Morning Fizz

Doubling Last Levy, Mayor Rolls Out $290 Million Affordable Housing Proposal

Murray on affordable housing, Republicans on minimum wage.

By Josh Feit February 4, 2016

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1. Mayor Ed Murray officially rolled out his 2016 housing levy proposal yesterday with a press conference at Compass Housing, a development for formerly homeless people just north of downtown off Denny Way. The Mayor was joined by two Seattle residents who told their stories about being saved from homelessness by the previous housing levy, 2009’s $145 million levy. Developer interests—like Vulcan lobbyists and the Downtown Seattle Association—along with lefty social justice advocates, like Puget Sound Sage, were also in the crowd to support the mayor's proposal.

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At $290 million, Murray’s proposal would double the expiring levy—which builds and preserves housing mostly for people living at 30 percent below the area median income—which Murray reasoned would only cost property owners about $5 per month.

The proposal, which sets out to build and preserve 2,150 affordable units, is a key component of Murray’s overall affordable housing strategy; he wants to build 20,000 affordable housing units in the next decade. His housing affordability and livability plan (his "grand bargain" between developers and affordable housing advocates) is supposed to produce 6,000 of those. The other 12,000 units—in addition to the housing levy and HALA goals—are slated to come from a combination of the multifamily tax exemption program and a housing preservation tax break that's working its way through Olympia this session. 

Murray’s housing levy plan—which the council is expected to send to voters on the August primary ballot—also includes $11.5 million for emergency, short-term rent assistance to keep 4,500 families from slipping into homelessness and $12.5 million for a home ownership program for people at up to 80 percent of the area median income.

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A map of the more than 12,500 affordable units built with housing levy money since 1981 when Seattle passed its first (in the country) housing levy, revealed that the majority of units are concentrated in the city core.

Murray's HALA proposal has made a big deal out of building affordable housing all over the city. City council member Tim Burgess, who spoke at the kickoff event with Murray yesterday, said: "mixed economic neighborhoods are key for a strong city."

Asked if there were any provisions in the new levy to locate affordable housing more evenly throughout the city, Murray told me there were not, but said his HALA recommendations, including a bill working its way through the state legislature to give landlords a tax break for preserving up to 25 percent of units affordable at 60 percent of the median income, pushed that goal. 

2. The State Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee voted 4-3 along party lines Wednesday (with Republicans in favor) for a bill sponsored by Committee Chair Senator Mike Baumgartner (R-6, Spokane) that would stop city and county governments from adopting their own minimum wages above a uniform state level. Right now, Seattle and SeaTac are phasing in a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and Tacoma is phasing in a $12-an-hour minimum wage. Those wages would be grandfathered in, but Baumgartner’s bill would halt any new efforts in any cities or counties statewide above the current $9.47.

Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-46, North Seattle) introduced a bill last year to phase in a $12-an-hour statewide minimum wage in place of the current state wage. She has the same bill ready this session for talks with the senate, if the GOP makes a counteroffer. So far, senate Republicans do not want to do so. But Farrell knows conservative interests would rather work out a nuanced legislative agreement than take their chances with a blunt, non-negotiable public initiative.

Labor and lefty groups are currently collecting signatures for a November ballot measure to raise the state minimum wage to $13.50 an hour.

Baumgartner’s bill would also forbid cities and counties from increasing family and sick leave allowances above what the state requires.

At yesterday’s hearing, committee member senator Steve Conway, (D-27, Tacoma), said: “We’ve had a wage crisis in America, and local communities are taking action because the states and Congress won’t take action. And now we’ll preempt the communities from doing this.”

Baumgartner replied that the state should not have a patchwork of different minimum wages. “Washington state is already a tough place for small businesses,” he said. Baumgartner said his bill will likely get refined as it goes through the legislature.

The bill has a good chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate, but faces a big obstacle.

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