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Social housing typically centers on permanent affordability, tenant leadership and equity. It's an approach used by cities all over the world, and one some Seattle residents are hoping to see in their own community.
As communities continue to explore housing options to address the nationwide shortage, many advocates are pushing lawmakers to consider who will benefit from those initiatives. In Seattle, voters turned to “social housing” as a potential option for sustainable, affordable housing for both middle- and low-income residents.
In a special election last month, Seattleites approved Initiative 135, which establishes a social housing developer responsible for creating and maintaining such projects.
Generally, social housing looks to achieve a mix of racial and economic integration, tenant leadership and permanent affordability. Buildings are publicly owned and rent is regulated based on tenants’ incomes to ensure residents are not cost burdened. In the United States, tenants paying more than 30% of their income on rent are cost burdened—a qualifier more than 40% of renter households met between 2017 and 2021.
The model is already common in other parts of the world. Many look to Vienna, Austria, as the gold standard in social housing, where it has been implemented for more than a century. Other countries in Europe and South America have also implemented variations of social housing.
In the United States, some elected officials are drawing inspiration from the approach. In January, California Assembly Member Alex Lee introduced a social housing bill. The Capitol Area Development Authority in Sacramento deploys a similar model, and Montgomery County in Maryland also drew inspiration from social housing. And in New York City, some city council members are using social housing’s philosophy of housing as a public good in their proposals.
Seattle’s new initiative creates a city agency that is responsible for the creation and maintenance of social housing. People with incomes of up to 120% of the area median income are eligible to be tenants, the properties can’t be sold to private or for-profit companies, and residents are leaders in making decisions about the buildings in which they live.
By housing people of different incomes and determining rents based on those incomes, profit made from higher earners’ rent payments will subsidize the affordable units, said Tiffani McCoy, a co-founder of House our Neighbors, the organization behind the measure.
Mixed-income housing is also a tool for reducing concentrated poverty, said McCoy. “This American idea of segregating out communities based on their income is really, deeply antiquated and problematic”.
While funding for the initiative has yet to be determined, the social housing developer wouldn’t draw funds from existing affordable housing efforts, McCoy said.
The social housing developer doesn’t have taxing authority, but it does have bonding authority, McCoy said. House Our Neighbors is also pushing local and state lawmakers to establish dedicated revenue streams for the social housing developer.
“But if they don't, we will go back to the ballot and pass one ourselves,” she said.
In the meantime, the city is responsible for the project’s startup costs, which are estimated at around $750,000 for the first 18 months, but could be more costly as staff dig into the details.
Critics of the Seattle initiative argue that the business model isn’t sustainable.
While Initiative 135 won’t rely on federal resources like Section 8 housing vouchers or low-income housing tax credits, the initiative is still a diversion from other public, private and nonprofit groups already working for affordable housing, noted the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County.
“We are concerned that the initiative distracts our community from investing in and supporting existing community-based nonprofits, based in cultural communities, that need continued energy and investment to thrive as housing developers, owners, and operators,” the group said in a statement.
The city is still exploring different funding strategies, said Jamie Housen, communications director for the mayor’s office, and it’s yet to be determined where and how the initiative will be paid for. The earliest the city might be able to fund it would be in November, when full budget deliberations will be underway, Housen added.
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.
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