The Question: The rising tide of income inequality and homelessness is well documented and easy to see, particularly as camper vans move into our neighborhoods, yet Seattle has been hapless to address the problem. Programs like low income housing and Conservation Corps with Seattle Parks help with individual cases, but the 10 year plan to end homelessness in Seattle resulted in more homeless people than ever.
Options like rent control and income taxes are not legal in our state. Raising building heights to allow for more affordable housing may help with the problem, but is not sufficient and is perceived as a give-away to developers.
Could a development tax be used to subsidize expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit? How about collecting information on the number of residents per household, so that the city could incentivize denser living arrangements and have progressive utility rates that incentivize conservation? What other currently legal, systemic changes do you support for improving housing affordability?
Jon Lisbin‘s Answer: It would be foolish to say I have the answer to the wicked problem of homelessness. As in business, I like to rely on the opinion of experts. The mayor’s emergency task force on homelessness came up with some good short term solutions, to get people off streets and out of vans, but we are going to need more permanent long term solutions.
I like to look at the issue of housing affordability from multiple angles.
- I am an advocate for developer impact fees. Growth should pay for growth and developers should pay their share. Moreover, many developers are not committed to our community and should be taxed for the infrastructure needs their developments leave behind.
- The $15 minimum wage is an attempt to help low income workers afford housing in Seattle and not have to commute from outside the city. The UW Evans School of Public Policy (my recent alma mater) will be reviewing the impacts of the program, and I will be paying close attention.
- An ongoing Harvard study is concluding that frequent, reliable transportation options are the most important factor in helping move people out of poverty; even more so than a two parent household. We need to triple down on transit especially in low income neighborhoods.
Finally, being number one is not always a great thing. Washington State has the most regressive tax system in the country, primarily due to the sales tax which overly impacts the poor. That’s why we need to replace the local portion of our sales tax with an income tax and petition the state to do the same. According to economic forecaster Dick Conway, Washington’s effective local and state tax burden is below the national average. If we were average the state would have collected an additional $28.4 Billion over the past 10 years. That would pay for a lot of what’s ailing us!
Mike O’Brien‘s Answer: We are facing immense challenges at the local level from growing income inequality and systemic disinvestment at the federal and state level in programs that support our people such as mental health funding. It would be great to have leaders at the federal and state level implement programs to reverse these trends and I will continue to lobby those elected to do so, but I will also focus on programs that I can directly control.
One such initiative which I have been working on for nearly two years is to create an Affordable Housing Linkage Fee which would require that all new development set aside 5% of their units as affordable or contribute a comparable amount of funding so that the city can partner with non-profit housing developers to build affordable housing. My hope is to pass such legislation by the end of the year.
I am also interested in re-examining our rules around mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in an attempt to increase the use of these housing types to add more options for people looking to live in our neighborhoods.
I also support structuring our utility rates in a way to improve affordability and incentivize conservation and energy efficiency investments. A couple existing programs that work along these lines are our Utility Discount Program, Community Solar, and Community Power Works.
Catherine Weatbrook‘s Answer: Solving the affordable housing issue will require short and long term changes in many areas. Removing the shared housing utility rate penalty is one quick way of rewarding larger living groups in existing units. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit with a development tax is an idea worth exploring. I think we need to make it easier for owner occupied accessory dwelling units to be rented, perhaps removing rental inspection fees, and lengthening inspections to every 7 years after the first successful inspection. I know some areas of our city have many vacant homes that are not in foreclosure; I would like to understand why those homes are not being made available for rentals. We need to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing by purchasing those developments before they are sold off and jump to market rate. We need to better account for affordable units lost to development, other lodging models, and renovations. With each tool we use, we need results in more affordable rates, with low administrative overhead.
What we have been doing for camper vans, hasn’t worked. As a City Council member, I would work on new approaches. I would ask for regular garbage pickups in the areas they gather, rather than relying on the public to call it in when it’s a mess. I would work to either provide port-a-potties, or regular pump out services for the holding tanks to deal with the human waste. I would encourage social services to regularly partner with Seattle Police patrols so that we can start addressing the underlying issues and get these people on the road to health, employment, and housing, and off the streets. We need a “tent city” for camper vans.