Socially Housed

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I live in Seattle, most of which is in the seventh-most left-wing congressional district in the United States. In 2020, it voted 86% for Biden. Our US representative is Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Until January, Seattle had a Trotskyist, Kshama Sawant, on the city council. She had been there for 10 years.

With her retirement, and the replacement of several uber-progressives last November, Seattle politics has shifted back to the center — our center, anyway. That shift is a big thing here. But there remains a number of commandments and constructions left over from the left.

None is stranger than Social Housing. Before imagining what that is, consider first what it is not. It is not the Seattle Housing Authority, an agency which we have had since the New Deal. Using federal, state, and local tax money, the SHA houses about 2.5% of the households in the city. Another few percent live in buildings subsidized by the Seattle Housing Levy, a real estate tax that voters first imposed in 1986. Last November voters extended it by another $930 million over the next seven years.

Social housing aims, in theory, at replacing a large swath of the city’s private housing with public housing.


Libertarians may not like these programs, but at least only a small piece of the private market — the least valuable piece — is supplanted. Social Housing is different. Instead of taxing the middle and upper classes to subsidize the poor, its idea is to house the poor and middle classes together, supporting the poor by cross-subsidy. By doing this it aims, in theory, at replacing a large swath of the city’s private housing with public housing.

The idea is promoted by a leftwing think tank called the People’s Policy Project. You can read its report here, and a popularization of it here, in an article by Paul Williams, a fellow at the Jain Family Institute, called “Public Housing for All.” The idea, explains Williams, “presents both an off-ramp from our reliance on rent-seeking investors and laissez-faire ‘planning’ [private planning?], and an on-ramp to the socialization of our vast land wealth.”

In Seattle, the promoters of this theory formed a group called House Our Neighbors. On its webpage, it explicitly rejects “the free-market-based notion that simply allowing more housing to be built” will provide the housing needed. It calls for “a strong social housing developer . . . to challenge the private market head on.” The spread of “decommodified housing,” it says, “can fundamentally remake Seattle’s housing landscape.”

The public face for House Our Neighbors is Tiffani McCoy, who for six and a half years was advocacy director for Real Change, a newspaper sold on the streets of Seattle by the homeless. Backed by grant money, McCoy’s group ran a petition drive in 2022 to get a social-housing measure, Initiative 135, on the city ballot.

Seattle’s private housing industry donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to recall Kshama Sawant in December 2021, because our Trotskyist councilwoman had been calling for rent control. The recall failed, and I think the donors were exhausted. When Initiative 135 came along 14 months later, the real estate people were out of the fight. In an off-year election, with ballots mailed in by one-third of the voters, the measure passed with 57% of the vote.

A libertarian might suggest that state and county authorities lighten up on land-use restrictions, but the voters here don’t want to hear that.


Not many voters, I think, really knew what was in Initiative 135. Some voters might have noticed that the “vote no” statements in the Voter’s Pamphlet were not written by private-sector real-estate people, but by longtime supporters of public housing who worried that the new program would divert tax money to the middle class.

The social-housing campaign had some radical arguments, if you looked for them, but to voters the campaign spoke in less contentious terms. Its statement in the Voters’ Pamphlet began, “We are facing an unrelenting housing and homelessness crisis in Seattle, with skyrocketing rents far outpacing wages.” I’m wary of the word “crisis,” but Seattle clearly has a housing problem. At latest count (which is down a bit) the median sale price for a house is $764,650, and the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,925 a month. A libertarian might suggest that state and county authorities lighten up on land-use restrictions, but the voters here don’t want to hear that. They see thousands of people camping on sidewalks and public rights-of-way, and they think: something must be done!

To the progressive ear, “social housing” sounds good. In February 2023, 57% of those voting supported Initiative 135. Probably very few voters read the fine print as far as Section 14, which flatly says, “This ordinance does not concern homelessness housing.”

Initiative 135 created the Seattle Social Housing Developer and approved its charter, which empowered it to buy and build housing for households with up to 120% of area median income. Under that rule, a household of two persons — Seattle’s average is 2.05 — qualifies for public housing even if they have an income of $121,000 a year. This sets the Social Housing Developer apart from the Seattle Housing Authority, which reserves most of its units for tenants who have less than 30% of area median income. For a household of two, that’s $32,900 a year.

The social housing model imagines that rents in each project will cover its operating expenses and debt payments. This is to be done by having a mix of poor and middle-class tenants, no one charged more than 30% of income. Old-time public-housing people say having the middle class subsidize the poor will never “pencil out” if there are more than a handful of the really poor.

Under that rule, a household of two persons qualifies for public housing even if they have an income of $121,000 a year.


The social-housing people say not to worry, that their model has been proven several places around the world, most notably in Vienna, Austria. The American Enterprise Institute looked into these claims, and produced a report debunking them. Vienna undertook to build social housing a century ago, after Austria-Hungary lost World War I and Vienna was no longer the capital of a Central European empire. Vienna’s population shrank during the 1920s. Land was cheap, and the city’s socialist administration bought it up. A century on, 80% of Viennese live in rental units, a large share of them city-owned or subsidized. A big reason why social housing has worked in Vienna is the legacy of cheap land.

It’s difficult to make the social-housing arithmetic work with expensive land, which is what Seattle has. The utopian arithmetic is made even more difficult by several stipulations in the voter-approved charter. Social housing must be built by union labor. I’m told that for low-rise buildings, that is less of a problem now than it was 20 years ago, because nonunion wage rates have risen on account of the labor shortage. For mid-rise and high-rise buildings, it is still a problem. The charter also says social housing must meet green-building standards. And to the extent possible, projects “should include daycare, communal kitchens, affordable co-op working spaces and/or common areas.”

“Communal kitchens” caught my eye. There’s an old socialist idea. I wasn’t expecting that.

Initiative 135 also commits social housing to management rules that imply higher costs. Building managers are forbidden to use background checks or ask applicants for references. They cannot ask for cosigners or immigration documents. Any tenant that becomes a problem, the initiative says, must be offered “restorative justice conflict resolution” (whatever that is) before being evicted.

To control the public corporation itself, Initiative 135 authorizes a 13-member board of directors. One is named by the mayor, two by the city council, one by the Green New Deal Oversight Board (another left-created institution in Seattle), one by the King County Labor Council (the unions), and one by various underrepresented groups starting with El Central de la Raza. The remaining seven board members of this new city agency are named by the Seattle Renters’ Commission. When the public-housing projects are built, these seven seats are to be filled by residents.

Any tenant that becomes a problem must be offered “restorative justice conflict resolution” (whatever that is) before being evicted.


The Social Housing Developer’s charter also specifies that seven directors make a quorum. The seven renter-directors can control the whole agency — and they are an unusual group, for corporation directors. Here’s one, taken from the municipal web page, “Meet the 13 people appointed to bring social housing to Seattle.”

“Devyn Forschmiedt . . . Since 2015 Devyn has been working full time in early childhood education, which has contributed to their passion for building a better world for the next generation. In 2020 Devyn started teaching at a Head Start program, through which they have seen even more of the impacts that lack of access to safe and supportive housing and other resources have on families, especially those who are more marginalized. Devyn strongly believes that housing is a fundamental human right. They believe that a healthy society has systems in place that allow every person to thrive . . . Devyn has spent most of their adult life living in inadequate or unsafe housing of various types and absolutely knows firsthand how hard it is for even a single person working full time to reach a place of stability. To Devyn, social housing represents an opportunity for loved ones, the communities they serve, and so many others to reach that stability. Devyn believes it is one small first step towards an equitable world.”

This is called “lived experience,” which the writers of Initiative 135 deemed more relevant for directing a municipal housing program in a city of 730,000 people than knowledge of finance, administration, construction, or law.

As mentioned, Initiative 135 did not give the new Social Housing Developer much money, apart from a few tens of thousands of dollars to put the “lived experience” folks on the payroll. The political group that ran Initiative 135, House Our Neighbors, is now circulating a petition to put a second measure on the ballot, Initiative 137. The signatures aren’t due until June, and this time they might not get them. If they do, and the measure is passed by voters this November — and the new law is accepted by the courts — it would create a new payroll tax in Seattle: a 5% levy on salary amounts above $1 million per employee. A friend of mine calls this the “Julio Tax,” after Seattle Mariners’ center fielder Julio Rodriguez, a player from the Dominican Republic who is under contract for $17.4 million a year.

House Our Neighbors estimates that the Julio Tax will produce $52 million a year for the Social Housing Developer. How they calculated this figure they never said. They never expressed any concern that employers of very expensive talent might move over the city limits into a more welcoming jurisdiction. To the Left, it’s a moral issue. The rich have to pay their “fair share.”

In Seattle’s political atmosphere of the past ten years, a campaign like this was a sure bet. After last November’s council election, I’m not so sure. Whether the political climate here has changed enough I don’t know, but one can always hope.

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