Take Action: Vote yes on I-135: Social housing for a diversity of incomes will give everyone an opportunity to thrive

The following was written by Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza and Shalimar Gonzales, CEO of Solid Ground. It was originally published in The Seattle Times on Friday, January 20, 2023.

Every day, our organizations hear from people across Seattle facing the same crisis: Ever-increasing housing costs that rise far faster than wages, leaving families desperately looking for a new place they can afford. They might spend a night in the car while they look, but then a night becomes a week, a week becomes a month, and so another family is exposed to the trauma of homelessness — a trauma now shared by more than 40,000 people in King County each year.  

This is what happens when a city’s skyrocketing population and job growth collides with a private housing market that hasn’t been able to keep pacepushing rents up 50% in metro Seattle over just the last decade. But it doesn’t have to be like this.  

Starting next week, Seattle voters will be asked to consider a grassroots ballot initiative called Initiative 135 that would create a new public agency, the Seattle Social Housing Developer, to buy, build and maintain a new kind of permanently affordable housing across the city. By law, these energy-efficient, union-built, city-owned homes would be available to people with a wide range of incomes, from people with no income at all to folks who are fully employed with good jobs but still struggling with the cost of housing in Seattle. That includes educators, health care staff, child-care providers and the front-line human service workers that are so vital to organizations like ours. Rent would be based on income: People who earn more would pay more, but nobody would pay more than 30% of their income on housing. 

Instead of concentrating and isolating low incomes renters — as public housing projects have often done in the past — these self-governed properties would be home to a healthy diversity of incomes, giving everyone a better opportunity to thrive. What’s more, the flexible income requirements would allow residents to pursue better-paying jobs without losing their housing, giving more people an opportunity to escape poverty and build a better future for themselves. 

Now, you might be thinking, “Sounds great, but aren’t there already a bunch of organizations building affordable housing? Why do we need another?” The answer is yes, there are, and their work continues to be vital in our effort to close Seattle’s staggering shortage of affordable homes — which is why we need to renew the Seattle Housing Levy this fall. But we also know that everything we’re doing now is still not enough. In fact, it has been estimated that King County needs to spend an additional $450 million to $1.1 billion per year to make up for years of housing underproduction.

The Social Housing Developer proposed by I-135 would be able to chip away at that deficit without taking resources from existing affordable housing programs because it would be funded primarily through municipal bonds that would be repaid in part through rental income. And this would be an investment that keeps on giving: Once the bonds on each project are paid off, the rental income generated by each building can be used to pay for the development of additional properties. 

This kind of affordable housing production would be completely new to Seattle, but it has been used successfully for decades all around the world, in places like New Zealand, Austria and Uruguay. In Montgomery County, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, D.C., an agency similar to the Seattle Social Housing Developer recently created a revolving $50 million housing production fund that is expected to produce nearly 8,800 units of housing. We can do the same in Seattle. 

Critics of I-135 have argued that we should focus all our resources on building homes for our lowest-income neighbors. But the truth is we can — and must — do both things at the same time: Build more housing for people with no income at all as well as for those who work full time but still can’t afford the astronomical cost of housing in Seattle. As it is, nearly 46,000 households in Seattle are spending more than half of their income on housing, leaving little left for other basic living costs. 

Building more affordable housing in our city isn’t just the right thing to do; it is literally the only way we can hope to end our homelessness crisis. If we don’t find ways to build new affordable homes more quickly, we will continue to see more of our neighbors priced out of the private housing market and pulled into homelessness every year. Please vote yes on I-135 and help us build a better future for Seattle.  

Estela Ortega is the executive director of El Centro de la Raza, an organization that works to build unity across all racial and economic sectors, to organize, empower and defend our most vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Shalimar Gonzales is the CEO of Solid Ground, a community action agency that works to solve poverty by meeting basic needs, nurturing success and dismantling barriers that keep our communities from thriving.

Read another article about Initiative 135 at PubliCola here.