Jenny Durkan's "More Housing Now" - an Analysis
Folks, Jenny Durkan has released a plan to address the affordable housing crisis, and she is calling it "More Housing Now". As a service to #Hashtag's loyal readers (I hear we're up to 28!), I am going to dive into the plan, and look at the ideas, the funding, and what it all means and/or could mean. There is some good stuff in here. There are some problematic pieces. But one thing that I think is very important: all sides in the Mayoral election are now having this conversation from the perspective of everyone deserving safe shelter. For those reading along, here is the Durkan plan.
First - a quibble. The Durkan Plan notes that the response will be due in the first couple days of the next Mayor's term. This will begin in late November, a critical time for safe shelter. I would posit that the time to plan is now, and trust that Durkan's team is transmitting this idea to Mayor Burgess and the City Council. Implementation of a plan in the first few days - regardless of who is the next mayor - can have a significant impact. Now, that's part of the preface and values statement (two pages) of the Plan, and I quibble just because this is my post and I can do whatever the damn-hell I want!
The first action item that the Durkan Plan highlights is Rent Vouchers. This is actually a pretty controversial subject among folks in the affordable housing community. The concern is that spending money on vouchers simply puts money into landlord pockets, rather than building or preserving homes that will have lifetime affordability, and not require rent vouchers. And that is a very good argument. I would love to see that kind of massive investment from the city.
But it's not happening anytime soon, and definitely not with enough capacity to provide support for the tens of thousands of people in our city who need to preserve safe housing today. So vouchers do become part of the larger picture.
The next issue that I have with vouchers, and this is shared by some, is the limited scope. Through the Housing Levy, for instance, the voucher program is limited to less than a year, with additional support to help folks find housing that is more sustainable in pricing.
The Durkan Plan highlights the need for long-term vouchers, currently handled by SHA with Section 8 funds - and severely limited. The way that program and federal funding model is set up, folks between 30-50% Area Median Income are basically shit out of luck for long-term housing support. The Durkan Plan aims to target this group specifically, and without a cutoff for when folks are expected to "transition" into market-rate housing.
Some have quibbled with the pilot phase, noting that the support would amount to an average of about $100 per month or so. At full funding, the program increases to about $200 per month. But what I fear folks are missing (by targeting the messenger) is that damning statistic: for every $100 increase in rent, homelessness increases by 15%. Is this a "cure" for the affordability crisis? Of course not. But with roughly 40,000 severely cost-burdened families in Seattle, this can provide some needed support to about 23,000 (on top of the emergency support from the Housing Levy, which is pegged at about 4,500).
This plan actually goes further, though - it looks to outline a formula to stabilize rents for landlords who accept vouchers (guaranteed rent payments), and incentives for landlords who exceed the bare minimum regulations for tenant safety. Further, the plan touches on an important piece: working with folks receiving the support to find permanently affordable housing. But not on an artificial timeline - when it becomes available. This is actually a good voucher program.
The one major issue I take with it: a residency requirement wherein people must show they have been residents of Seattle for "some period of time". So if someone is a recent immigrant or refugee from Somalia, for instance, and they are working and paying taxes, they would not be able to benefit from this plan. Suffice it to say, this part needs to be fleshed out more.
Next up: Building Micro-Housing. I've written about this exact thing before - right here. Anyone who has ever heard me speak regarding homelessness has undoubtedly heard my advocacy for the microhousing model as part of the solution - particularly when we are trying to find permanent housing for groups of people who have built family and community together, and might not want to be separated by the "one-at-a-time" model in place now. It's also pretty brave to come out in support, considering so many loud voices against microhousing itself, and those who have always lived in stable housing that believe that "those people deserve better," and so we should just wait until the city builds every person a 600 square foot 1 bedroom apartment. I mean, what's another decade in a tent, amirite?
Also notable about this section: a demand that these models not be concentrated, but instead in all parts of the city. Instead of advocating for all of the poors to be placed in areas with horrid air quality thanks to pollution that goes unchecked, maybe places where life expectancy is a decade longer can withstand some more socio-economic diversity in their community. The one caveat: we should be conscious about locations, access to transit, and access to grocery stores. We want to decrease reliance on cars, and we can't do that by placing people miles from grocery stores. I know some will balk at her call to include neighbors on what this looks like, but if we want sustainable housing, that outreach must be done.
This builds off of the Tiny House Village model, but would be a more compact and space-effective way to provide safe shelter. In the interim, I do continue to support Sally Bagshaw's idea of having up to 1,000 tiny houses - spread across multiple tiny house villages across the city - be an immediate place for the city to direct people out of encampments (instead of just doing a sweep with nowhere to go). These are also proving to be an educational opportunity for carpenter apprentices and high schoolers who want to learn to build, while also providing a shelter that is much better than a tent.
The Plan moves onto Delivering on the Promise to Create More Affordable Housing. Long-time readers of this blog know about the HALA series I did. Sixty-five recommendations, and most of them dull as could be. Looking at these through not only a housing affordability and capacity perspective, but also a legal and constitutionality perspective, I came to the conclusion that while it's not perfect, HALA is actually a really great start. One of the criticisms that I have of Cary Moon's campaign is the appearance of a call to start HALA all over. That may be good politics, but it's terrible policy.
Was the process of HALA flawed? Sure. I was part of the Parks Legacy Committee, and we held all of our meetings in public - even our subcommittees. That means living through night after night of being told how stupid we were for even considering a Metropolitan Park District as a solution to long-term funding problems. I'm pretty sure I was booed more than once during my remarks as a committee member. Chris Lehman spent an entire meeting disrupting the public when he disagreed with their public comment, as well as the people presenting information to the committee. There is something to be said about being able to just do the work and not get shit on the entire time. But I still am all-in for as much transparency in process as possible.
That said, allowing imperfect process to restart a process and continue to delay the ability to provide more affordable housing leads to more people being pushed from the city, more people transitioning from housed to homeless, and more people dying. I'd rather build off of what we have than throw it all out and start all over.
The Durkan Plan builds on that, and focuses on the permitting process, particularly for affordable housing developments. Should it take three years just to get to "yes"? There are many issues that lead to this delay - staffing being a big one - and those are all addressed in HALA. Many of them are also part of the Community Housing Coalition plan that came out shortly after HALA was released. Overall, there isn't much in this section that is actionable directly, but it does note that we need to build more housing, and figure out ways to speed up the process, particularly for affordable developments, and to better coordinate between departments (Note to Durkan: if you are successful, can this include area planning so we have better street grid closure planning????)
Next up we get to what I think is the most important piece: Paying for it. Anyone can tell you that I can be ruthless in tearing apart funding mechanisms. It's because I look at things through a legal lens, and pick apart bullshit and unrealistic things that are a great sound-bite, but will never happen. Back in 2015, all of my revenue plans weren't "Let's tax rich people to pay for a bunch of new stuff" so much as they were "Let's tax rich people to lower regressive sales and property taxes, and then figure out how to properly increase income taxes on high-earners to fund more things we need." It's not sexy, but it also means I wasn't lying to get votes. And if you know something isn't actionable, but you rely on it for a funding mechanism for something else you're promising, then you are lying.
Notably, there isn't a lot of new revenue streams. Using existing revenue sources (the Housing Levy, a larger commercial linkage fee on city-owned property transfers, medicaid waiver funds), and adding a small licensing fee for landlords of $100 every five years (per unit or structure? I'm not clear), this uses the model of better using what we have on prevention rather than intervention (for instance, instead of spending $10,000,000 per year reactionary, allocating it up front to get programs rolling).
It also builds on potential revenue streams - if the income tax is upheld, using some of those funds that are not otherwise used for reductions in regressive taxes, pushing for the 0.25% REET bump that would be dedicated to capital costs of affordable housing, and a speculation tax (Jenny - 15% on high value property transfers. Just think about it).
Much of the plan, though, also relies on getting the city to move quicker on building and preserving affordable homes. Streamlining the permitting process, for instance, can shave years off of an affordable housing development life-cycle, which means more homes sooner. That's a good thing.
In sum, this is a good set of ideas. It's not a set of silver bullets, but combined with other programs, it's a step in the right direction on the housing side. There still must be more to do on the how we do sweeps side, and how we provide and prioritize services (should we wait until people are at rock bottom? Should there be more funds dedicated for folks about to sink that would be more cost-effective in the long term?).
I'm glad to see this come out. And next up for me: I'll be diving into Cary Moon's plans on the same topic. I've already cursory reviewed them, and there is a lot of good in there (that's been there for some time).