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Seattle group’s social housing initiative approved for Feb. 14, 2023 ballot

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Seattle voters will decide whether the city should create a public development authority to create affordable housing. Backers gathered enough signatures to put Initiative 135 on the February 14, 2023 special election ballot.

If approved, I-135 would create a community-controlled public development authority, to be called the Seattle Social Housing Developer, to create, own, and maintain public housing. The measure also calls for start-up support from the city for the first 18 months “including in-kind staff and office space,” along with a requirement to create a process for public lands to undergo a study around the feasibility of surplus lands being transferred to the developer for social housing.

House Our Neighbors (HON), a political committee of Real Change (a weekly, progressive street newspaper), is leading the I-135 campaign. The group describes itself as “a coalition of folks with lived experiences who believe that all of our neighbors deserve safe and stable housing” and who are committed to ending the homelessness crisis in Seattle.

According to HON’s website, social housing “is publicly owned forever, permanently affordable, and creates cross-class communities and renter leadership.”

“We need to implement [social housing] here if we are truly serious about having this be a city that is affordable to everyone, not just folks that have generational wealth, or middle-to-high-six-figure income,” stated Tiffani McCoy, in an interview with a Seattle Times reporter. McCoy is co-chair of HON and I-135 and the advocacy director at Real Change. 

The proposed charter states all developments must contain housing units that accommodate a mix of incomes (from 0% to 120% of the area’s median income) and a mix of household sizes for those who live or work in Seattle.

In language about the initiative’s charter, several goals are outlined. Among them are bullet points calling for new developments to be built to passive house (Passivhaus) standards, charging rent that is less than 30% of a renters’ monthly income, the inclusion of daycares, communal kitchens and/or other community resources, and the use of union labor and labor harmony agreements.

Also delineated is the composition of the board of the Public Developer, which is charged with managing the affairs of the entity. It specifies governance by a voting majority of social housing Public Developer residents plus professionals from various housing-related professions and appointees by Seattle’s city council and mayor.

More than 75 organizations and more than a dozen labor groups have endorsed I-135. Also listed as endorsers are around two dozen individuals, including some elected officials and candidates. 

In April, after House our Neighbors filed I-135, the Housing Development Consortium (HDC) issued a statement expressing concern about the measure, saying it “distracts funds and energy away from what our community should be focusing on – scaling up affordable housing for low income people.” The 30-year-old entity with 190+ member organizations added, “We do not need another government entity to build housing when there are already insufficient resources to fund existing entities.”

Organizers for Initiative 135 cleared the required threshold for verified signatures on August 29 after being granted a 20-day extension for signature collection when their initial submittal lacked the minimum number of valid signers to qualify for the November ballot. Following confirmation by King County Elections, petitioners then obtained unanimous approval from the Seattle City Council when members passed a resolution to allow residents to vote on the measure. Examples of social housing exist in Austria, Canada, France, and Singapore, according to HON. The group said there is a working model of social housing in Montgomery County, Maryland. They also cited California and Hawaii as states where work to create social housing is underway.

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