Seattle's Initiative 135 is ridiculous
January 30, 2023 • ☕️ 4 min read
I've been taking a break from writing endorsement guides because I moved to Seattle in May of 2021 and I'm less familiar with the political terrain here. It's also harder to learn; the death of local news basically seems to function with speed inverse to the size of the city: the best sources in Seattle are comparable to the worst sources in Chicago1.
However, the Feb 15, 2023 ballot in King County has one question on it and it upset me enough that it got me to write this.
Seattle Initiative 135
How should I vote?
I mean, you should probably read the whole post but if you're busy, vote no and close the page.
What is it?
Seattle initiative 135 would establish a "Public Development Authority (PDA)" which (per the initiative's phrasing) would "develop, own, and maintain public financed mixed-income social housing developments". You can find the full text here2.
It does not allocate money to build or acquire housing, instead it requires the city to allocate money and resources to get it started up (18 months of office space, legal services, basic staff etc). It leaves to the City Council the decision whether to allocate ongoing financial support (support that would absolutely be necessary if the PDA were to actually manage housing stock).
Were (and there is a considerable amount of uncertainty as to whether or not it will) the PDA to manage housing stock, it would be permitted to rent to anyone making up to 120% of Seattle's median income. For a family of four, that would be any family earning less than $145,088. The rent would not be permitted to exceed 30% of tenant income.
Why should I vote no?
I could make a pro-housing argument against this initiative - I think so long as new construction is difficult (there's an apartment near where I live that's going through design review: it's replacing an ugly parking lot with rats in it), it's just a waste of time to create new agencies dedicated to building housing (they'll have to go through the same design review and all the other barriers that slow housing construction). That said, this proposal is such a procedural mess that I don't think you even have to dive into the details of building more housing.
Zero money dedicated to housing
An obvious thing you might do if you wanted to start a public housing agency is give them some money to buy or build houses. The authors of this initiative decided to go in a different direction.
This initiative allocates about ~$750K for starting up this agency and running it for the first 18 months (an amount, I would note, that could build about two homes that could actually house people) but absolutely nothing to actually manage property, instead depending on hypothetical future allocations from the Seattle City Council. Will those allocations be forthcoming? No one knows: the Seattle City Council is going to turnover seven of nine seats this November so it's basically impossible to predict the future politics of this funding.
That said, the financial constraints will not change in November - Seattle has had slight budget shortfalls (on the order of $10s of millions of dollars against a $7.4B budget) and it's not clear where money for this housing authority would come from. Much of the opposition to this initiative is coming from existing private housing charities who worry the obvious place this money would come from - if it comes at all - is their existing allocations from the city. I share that concern and would prefer to continue funding the existing organizations that have a proven track record instead of standing a new one up.
WRITING REPORTS IS NOT MAGIC
At some point, some clever politician somewhere discovered that a lot of people are satisfied by legislation that requires writing a really good report. This initiative takes advantage of that by requiring that "[w]henever the City considers the sale or gift of public lands for private or non-public use, it would need to prepare a feasibility study regarding whether the property should be transferred to the PDA for social housing".
I can't overstate how much I hate this. The horniness of the American political system for wasting public servants' time writing reports ruins projects. We spend more time thinking about doing projects rather than doing them and this ultimately bolsters the conservative anti-government agenda. Private actors don't have to write massive reports before doing things while conservatives and so-called liberals delight in saddling government with writing essays like they're high schoolers studying for the SAT. And, at the end of the day, nobody will read that PDF except legal arsonists dedicating to ruining the project by finding some slightly malformed fact pattern that will consume city resources and time on a multi-year court fight.
If you believe government should do more things, that doesn't just mean funding them or stopping malevolent corporate lobbying, it means actually expanding what they can do without begging permission. It means not creating tortuous bureaucracies and instead creating clear power structures that you can vote for or against every other November.
I suspect that Chicago's scale isn't enough for it to escape this trap, particularly given its population loss. It seems like it will take longer though.↩
I'd like to take this moment to register just how ridiculous is is that, in twenty-fucking-twenty-three, a city government is uploading a scanned PDF image. This probably also violates the ADA.↩