Seattle and Vancouver Voters Approve Two Housing Ballot Measures in Special Elections

Voters in Seattle and Vancouver, Washington, approved ballot measures in each municipality to expand affordable housing options in special elections held on February 14. Seattle’s Initiative 135 (I-135) creates a new social housing developer to build, acquire, and manage publicly owned affordable homes for low- and moderate-income tenants. Vancouver’s Proposition 3 replaces an expiring property tax levy that will be used to fund rental assistance, housing services, construction and preservation of affordable homes, and shelter beds.

The House Our Neighbors coalition, which represents a diverse cross-section of labor, housing, climate, antipoverty, racial justice, and other civic organizations, led the campaign for I-135 in Seattle. Originally formed in opposition to a business-backed ballot initiative to increase encampment sweeps, the coalition began to push for the social housing proposal in early 2021. Although House Our Neighbors did not collect enough petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot for the November 2022 midterm elections, it succeeded in putting the initiative before voters in a special election held on February 14, 2023. I-135 was the only item on the ballot in the special election. Despite limited funding and the challenges of mobilizing voters in a special election, House Our Neighbors led a successful grassroots campaign and garnered popular support via door-to-door canvassing, public events, and social media activations. The initiative passed with 57% of voters in favor.

“We are so excited to bring housing as a human right and a public good to Seattle,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project. “We are also inspired that the movement for social housing is growing nationally. Folks are tired of waiting on the federal government or the private market to solve the housing crisis.”

I-135 creates a public development authority called the Seattle Social Housing Developer and commits the city to providing startup support for 18 months, at an estimated cost of $750,000. The public developer will create homes for people earning between 0% and 120% of Area Median Income (AMI), and tenants will pay no more than 30% of their income towards rent. Each building will house a mix of extremely low-income, very low-income, low-income, and middle-income tenants, although the ballot initiative does not specify the precise mix in each building, and rents from middle-income tenants will cross-subsidize the rents of lower-income tenants. Homes developed and owned under I-135 will be kept permanently affordable. Whenever the city considers selling or giving public lands to another entity for non-public use, the city must prepare a feasibility study to assess whether public lands should be transferred to the public developer for social housing. I-135 also contains provisions to strengthen resident voice and autonomy. Seven of the board’s 13 members will be democratically elected social housing residents, and each building will form a governance council that participates in decision-making processes, receives a budget, and interfaces with the board.

The campaign for I-135 faced no formal opposition. Some housing and homelessness advocates, however, remained neutral or expressed skepticism that the social housing developer would be an effective vehicle to address Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. The Seattle metropolitan area faces a severe shortage of affordable homes among the lowest-income renters. According to NLIHC’s Gap report, there are only 30 affordable and available homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area. That number rises to 47, 89, and 98 homes, respectively, for every 100 very low-income, low-income, and median-income renter households. Because the shortage is most concentrated among extremely low-income renters, some housing and homelessness advocates argue that investments should be directed towards this population and should not serve middle-income people. Supporters of I-135, on the other hand, point to the advantages of mixed-income buildings, the importance of housing stability at all income levels, and the greater durability of social programs that serve middle-income people.

Other critics shared concerns that the Seattle Social Housing Developer will only replicate the work of existing agencies or will lead to competition for resources, since I-135 does not include a revenue stream. The initiative’s supporters argue that the social housing developer will put increased pressure on state and local government to dedicate resources to affordable housing and that new social housing will differ significantly from existing affordable housing, in part because of its provisions to empower residents. Once the developer’s board of directors has assembled, it will select a CEO and CFO who will begin to search for buildings to acquire and seek funding from the state legislature, local government, and philanthropic sources.

Vancouver’s Proposition 3 enacts an affordable housing levy to replace an expiring levy that voters approved in 2016. The levy imposes an estimated tax of $0.30 per $1,000 of assessed property value and will raise approximately $100 million over 10 years for the Vancouver Affordable Housing Fund. These resources will provide rental assistance and housing services for 2,500 households, help 150 households with homeownership, preserve or construct 2,400 affordable homes, and create or sustain 550 shelter beds. These resources are urgently needed, as the Vancouver metropolitan area faces a deficit of nearly 58,000 affordable homes for extremely low-income renters and nearly 78,000 affordable homes for very low-income renters.

“The Vancouver affordable housing levy has allowed us to leverage federal and state resources to build supportive housing for people exiting homelessness. We are thrilled that the community has renewed and expanded the levy and look forward to continuing to build these vital projects,” said Andy Silver, chief operating officer of the Vancouver Housing Authority.

The existing levy, which expires at the end of the year, authorized the city to collect $6 million per year in property taxes from 2017 to 2023. This revenue has been used to produce or preserve more than 1,000 affordable homes, to provide rental assistance and housing services to more than 1,600 households, and to create or support more than 400 temporary shelter beds.

The Bring Vancouver Home coalition led the campaign for Proposition 3, and the campaign faced no organized opposition. The measure passed with 53.6% of voters’ support.