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City View Newsletter

Volume 1, Issue 6  •  June 30, 2008

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Housing Justice, Equity, and Diversity

I voted at Council today—the legislation passed 7-1—to expand a key program designed to increase the number of apartments and homes available for middle-income housing. It's called the Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) and it waives property taxes on primarily new construction for up to 12 years when at least 20% of the units are set-aside for those making 80% to 90% of median income (approximately $45,600 to $65,970). Existing construction can also qualify if there is a substantial remodel and a net increase of at least four units.

Our vote this afternoon also expanded the number of neighborhoods where the temporary property tax waiver applies from 17 to 39. This change ensures that middle-income housing is spread throughout the city, not clustered in a few neighborhoods.

The Multi-Family Tax Exemption program makes sense because it helps the city stimulate more rental housing for our schoolteachers, retail clerks, office workers, and others earning under the median income. It spreads this housing throughout the city. I voted with a strong majority of my colleagues because this program is all about housing justice, equity, and diversity. It is a positive step aimed at reversing—or, at least slowing—the unfortunate trend of Seattle becoming a city of only the very wealthy and poor. Some have argued against the Multi-Family Tax Exemption, claiming that it is a giveaway to developers and that it will raise taxes for the rest of us. Here are those arguments and my response.

Objection: It's a giveaway to private developers.

The temporary tax waiver is targeted primarily to new construction—which will be built whether this measure passed or not—so that at least 20% of the rental units will be affordable for the city's workers earning between 80% and 90% of median income. Doesn't it make sense for the city to try to set aside some of these new units at below market rates? I certainly think so. (The program is voluntary, so it only helps if developers chose to participate.)

Objection: The program should only be targeted to under-developed neighborhoods.

This argument is curious to me. The opponents seem to be suggesting that middle-income housing should be targeted only to less-developed neighborhoods. This is a 1960s and 1970s argument; we've learned otherwise. The best public policy works to spread low-income and middle-income housing throughout a city, not clustered in only a few neighborhoods. The MFTE law we passed today will do just that; it spreads this housing across the city and that makes wise public policy.

Objection: MFTE will raise property taxes on everyone else while waiving it for developers.

This objection is true because of the way our property tax laws work. If utilized at the maximum possible level, the MFTE will raise property taxes for city property owners about $4.20 per year. That's the cost of a latté and a low-fat Marion Berry muffin. I'm willing to pay $4.20 per year to create a minimum of 500 units of middle-income housing for teachers, nurses, office workers, and others. This is sound public policy that creatively recognizes excellent public-private partnerships for the greater good.

Objection: City policy should focus on low-income housing.

The MFTE we passed today is an extra tool in our affordable housing toolkit. It does absolutely nothing to diminish what we are doing for low-income housing. It is an extra measure aimed squarely at the middle class, a group our city needs to pay much more attention to going forward.

Seattle leads the nation in our efforts to end homelessness and create low-income housing. We have created many public-nonprofit partnerships that are the envy of other cities. Groups like the Seattle Housing Authority, Plymouth Housing, Solid Ground, and the Catholic Archdiocese have created hundreds and hundreds of low-income housing units in partnership with the city. These efforts will continue and are not harmed in any way by the MFTE passed today.

Reality: Good, Progressive Public Policy

These objections, and the others raised by the opponents of this legislation, miss the central fact that the MFTE represents good, progressive public policy that is supported by most advocates for low-income housing, homeless services, and the private sector. Here are a few historical facts and figures.

Seattle authorized the MFTE in late 1998 based on a state law adopted in 1995. Under the program since 1998, a total of 1,752 units have been constructed. Of these, 901, or 51.4%, have been classified as "affordable housing."

The MFTE program is good, progressive public policy. It allows nonprofit organizations and private developers to achieve a temporary property tax waiver in exchange for setting aside at least 20% of their units for middle-income workers in our city. Expanding this program to reach others makes a lot of sense and the overwhelming majority of my colleagues on the City Council recognized this today.

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New Police Labor Agreement

The Council voted 8-0 today to ratify a new labor contract with our city's police officers. This contract ushers in a new era of policing in Seattle. I wrote an essay about what this means that was published in The Seattle Times last Thursday. The contract recognizes the value and honor we place on the good work our police officers do in every neighborhood, every day.

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City Budget Lobbying: Piling on

The Council is just three months away from beginning our work on the 2009-2010 city budget and we're already hearing from people who think we should spend more here, less there, cut taxes, increase taxes, save money for emergencies, and the like. We've held public hearings, invited comments, and generally started to get ourselves ready for what I understand can be a pretty fast-paced, strenuous, and contentious fall work schedule.

So, I decided to conduct a totally unscientific poll on my blog to measure what people thought was the city's number one budget priority. Well, as you can see from the results below, certain interest groups mobilized their followers to answer the single poll question. What we can discern from this exercise is that library users and supporters are very organized.

Priority

Percentage

Libraries

37.5%

Human Services

28.2%

Transportation

13.9

Police and Criminal Justice

7.2%

Planning, Housing, etc

6.5%

Arts, Music and Culture

4%

Parks

1.7%

Fire Service

1.1%



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