Since 1981, Seattle has invested in public housing (beginning with the Senior Housing Bond proposed by then-Mayor Charley Royer). This continued with the 1986 Seattle Housing Levy (the first campaign being managed by now-Speaker Frank Chopp), which voters renewed last year. That renewal - a doubling of the prior levy - won the support of 70.6% of voters. If memory serves, that is the largest win for a municipal levy lid-lift ever. Full disclosure: I managed the 2016 Seattle Housing Levy campaign.
In 2009, Seattle's Housing Levy included specific funding for emergency rental assistance, or housing vouchers, to support individuals and families at risk of losing their homes due to lack of ability to pay rent. In addition, support would be given to help folks find more sustainable housing. Over 3,000 households benefited from this investment, and the total funding was increased in the 2016 Levy. Put another way, over 3,000 people were kept from becoming homeless because of rent vouchers.
During the Seattle City Club debate on October 18, moderator C.R. Douglas asked the candidates for Seattle City Council if they supported the Durkan proposal to add rent vouchers to the mix of our affordability programs. Council Member Gonzalez noted that they already are, and expressed support for expanding them, noting, however, that vouchers alone aren't going to be a solution. Teresa Mosqueda echoed that, highlighting that even with vouchers, we need more housing to actually be built for low-income families, but to prevent homelessness now, of course we should expand the voucher program. Then came Jon Grant:
Grant specifically referenced Section 8 vouchers for this comment, but went on to say that he does not support any voucher program, and instead wants to build more subsidized housing, citing the Rental Housing Association (RHA) support of vouchers as reason to oppose them. Fun fact: RHA also supported the 2016 Housing Levy.
I'm not going to disagree with the notion that we need more subsidized housing. As readers of this blog well know, I have long supported more of this, and in general more social housing, all while identifying potential funding mechanisms to explore. I'm all-in with Mosqueda and Speaker Frank Chopp on using existing public land for the public benefit of affordable housing (rather than selling to the highest bidder). I'm also all-in on ensuring that we can have options for what this housing looks like, which must include courtyard apartments and missing-middle style housing (necessitating zoning changes that Grant opposes). A quick note on this: zoning changes shouldn't be a blanket policy, and should start north of Ship Canal. There are neighborhoods in Seattle where community was created in spite of redlining, and there must be great care taken to not decimate and push out families from historically marginalized communities.
But I also know a thing or two about how public development and affordable housing development works. There is the initial identification of a site, bidding on the site, putting money into it, cobbling money together from various sources (some call it a "lasagna of funding"), designing, EIS where appropriate, DRB where appropriate, engaging with the community, fighting to actually get the development built when the community opposes the development (this happens more often than you would think), contracting a construction company (depending on availability), construction, inspection, open. Easily 3-5 years to actually turn an idea into a reality.
This is where vouchers come into play. I'm not a cheerleader for the idea of having an arbitrary deadline for folks to find affordable housing. That's just dumb, and is a flaw in the Pathways Home plan. But providing rental assistance while the city moves forward with the production of more affordable and social housing is a good idea, and I would posit a necessary one. In a world where we just say fuck-all to vouchers because RHA supports them, we are ultimately dooming people to displacement and homelessness. This is a prime example of perfection being the enemy of the good, and in this instance, poor people are the ones who will suffer as a result. Playing political games with people's lives is beyond the pale.
I'm reminded of what we see with defense medical examinations. Right now, for instance, I'm working on a case where someone was injured, had a cervical decompression procedure, and is doing better. The insurance doctor reviewed the records, and said he didn't need it. But the fact remains: before the procedure he was in extreme pain, and after he was not. It worked. While benefiting landlords may appear unseemly, before getting a voucher, a family is worried about becoming homeless. Afterward they are not. I've spoken with these families, and it is voucher programs that saved them. These are real people. This is success in action.
It is dangerous and extremely reckless to engage in this type of political grandstanding. Coming out opposed to a program that supports tenants, that saves renters from eviction...I just can't understand why someone who purports to be the voice of the renters would make such a flippant remark. I will continue, however, to be an advocate for programs that work, because the people who will suffer are the ones we have the highest duty to protect.