. As long as a unit is set aside for a renter making below 81% of the Area Median Income (AMI), it is considered affordable. The median income of Seattle is now $80,349, setting the 81% mark at just over $65,000.xviii Of course, tying a plan to generate housing to market forces means being tied to market interests. Murray has himself conceded that, for developers, producing units set aside for income earners making between 65-80% of AMI (roughly between $52-65k) is “probably the only financially reasonable method.”xix A 2009 report by King County found that, on a county-wide level, only 9% of market-rate rental units were considered affordable to households making under 40% of the county’s median income (roughly $32,00 in Seattle).xx Offering tax breaks to developers who build for 60-80% of AMI does nothing to correct the imbalanced housing stock.

Public Housing First

Perhaps the largest unauthorized concentration of homeless individuals in Seattle – with over 300 persons – was in the area known as The Jungle, or “Freedom Hill” to residents, along the I-5 Greenbelt. Out of 357 contacted Jungle residents, only 28 were given temporary housing following a mass city sweep of the area.xxi On May 23rd, former Jungle resident Andrew Collins addressed Seattle City Council as a representative with a list of demands:

“We the housed and un-housed people of Seattle demand the city:

One, stop all the sweeps of the homeless on the streets of Seattle and encampments city-wide, especially The Jungle, and return all seized property to its owners or compensate them for that loss,

Two, enact a housing-first program for all houseless in the city.

Three, stop paying taxpayer money on privatizing homeless issues, such as for-profit sweeps and contractors.

Four, provide 24-hour living areas, and the right to rest in unused buildings public or private in the Seattle area.

Five, spend the $1 million for The Jungle fence to revitalize any neglected public or private property — such as unused fire stations, vacant buildings or The Seattle Times building — for those without housing.”xxii
These demands should guide any organization which claims to fight in the interests of homeless, impoverished, and working class Seattlites. The second demand, for “housing first,” primarily refers to a policy whereby the placement of homeless individuals and families into housing is prioritized over other concerns, such as mental health or drug addiction. Utah has enacted such a program, and under it has lowered the chronic homeless rate by 91% over a decade.xxiii Chronic homelessnes refers to the 23% of homeless individuals nationally who have been living without residence for an entire year and suffer from mental health or other debilitating issues.xxiv According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, “(t)he solution to chronic homelessness is an intervention known as permanent supportive housing (Housing First), which combines affordable housing and a tailored package of supportive services that help people achieve housing stability, get connected to health care and other social services, and improve their health and social outcomes. Study after study has shown that permanent supportive housing not only ends homelessness for people with the most severe challenges, but also reduces the use of emergency services and lowers public costs.”xxv While Housing First has been touted in words by the mayor, the specifics are a far cry from genuine Housing First and effective policy. The most direct method of extending housing is via state intervention. What is proposed by the Murray’s “Pathways Home” action plan however, is Housing First as temporary housing prior to continued dependence on private housing, which has miserably failed to meet the needs of Seattle’s poor and working class. Rather, Housing First should be posed as a radical step towards a right to housing for all.

Absolutely no serious discussion of public housing as policy has entered into the city government’s discourse. Rather, the HALA report depends on numerous convoluted market-reliant programs saddled with bureaucracy, and even calls for “explicitly allow(ing) the sale or lease of City-owned land at less than fair market value for affordable housing purposes, recognizing that this comes at a cost to other city needs and general funds.” Turning over city land to private ownership to build “affordable,” rather than public, housing. This follows in a long trend of privatization and “public-private partnerships” by the City of Seattle. Between 1998 and 2009, the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) public housing stock declined by 833 units, replaced and surpassed by SHA vouchers which aid in renting in the private market.

The strategy of SHA is most expressed in the selling off of many of their properties to private companies who develop under the agreement that a certain number of built units will be “affordable.” Seattle’s oldest public housing project, Yesler Terrace, was home to 1,167 residents in 2005. In 2013 SHA began what they termed as a “revitilization” of the housing project, a parceling out of the land to private developers, including Vulcan, with the intention of creating a new tech campus, retail space, and mixed-income housing with SHA units comprising a tenth of the available housing.xxvi National trends point in the same direction, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) itself lowering overall public housing stock from 1.39 million units in 1990, to a projected 780,000 in 2020.xxvii What stock still exists in the U.S. exists in abandoned disrepair. The federal government has in response moved towards turning over public housing to private ownership through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. Additionally, HUD has allowed numerous local Housing Authorities, including the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), the ability to launch their own programs by which to charge rent greater or less than the standard third of a household’s income.

In Seattle, a program of rent increases for SHA residents was proposed in 2014 under the name Stepping Forward. This program would have raised rents for five years incrementally for tenants considered work-ready; by the fifth year “a tenant would need to earn almost $20/hour to afford a 2-3 bedroom unit.” The Seattle Housing Authority serves a largely immigrant family population. “70% of SHA households live in 2 or 3 unit households, and 51% are single parent households. 25% of all impacted households are immigrants and refugees. For the immigrant and refugee community this [would have] severely harm[ed] newcomers who rely on community networks and familial support to succeed in a new country.”xxviii Stepping Forward was defeated by mass action on the part of the tenants packing public meetings and City Hall. Like the mayor’s Pathways program, SHA saw their own housing stock as a temporary measure, with tenants to be eventually pushed out into market housing.

Housing is a Human Right

What is key here, is the question of control. Housing must be absolutely fought for as a human right. However, without democratic control, housing as a right becomes housing as a privilege – to be granted and taken away. Public housing historically has not been run in the interest of tenants (as a right rather than a privilege), as SHA has recently showed. Market housing is certainly not run in the interest of anything other than profit. As the Marxist authors of In Defense of Housing put it, “housing markets are political all the way down. The balance of power between tenants and landlords, or between real estate owners and communities, cannot be determined in a neutral, apolitical way. What the free market boosters ignore is the question of power.” Public housing should not be restricted as a public service, as government policy to address a temporary crisis in visible poverty, but rather extended as a larger social resource. In Austria, the city of Vienna sets an example of the scale to which we should fight for. There, in a city roughly equal in population to Philadelphia, the United States’ fifth most populous city, public “housing represent(s) about 46 percent of the city’s housing stock, making Vienna the largest landlord in Austria and one of the largest in Europe.” The housing that exists there is built with high standards of aesthetic qualities as well as considerations to its environmental and social impact. Tenants are also included in the design process, giving input on apartment layouts and communal area use.xxix Even above inclusionary construction processes, the vision of the city which should be constructed is one of city financed housing cooperatives. Cut away from both government bureaucracy, as well as market interests. In Defense of Housing further asserts that “(p)osing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses.”xxx

Failure of the Established Left

Unfortunately, the city currently lacks a legitimate political left wing openly fighting for public, not to mention democratic, housing. Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the organization to which she belongs, Socialist Alternative, could be considered the closest to such a legitimized left flank, however their actual approach to housing and gentrification falls far short of both addressing the scale of the problem, or addressing it in a direct manner. Instead Socialist Alternative have been inconsistent in how they understand gentrification and housing. In July of 2014 a op-ed written by then Socialist Alternative candidate for the State House 43rd District, Jess Spear and published by The Stranger laid out a case for rent control where the central claim was the case of Ballard’s then high vacancy rate in the face of mounting rent increases.xxxi However, the city as a whole actually had, and still maintains, record low vacancy rates as newly constructed apartments are quickly filled. In June of 2014, Spear explained the housing crisis to the Seattle Weekly that “[d]evelopers are buying up land, lobbying the city to allow for increased heights, and getting handouts subsidized by taxpayers – but what they are building are expensive, posh apartments that few workers in the city can afford”xxxii Ironically this statement was published just four days after Sawant voted exactly in favor of rezoning around the Mount Baker light rail station, allowing for increased height limits in an area already facing gentrification and displacement. Now, in 2016, a representative of Kshama’s office has confirmed her support for the Mayor’s HALA upzoning, stating that community displacement is “happening no matter what. In her support for the upzones, [Kshama]’s not saying [density] will solve the problem, but it’s not the source of the problem.”xxxiii
Socialist Alternative has shifted focus for two years from one short-term campaign to another with, at best, loose and haphazard language around public housing. A year ago, in the midst of their championing of rent control, a debate occurred on that topic at Town Hall to a packed auditorium. Councilmember Sawant and then-Councilmember Nick Licata represented the pro-rent control side. In his very opening statement, Licata boldly stated that “nobody is arguing that government run apartments,” and moved on to argue in favor of market regulations, effectively sidelining any non-market based solutions. This went practically unchallenged by Sawant.xxxiv The demand for rent-control, preempted by conservative Washington State law banning residential rent controls, was destined to die as a lobbying effort, and thus it did in January of this year with little fanfare.xxxv From this came other numerous smaller effort reforms, which while positive, neither individually, nor as a whole, seriously represent a reversal of the deep processes of gentrification in Seattle.

These reforms include the “Carl Haglund Bill,” legislation withholding the ability for landlords to raise rent on apartments with numerous codeviolations until the unit is up to code, and a law implementing guidelines and some restrictions on apartment move-in fees. Likely to appear as well is “a bill to massively expand relocation assistance for tenants forcibly evicted by dramatic rent increases.”xxxvi No fundamental relationship of power has been altered by these initiatives, no matter how positive in piecemeal. Those who benefit from a cap on move-in fees, are the diminishing number of working people who can afford the skyrocketing monthly rent; and relocation assistance, while positive, hardly softens the blow of gentrification and community displacement.

The current campaign is Councilmember Sawant’s call for a thousand new units of housing, diverting REET (Real Estate Excise Tax) funding alloted for a slated new Seattle PoliceNorth Precinct.A four-page letter from the City Council Central Staff to Sawant’s office is the centerpiece which has been uncritically distributed. The letter clarifies a controverisal legal route via which REET funding could technically be routed to fund affordable housing. Surprisingly. when the Central Staff advise that “(t)he City could sell (the intended North Precinct) land and use the proceeds to support affordable housing,” no criticism of this is made by Sawant.xxxvii This letter then falls short even of the report drawn up by the Community Housing Caucus (CHC), a caucus convened by Socialist Alternative’s twice-electoral opponent Washington State House Speaker Frank Chopp. The CHC explicitly recommend to “(i)nitiate immediately a thorough and comprehensive strategy to acquire and develop unused, underdeveloped, and available public land for a dramatic expansion of the city’s low income housing stock.”xxxviii While shifting funds away from the SPD and towards housing is absolutely needed, no larger vision or strategy is developed. Instead, a continual reliance on private interests, even if they be non-profit, is pointed at. Again, the Mayor has proposed an average of 2,000 units of affordable housing to be built or preserved every year for a decade. The radical alternative is to counter with an additional 1,000 after three years?xxxix Economic trouble on the horizon could also doom this plan. As critics of the plan have cited, REET is “a volatile source of funds as the real estate market cycles, and the city would risk defaulting on its debt in a downturn.”xl Ironically then, a proposal by a Socialist is hinged on the continual health of Capital. To their credit, Socialist Alternative does semi-regularly mention a pie-in-the-sky desire for “discussing how we can use the City’s bonding capacity issue to build thousands of units upfront of affordable housing,”xli unfortunately a call for discussion is neither action, nor a plan.

A New Vision – Community Power

Returning to the Jungle resident’s demands presented by Collins offers further guidance on where to fight for expanded democratic space and rights: “the right to rest in unused buildings public or private in the Seattle area” – squatting, the act of taking residence in vacant property. Even given Seattle’s low vacancy rate, there still exists thousands of housing units which lay vacant every day.xlii As the group common ¢ents wrote on Craigslist, appealing for a new vision of squats, “(v)acant buildings represent a potential for new forms of community engagement: transitional housing, community services, unstructured space, spaces dedicated to spontaneous creativity, etc. Efforts to reclaim them should not be homeless-centric. Anyone in Seattle who is worried about the city becoming divided into homogeneous sub-units, with the richest and whitest areas enjoying the best access to transportation, culture, beauty, festivals, parks, etc., should feel justified in demanding access to a vacant building.”xliii When upwards of two hundred squatters took the old emptied Seattle Times building, that was a challenge to developers who are turning that land into condominiums for the wealthy.xliv When Collins further demanded the “revitaliz(ation of) any neglected public or private property — such as unused fire stations, vacant buildings or The Seattle Times building,” that is a call for a different vision of whose interest and control the city should be constructed in. Defending squatting rights over property rights is a campaign which should be taken up in preparation for potential future economic turmoil. Defense of those seeking shelter in vacant properties should have a legal framework in the event that the local tech industry take a dive and vacancy rates in the city rise.

Nothing less than a program of massive community-controlled housing will address individual human needs nor wider community needs. A December “Building Affordability through Community Ownership” workshop with the support of multiple city council members and community organizations points to the possibility of such a program being built. The purpose of the workshop is to “discuss the necessary principles for community ownership, and community led strategies to curb displacement.” Participants will “[h]ear about specific examples where community ownership is taking root in the form of Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives (LEHCs) and Community Land Trusts (CLTs).”xlv However, the devil is in the details. The workshop organizers define CLTs as “nonprofit, community-based organizations designed to ensure community stewardship of land.”xlvi At best, CLTs can be “transformative” for “achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government.”xlvii At worst, such cooperatives provide only superficial community ties and democracy. “An angry tenant response to 1970s-era housing management reform still holds: ‘Don’t give me that participation bullshit, man. We want power!’”xlviiiSuch developments can still be central in combating displacement if they advance true community power independent of outside institutions.

It is no surprise that the community ownership workshop includes AfricaTown Seattle amongst its endorsers. Their spiritual relative, Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi, have also moved to create housing cooperatives on their own accord to empower the Black community in one of the most impoverished cities in the country. “Cooperative Jackson is its own economic ecosystem – including a farm, restaurant, recycling and compost center, cultural center, and community land trust – and has allowed the black community to own their own labor while improving the conditions of their community.”xlix The potential for CLTs to empower marginalized communities, such as the LGBTQ community should be highlighted. Imagine if such democratic housing existed in Capitol Hill, giving LGBTQ peoples in the historically queer neighborhood wider power over space, and leverage to fight gentrification and loss of community. Opposed to the individualized conception of housing which is predominantly discussed by policy makers should be one rooted in community. Housing as a human right, as a democratic right, in a practical sense means a right to community. To fight for such a right is to fight for real tangible power for Seattle’s working, oppressed, and marginalized communities.

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xxxiiKelton Sears Fri and Jun 27 2014 at 04:15PM, ‘In Light of Rising Rents, Jess Spear Explains Her Vision of Rent Control in WA’, Seattle Weekly <http://&gt; [accessed 23 September 2016].

xxxiiiGeorge Howl and Jr, ‘Kshama Loves Upzones’, Outside City Hall, 2016 <; [accessed 4 November 2016].

xxxivJuly 2015 Rent Control Debate (Town Hall, Seattle, 2015) <;.

xxxv‘Rent Control Not on Docket in Olympia’, Seattle Met <; [accessed 19 May 2016].

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xxxviiDan Eder, Central Staff Deputy Director, ‘Memo: REET Funding for Affordable Housing’ <;.

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