Accountability for Affordability
Summary: Our city is becoming less affordable. The people of Seattle are generous, but they are feeling the cumulative financial burden of their taxes, rents, fees, and bills going up without seeing a better city. Many longtime residents and neighborhood businesses can no longer afford to stay. Accountability is needed to foster affordability. City officials must do more to prevent the demolition of affordable housing and the economic displacement of vulnerable people. Only a City Council producing fiscally responsible solutions can ensure that seniors, middle class families, small businesses, and all our neighbors can afford to stay and thrive in the city we all love. I have the public service experience, financial expertise from the private sector, and a deep background in affordable housing to get results.
Question: How can City Councilmembers help to make Seattle more affordable?
The City has become unaffordable for far too many residents. Wages for middle-class, non-tech jobs are relatively stagnant while taxes, fees, rents, and bills go up. Longtime residents, communities of color, neighborhood businesses, and many others can no longer afford to stay and that’s not right.
It’s important to acknowledge that affordability is more than just affordable housing. Affordability also means a City Hall that lives within its means and leverages its technology and proven strategies to solve problems instead of using the people and business community as an ATM. Only a City Council producing fiscally responsible solutions can ensure that seniors, middle-class families, and all our neighbors can afford to stay and thrive in the city we all love. City leaders must use your tax dollars wisely and efficiently so that we achieve the best results for everyone. The people of Seattle are generous, but they deserve elected officials who solve problems without driving us out of the city we love. Accountability fosters affordability.
I believe I am the only candidate with the city budget experience and commitment to accountability to make our city more affordable. My long career combines the fiscal rigor of the private sector with practical experience and results in local government.
It’s also important to give major new land use and housing policies time to work without thinking we need yet another policy. Those who supported over 25 upzones across the city for “mandatory housing affordability” and the citywide change to allow more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) should allow communities to absorb the changes to see if these massive new changes yield the affordability benefits predicted by their supporters.
Create and Preserve More Affordable Housing:
Former Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) falls short on both affordability and livability. Here are my priorities for affordability:
Continue to Support the Successful Seattle Housing Levy:
Doubling an existing levy must be well-justified with tangible results. While I’ve never been afraid to raise questions about proposed tax increases, I supported doubling the Seattle Housing Levy because it has a track record of producing tangible results and because additional low-income housing is needed. Thanks to the generosity of Seattle voters and taxpayers, the Seattle Housing Levy has over the past several years funded over 13,000 affordable apartments for seniors, low- and moderate-wage workers, and formerly homeless individuals — plus provided homeownership assistance to more than 900 first-time low-income home buyers, and emergency rental assistance to more than 6,500 households.
Build Better, Faster, Cheaper Housing for the Homeless:
Encourage “Modular” Housing
Modular housing, which I recently inspected in Vancouver B.C., is built in a factory and assembled on site. It is attractive and high quality while costing less — and it is constructed much faster than traditional housing so we can get people experiencing homelessness into housing quickly. Ultimately, it should be built with union labor. Seattle and other cities in the region should expedite the permitting of modular housing.
Lower Land Costs
Rather than selling or giving away publicly owned “surplus” land (such as a utility substation no longer needed), city officials should use long-term leases to rent the land to low-income housing operators. Long-term leases of land lower the overall cost of a new housing project while enabling the public to retain public land and the operator to obtain bank financing to construct the housing.
Seek Opportunities to Improve MHA:
- The Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) piece of Ed Murray’s HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) is the controversial backroom deal that sets aside only 2% to 11% of total new units for affordable housing in exchange for allowing real estate developers to build bigger. To be clear, not all real estate developers wanted the MHA policy and developers are understandably driven to maximize profit; therefore, accountability for the policy lies with the policymakers at City Hall. In addition to not producing enough affordable housing quickly and integrating it within each community, the MHA policymaking process did not incorporate reasonable input from existing residents and it lacked a solid accounting of both the existing affordable housing in danger of being demolished to make way for the new developments and the other negative consequences such as the economic displacement of current residents and neighborhood businesses.
- If elected, I will make sure we are thoroughly and frequently monitoring the implementation of MHA and, if warranted, propose sensible adjustments that prevent displacement, protect the tree canopy, preserve historic buildings, maximize low-income housing, and encourage economic integration — such as by incentivizing more real estate developers to include the affordable housing units on site rather than paying a fraction of the cost into a fund that builds the housing years later and miles away. Ultimately, our goal is to make our city more affordable and recent data suggests that upzones are not necessarily a successful path to achieve affordability.
Optimize the Tax Exemption for Multifamily Housing (new apartment buildings):
Seattle’s Multifamily (Housing) Tax Exemption (“MFTE”) program exempts real estate developers / landlords from paying 100% of the real estate taxes for 12 years on the residential portion of newly built buildings in exchange for restricting at least 20% of their apartments to those earning a limited income. But the program, most recently updated in 2015, could be better targeted to produce greater affordability benefits to the public. For example, the program currently allows landlords to benefit from the full tax break even when they rent many designated units to those earning over $90,000 a year. That’s too high to give a full tax break to the private market, especially when the local economy is booming. In July 2019, Mayor Durkan proposed modest changes to the MFTE program which needs to be renewed by December 2019. A change that is particularly helpful to tenants: “It will limit rent increases to no more than 4 ½% per year, ensuring that renters have some stability as they navigate rent increases.” In addition, City Council should have the City Auditor continually monitor the effectiveness of this tax incentive to developers to ensure it is a good deal for the general public and seek opportunities to benefit lower-income tenants.
Encourage More Condominiums:
Instead of building more luxury apartments, City Council should encourage the creation of more condominiums (including units big enough for families). Condos are a more affordable starting point for homeownership. Despite a lack of leadership on this issue from City Council, our state legislators recently reformed the overly restrictive condo laws that have impeded the creation of these affordable homeownership opportunities.
Stop Demolishing Existing Affordable Housing:
The city does not track the thousands of important housing units that are naturally affordable (unrestricted). It appears that demolitions of naturally occurring affordable housing are occurring at a greater rate than city planners predicted. City Hall must not only inventory its existing affordable housing, but also discourage the demolition of affordable housing so that we preserve what we already have. This should include provisions to build replacement affordable housing. Too frequently we have seen a relatively affordable home rented to a family demolished and replaced with smaller units that are each more costly than the original unit.
City Hall must prioritize meaningful protections against economic displacement. This includes keeping senior citizens and other vulnerable people in their homes and preventing small businesses from being taxed out of Seattle. Unmitigated upzoning can create economic disruptions and spike land values. Higher land values can mean higher taxes, which can be passed along to tenants.
Expand and Advertise the Property Tax Exemption for Seniors:
City Council should work closely with our state legislators and the King County Assessor to exempt more senior citizens on fixed incomes from property taxes. The state legislature did the right thing by recently raising the amount of income a senior household can earn income and still be exempt from property taxes (from the flat amount of $40,000 to an amount pegged to 65% of the area median income, which is approximately $58,000 in King County per household). Unfortunately, only a small percentage of eligible seniors are aware of the benefit. City Hall should better advertise the availability of this important relief so we can keep our lower-income seniors in their homes.
Save our Small Businesses:
When you think of what you love about your community, don’t you think of your favorite shops or restaurants, too? When I wrote my neighborhood newsletter “4 to Explore” for the past 5 years, I had the pleasure of highlighting shops, restaurants, and other stores from Wedgwood to Wallingford. While we see the charm of these stores and their hardworking shopkeepers looking out for the neighborhood, we don’t see their mounting financial struggles. Small neighborhood businesses on a triple net (NNN) leases pay all taxes, utilities, and maintenance passed onto them by the landlord / building owners. When City Hall raises property taxes, for example, that additional cost is passed directly and fully onto the small businesses, whether they can afford it or not. We, as consumers, have less money to shop with, the store owners have bigger bills to pay without the ability raise prices to cover the increased costs from City Hall. Our city’s Office of Economic Development needs to refocus itself to preserve hundreds of small businesses throughout out city, not just a handful of “legacy” businesses. City Hall also needs to wake up and see that their land use policies and taxes have a negative impact on what makes our city special, drives mom & pop stores out of the city, and empowers chain stores without soul and without community connections. On a related note, City Hall upzoned most of the University District as it is located near a forthcoming light rail stop, but I believe we should spare The Ave from any subsequent upzone so that we prevent further disruptions that would endanger the many small businesses there, including the many owned by women and people of color.
Greater Transparency on Tax Levies:
The people of Seattle have been generous in approving multiple tax levy increases to fund important functions of our city government. At the same time, our residents and small businesses also need to manage their budgets and they want results from their investments. City Hall must be more transparent about tax levies by communicating in detail the cumulative impact of all levies, so that voters can make more informed decisions. If City Hall works to rebuild the trust between the people and their city government, together we can leverage our resources to accomplish great things.
City Budget Oversight Needed to Control Costs:
While our city’s population increased by 15% from 2014 to 2019, the entire city budget increased by 34% — and the “Administration” piece of the budget pie increased by a whopping 60% during the same time period. A primary role of the City Council is to review and amend the $6 billion budget. New Councilmembers need relevant experience and financial expertise to do this effectively. As an aide to the former Budget Committee chair, I have this experience.
Leverage the City Auditor to Find Cost Savings:
The City Council should beef up the City Auditor’s Office and then engage that office to conduct periodic financial audits and performance audits. Savings can either be reinvested in programs proven to work or, if found in the utility operations, returned to ratepayers in the form of lower utility bills.
Tame Our Utility Bills:
Unlike many other cities, Seattle is fortunate to have significant control over how we manage utilities to keep the lights on, provide clean water, and recycle. But Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities are each $1 billion companies which comprise nearly 40% of the city budget (all funds). As part of getting back to the basics, our City Council needs to better manage utility rates. Utility bills are regressive (lower income families pay a greater portion of their income). Truly progressive leaders should focus more on controlling those costs so that all customers – including seniors on fixed incomes, families with children, and others on tight budgets — are not overwhelmed by increasing costs that make our city less affordable.
A note on Accessory Dwelling Units:
While it made sense for the City Council to liberalize the old ordinance on Accessory Dwelling Units to encourage more ADUs, details matter. Unfortunately, the current City Council required no affordability to benefit future renters or proximity to reliable transit. Moreover, I am concerned that the City Council’s removal of the owner-occupancy requirement will lead to harmful real estate speculation and demolitions of existing affordable single-family rental homes. I issued a press release on suggested amendments to the ADU legislation in June 2019, but the current City Council did not enact them. Going forward, I believe City Council must work with the Mayor to frequently review the data on the impacts of the new ADU law to ensure it does not cause more problems than it is supposed to solve.
Related to this issue of Affordability, please also review my plans for reducing Homelessness by CLICKING HERE.
Why I Can Deliver Solutions: I’m the candidate with the experience and commitment to accountability to make our city more affordable. I am the only candidate who combines the fiscal rigor of the private sector with practical experience and results in Seattle government. I have been working on community development, affordable housing, and fiscal accountability issues during the past 25 years.
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