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Vote 2016

Seattle Housing Levy Explained

July 27, 2016

When votes are counted on August 2, the citizens of Seattle will be deciding whether to enact one of the largest affordable housing measures ever proposed.

Seattle’s Housing Levy dates back to 1986, when an eight-year/$50 million measure made the city one of the first in the nation where citizens agreed to tax themselves to assist low-income residents.  The levy has been renewed four times by voters, with the most recent bill from 2009 totaling $145 million. 

But with property values, rents and basic cost of living increasing steadily throughout the region, the 2016 Housing Levy Mayor Ed Murray’s HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) Committee is proposing would result in spending an unprecedented $290 million dollars over six years. The spending allocation will comprise:

  • $201 million in rental housing production and preservation;
  • $42 million in maintenance and operating costs for levy-funded buildings;
  • $11.5 million for homelessness prevention and housing stability services;
  • $9.5 million in assistance for low-income homeowners; 
  • an estimated $26 million in administrative costs

The measure would be funded through property taxes — an average of $122 per household, with an exception for households making less than $40,000 per year.

Alan Durning, president and founder of the Sightline Institute, a regional sustainability think tank and a member of the HALA Committee, sees the 2016 levy as a necessary step in carrying on Seattle’s proud history.

“To me, it’s a sign of Seattle’s generosity and solidarity,” he says.  “It’s a big ask [of property owners], but housing is a severe crisis in the city.  And property owners are doing quite well.  For a typical homeowner, their property has appreciated by $61,000 in the last year. We’re asking for $122 of those dollars.”

But some homeowners see the measure as too big of an ask at a time when property taxes are already increasing by a considerable amount.

“My monthly tax bill just went up $138,” says five-year Wallingford resident Glenn Singer.  “Most of that is due to Move Seattle, the Library Levy, and we’re going to be talking about a Sound Transit levy coming up.  It’s not that I’m against affordable housing — I’m not against levies — but it has to boil down to the fiscal management of running these programs.”

The levy promises to build or preserve 2,500 rental units, assist 4,500 residents who are at risk for becoming homeless, and assist 280 homeowners stay in the homes they purchased. 

All those are marked increases over the previous levy, voted in in 2009. But Singer questions whether the return on the $290 million investment is worth it.

“The number doubled, but the production of new houses didn’t.  I work in construction so I know that building materials haven’t doubled. Real estate is way up, but it hasn’t doubled.  So I said, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’” Singer says when he asked council members and the Mayor’s Office for more details about where money would be spent, he didn’t get sufficient answers, so he is electing to vote “no” on the measure.

Some prominent organizations were on the fence about the levy for some of the same reasons — and for others.  Amanda Clark, president of the League of Women Voters was torn over whether to endorse the levy. “The burden shouldn’t always be on the homeowner,” she says.  “We feel developers could be contributing more and that other cities in the region could also help with some of the costs.” 

Clark and the League ended up narrowly voting to endorse the levy because the severity of the problem is so great.  But they are concerned the system may need to change as the city moves forward.

“It’s well known that Washington has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country,” Clark says. “With no income tax and other funding challenges already facing the legislature, city levies are really all we can do to address some of these problems.  We sincerely hope that this measure — if it goes through — does what it’s supposed to and makes a difference.  It’s a lot of money.”

Still other local organizations — like the Seattle Tenants Union — feel the levy, while substantial, doesn’t go far enough.  “[The levy] is going to build, oh, 2,000 homes,” says Tenants Union Director Liz Etta.  “We have waitlists of upwards of 24,000.  Every day, more and more people are asking themselves, ‘Do I stay in the community I created? Or do I move out and try to find something I can afford?’”

But Etta also admits that the levy is the best the city’s low-income residents can hope for right now. “While there is no income tax, while there is very little federal spending being done for affordable housing, we need to find funding somewhere. With politics being what they are, we have to support it and hope that it works.”

Voters will need to cast their ballot on the Seattle Housing Levy by the August 2 deadline. Voters have until 8:00 p.m. to drop off their ballots in drop boxes around King County, or have them postmarked by Tuesday, August 2.


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Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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