The Housing Levy is also Symbolic

Written for the March 2009 issue of Housing Washington.  Housing Washington is a statewide newsletter published by the Low Income Housing Institute. Housing Washington focuses on the politics and events surrounding affordable housing in Washington state. http://www.lihi.org/housingWashington.html

The Housing Levy is also Symbolic

The Seattle Housing Levy is important for two reasons. First, the levy provides funds that preserves existing affordable housing and produces new affordable housing, improving the quality of life of our neighbors and community. Second, the levy is a highly symbolic act where citizens ratify efforts to address Seattle’s shortage of affordable housing.

While the numbers seem large, housing levies would have a very limited impact on the availability of affordable housing without leveraging federal, state, local and private resources. We are so short of affordable housing that no effort to solve the problem by building new permanently affordable housing appears possible without a historic shift in public outlook. In Seattle, a $100 million levy dedicated to building new permanent housing outright would build perhaps 400 housing units over five to eight years against a shortage of many thousands today. The current recession will put us further behind. The inability to focus on permanently affordable housing is unfortunate because the public receives the greatest benefit (return on investment) from permanently affordable housing – subsidized housing owned by the public or mission-driven nonprofit organizations.

All levies feature a bewildering variety of solutions carefully crafted to maximize leverage from other funding entities. Strategies include financing permanently affordable housing, supporting the private development of term-limited affordable housing, home buyer assistance and rental assistance, among others. The objective of most affordable housing programs is to provide quality housing at an affordable price relative to income. A subset of affordable housing is targeted to groups that need a combination of housing support and services that together may exceed the cost of free housing, including housing the homeless. However, providing free housing to extremely disadvantaged or troubled individuals and families has been shown to save money when the social and economic costs of not providing decent housing, such as emergency services, is included. Understanding this paradox is the historic shift in public outlook we are working towards. Like the closely related issue of health care, education by circumstance may be the only meaningful agent of change. If our current recession persists and worsens, our common education may be at hand.

Two issues related to affordable housing levies remain relatively unexamined. First, how do we move more term-limited affordable housing into the permanently affordable column? Much can be done in this area. For instance, all publicly supported term-limited affordable housing should feature a transferable option for public purchase at a pre-set price and first right-of-refusal on subsequent sales. We should not buy the same affordable housing benefits over and over. Second, how does the Byzantine myriad of housing standards impact our ability to provide decent housing now? While publicly-supported affordable housing standards typically exceed the actual conditions of lower-income households, the discrepancy is glaring for homeless individuals and households. Our high-minded standards are a huge barrier to providing publicly supported permanent or semi-permanent housing to the homeless. Secure and comfortable tent cities are not only possible, they are provided to refugees all over the world. We can do far better than overnight shelters without getting anywhere near HUD standards – and it’s time we do. There are times we should temporize standards in favor of a higher good.

In recent times, Seattleites have shown a willingness to invest in their future, voting for libraries, parks and transit when measures have clearly articulated future benefits that serve the common good. The generosity of Seattleites in their support of housing levies has been good, passing long-term levies in 1981, 1986, 1995 and 2002. Seattleites even supported the failed over-reaching $150 million county-wide levy in the midst of the 1992 recession. The symbolism of the levy can not be overstated.

Direct citizen support for levies creates momentum for change, gives politicians cover to support affordable housing efforts beyond levy funding, and upholds our view of Seattle as a compassionate place – however short we fall in execution. In addition, the high quality of publicly financed affordable housing provides an aspirational standard for all housing.

In formulating a new housing levy, we need to keep these principles in mind:

  • The bulk of benefits should be targeted to the least fortunate
  • Deal terms should provide opportunities for future public purchase (when the housing supported is not permanently affordable)
  • High standards should not interfere with providing homeless people a permanent address

And since the need is so great, the levy should be as large as we believe the public will support.

David Schraer

David Schraer is a Seattle architect with in-plain-air architects and was the first executive director of the White Center Community Development Association.  See www.inplainair.com and www.wordpress.lightandair.com for his work and writing.

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