Initiative 135 for Social Housing: Voters Beware


Ballots due for postmark February 14 have already arrived in Seattle voters’ mailboxes for Initiative 135, which would create the Seattle Social Housing Developer. Though a venture in public housing, the measure oddly parallels the ill-fated Seattle Monorail Authority of 26 years ago.

It’s wise to recall the ill-fated monorail initiatives, 1997-2003. Hatched by a taxi driver with a big vision, the monorail plan had no support from the local establishment. Progressives promoted it as an effort in bubble-up democracy that all good liberals should support. (I recall County Executive Ron Sims complaining, “If you ask questions, it’s almost like you’re a heretic.”) The social-housing initiative is like that. It expresses the wants of a segment of the people, but has not come through normal channels and is not well thought out. 

The monorail initiative of 26 years ago set up an agency that duplicated Sound Transit, which was already building light rail. Social housing competes in a similar way with existing providers of below-market housing — and they are not happy about it. (See the statement by Alice Woldt, David Bloom and John V. Fox in your mail-in ballot package.)

Like the first monorail initiative, social housing is offered as a big idea that would, for now, cost nothing. But after voters approved the monorail idea, promoters asked for a tax on car owners, and voters said yes. Then they said no, killing the project, in 2005. Social housing is following the same game plan: Get set up first, ask for money later.

Voters should take a close look at this. Here is a Publicola editorial supporting I-135.

First, the big vision. It is not limited to housing for the poor. The slogan on the yard signs, “Social Housing for All,” suggests as much. The vision, in the words of its promoters, is to be like certain cities in Austria, Uruguay, or Singapore, where “governments, not the private sector, are directing the housing market.”

In itself, Initiative 135 would not create one unit of social housing. Probably that is why Seattle’s private developers, owners, and property managers – who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight Seattle’s socialist councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, and her visions of rent control – have raised no money to fight this. Initiative 135 would set up an organization on paper and instruct the city to hire a few officers and give it some office space. It would authorize the officers to do all manner of big things but give them no money to do it with. 

Initiative 135 promises housing projects that come with daycare, co-op working spaces, and communal kitchens — this last an idea of socialists a century ago. It promises that any new buildings would follow green building standards and would be built only with union labor. It also stipulates that the projects would pay for 100 percent of their operating costs and debt. (The promoters of the Seattle Monorail Authority once promised that the monorail would cover its operating costs entirely out of its fare box.)

For more than 80 years, Seattle has built below-market housing through the Seattle Housing Authority. Of its 8,500 units 85 percent are reserved for households with incomes of less than $36,270 a year — a level that equates to 30 percent of Seattle’s median household income. This is housing for the poor. The housing under Initiative 135 is not limited to the poor and its enabling act states that it “does not concern” housing for the homeless. 

The housing owned by the Social Housing Developer would be open to families with up to 120 percent of median household income. Seattle’s median is $110,000 — an amount far above the state or national average and slightly greater than that of New York City. Do the math: 120 percent of Seattle’s median is $132,000. Initiative 135 hardly offers “social housing for all,” but it envisions social housing open to a majority of households in the city. 

Social housing would have different rules than private housing. The units would be chosen by lottery from a pool of applicants open to citizens, green-card holders, and illegal immigrants. The project managers would not be allowed to make any background checks to weed out applicants with destructive behavior or bad credit. They could not ask for references or insist on cosigners.

Rents would be set at a gross amount that would cover operations, maintenance, and loan service on the building – but in no case would be more than 30 percent of a tenant’s income, and no tenant could be evicted because of a change in income. (What if all this doesn’t pencil out? The proposed charter does not say.) Further, no troublemaker could be evicted without going through a procedure of “restorative justice conflict resolution” that would “address root causes “ and respect the renter’s “autonomy.”

The Seattle Social Housing Developer would have a 13-member board. Seven of them would initially be chosen by the Seattle Renters’ Commission, a 15-member group appointed partly by the mayor, partly by the City Council, and partly by other members. The Renters’ Commission’s web page states, “Appointments are made to ensure that varied renter perspectives are represented, including renters from historically underrepresented groups, such as low-income renters, LGBTQ renters, immigrant renters, renters with felony records, those paying rent with assistance, and renters who have experienced homelessness.” 

Once the Social Housing Developer has projects up and running, these seven seats would be chosen by people living there. In addition, one member of the Social Housing Developer’s board would be appointed by the Martin Luther King County Labor Council and one by a minority organization that provides housing, beginning with El Centro de la Raza.

All of the board members mentioned above would be paid, though Initiative 135 does not say how much. The board would have three other directors, paid only if the majority wanted. One would be appointed by the mayor, one by the city council, and one by the city’s Green New Deal Oversight Board, which its web page says “is composed of 19 appointed members who are passionate about advancing an equitable transition to renewable energy by centering the expertise of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, immigrants, refugees, people with low incomes, youth, elders, and workers harmed first and worse by climate change.”

The plan does not require the Social Housing Developer’s board to have any private-sector experts in such matters as finance or property management. Perhaps that is to be expected. The Seattle Housing Authority’s eight-member board doesn’t have any private-industry people on it, either. But the SHA board does have a retired university professor, a former city councilwoman (Sally Clark), and others with long experience in government projects. Only two of its eight board members are accomplished project residents.

The Seattle Housing Authority was created in 1939 as the local arm of a federal program. The proposed Social Housing Developer would effectively be an arm of local public-housing activists. The board of directors it envisions is much different from the SHA’s. A majority (7 of 13) of the Social Housing Developer’s board would eventually be project residents. Describing these board members, Initiative 135 specifies only that their incomes be low enough.

Imagine such a board. Imagine it given a tax on the owners of private housing in Seattle. Once it got such a tax, imagine it selling bonds, which would lock in the tax until the bonds were paid off. Imagine what this board would do with the bond money (shades of the $100 million the Monorail Authority spent before the voters shut it down). Imagine how social housing projects would be run under the rules described above, and the problems that would result.

Once this ball started rolling with property-tax money behind it, what chance would the public have to stop it? The public eventually stopped the Monorail Authority, but only because two of the seats on its board were elected by voters. Two seats didn’t make a majority, but it was enough to give voters a chance to say no and embarrass city leaders into action.

Advocates of new government programs have learned their lesson. Accordingly, none of the seats on the Seattle Social Housing Developer would be elected by the people.

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. Well stated. Hopefully voters reject this but we’ll see. Lots of people will see this as financially beneficial or a chance to get a low cost home.
    Others just like the progressive sound of the program.

  2. Great article. I’ve often thought the Monorail comparison is the valid one. This is a proposal with no peer review, and no Seattle based financial projections to evaluate. The worst kind of public policy imaginable. I’ve talked twice to the east coast consultant the proponents used and while he shared his Maryland numbers with me they simply will not work in Seattle or within the requirements of the Initiative. I’d be willing to wager that if approved the Social Housing Initiative will fail to ever produce a single unit of housing.

  3. “game plan: Get set up first, ask for money later”

    The city council (and the county council) like sales taxes a lot. That’s what the new housing agency probably would get.

  4. Even the Garden of Eden failed. I-135 housing amounts to yet another empire with serfs, paid for by 3rd party Seattlites paying off the bonds, not just for construction, but for ongoing maintenance.. let’s vote ourselves new carpet every 3 years.. why not somebody else pays for it. “Rent” is a percentage of income.. Tax Returns are protected private info.. the overlords will not be able to verify income. What happens when somebody is laid off.. or gets a raise. Couple I-135 with Seattle tenant protections and see what you get.. have an emotional support Pit-Bull breeding operation.. no problem. Bring in your extended family or a 16 year old dating somebody in the unit… no problem.. they must be allowed to qualify as tenants once they step through the door.

  5. Thank you, Bruce. We Seattle’s lame ‘mainstream’ media pick this up as well? If for no other reason than to boost voter turnout? Is there any organized opposition to this sweet-sounding shake down?

  6. This was a very cogent piece that avoided the usual polarizing Seattle is Dying speaking points vs the perky but uncritical optimism of Seattle progressives. The governance structure is exactly what was giving me pause about this initiative. It’s not that I don’t love all the intentions, it’s that I don’t think these ideals should be the measure by which we determine the idea is worthy. It would be radical enough to disrupt the Seattle housing landscape like this. And yes, we need an organization with solid background in housing finance and economics; a PDA to the scale we’d like it to be will be hundreds of millions if not billion dollar assets. Let’s bake this idea a little further before rolling it out.

  7. I consider myself a progressive, which seems to mean many things, different things to different people. I read the proposal carefully and the information sent along with the ballot. My ‘no’ vote is in today’s mail, for all the reasons cited in this post. I think we have to do better in providing housing for low-income people in this city, but this initiative is not the way to do so.

  8. The old Seattle Labor Temple had a governance structure, broadly speaking, not dissimilar to what is being proposed here. The structure was a home for the local labor movement with meeting and office space to accommodate smaller local unions without their own structures. Area labor organizations held “shares” in the property and elected representatives from that group to manage the facility.

    Governance, in theory, was very communal but in practice tenant locals were much more involved often prioritizing their individual fiscal needs (re: low rent) over the greater need of investing in the maintenance of the facility. After fifty years of underinvestment in the buliding was beyond redemption and is now passing into history.

    The governance structure outlined here, while aspirationally sound, will likely, in practice result in shaky fiscal performance due to a resistance to properly price rentals. Just my $0.02 off the top of my head.


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