The housing crisis that magically vanished

The housing crisis that magically vanished

The housing crisis that magically vanished

Penn and Teller are famous for making things disappear: Cards, live animals, unwitting audience members.

The world-famous magicians’ tricks are all about illusion, convincing the audience that they see something that is not, in reality, real. Their magic requires deception.

Today's on-stage magicians in Seattle are the political establishment. The Mayor and the City Council majority have gone in short time from declaring the housing crisis a dire emergency requiring urgent action, to acting this fall as if the emergency has just....gone away, vanished into thin air.

It's a remarkable trick. But as with all magic, it's based on illusion. We must not be deceived.

Taking office last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan declared that "the crisis of affordability and the growing economic disparity, and homelessness is the central challenge we face. It’s the moral challenge of our time."

"Number one," Mayor Durkan said, "We have to build more low-income and middle-class housing as quickly as we can."

A year ago this month, the People's Budget movement and my office, alongside socialists, and housing and homeless activists, fought for a tax on Amazon and the other biggest and most profitable businesses in our city. The measure would have raised $20 million/year to fund housing and services. A very modest tax, in light of both Washington state’s regressive taxation and billionaire wealth, and also the scale of Seattle’s housing affordability crisis. Nonetheless, the majority of the City Council voted it down, 5-4.

But thanks to the movement’s pressure, even the Councilmembers who voted against the tax were forced to pledge to establish a Progressive Revenue Tax Force this year to come up with a big business tax to fund new affordable housing, and to do so with urgency. "My sole focus over the next several months will be to craft a clear, cogent policy around an employee hours tax,” declared Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, “and I say that knowing the people who I am proposing to be taxed are not pleased with the fact that's the direction I want to head."

Three months later, in March of this year, the task force came out with its recommendation: $75 million/year in taxes on the biggest 3 percent of corporations in Seattle. Our Tax Amazon movement was fighting for a bolder plan - at least $150 million in taxes per year on big business. Indeed, a report commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce itself noted that Seattle and King County spending on housing needed to double - to $400 million/year - to solve the exploding homelessness crisis.

Disregarding the overwhelming data, the Council majority introduced legislation calling for only $75 million/year. This would have been a very small yet much needed tax on the corporations that had taken home the lion’s share of Seattle's post-Recession boom. But in a blatant example of corporate bullying, Amazon and Jeff Bezos publicly threatened to halt construction, holding 7,000 construction jobs hostage.

Rather than openly confront Amazon by strengthening the grassroots Tax Amazon movement, Seattle's Mayor and majority Councilmembers thought they could “negotiate” a deal agreeable to Bezos and others, and put forward a "compromise" tax of $48 million, which was then passed unanimously by the Council.

What happened next was not surprising to those of us who had fought for the $15/hour minimum wage, and gone up against the landlord lobby to win a whole range of renters rights: Amazon, Starbucks, and other big businesses launched and funded a vicious campaign for a ballot referendum, based on lies and misinformation against the tax.

Once again, rather than join the Amazon Tax movement that repeatedly warned against bowing to Bezos’ bullying and urged launching a citywide grassroots campaign against the corporate lies, the Mayor and the Council establishment decided to capitulate. Following secret negotiations, these politicians cut a deal amongst themselves to repeal the tax without public debate, less than a month after they had approved it.

Last night, in a stark rejection of the cowardice of Democratic party leaders, ordinary people showed that they want to defeat Trump's right wing and billionaire agenda. Voters in San Francisco and Mountainview in California both strongly approved big business taxes to fund affordable housing, homeless services, and infrastructure. Portland metro area voters approved a regional ballot measure for a $653 million bond to build 3,900 affordable homes, paid for by a small increase in taxes on owners of properties with an assessed value of $250,000 or higher.

Six weeks ago, Mayor Durkan unveiled her City budget for 2019. It proposed to devote a shocking 0.8 percent on new housing. Instead of a stirring call-to-arms about "the crisis of affordability," the Mayor preached austerity for ordinary people , lecturing that "we have to live within our means." The housing affordability crisis that was "the moral challenge of our time" according to Jenny Durkan, the crisis that demanded immediate action - has simply vanished. Just like magic.

She's not the only illusionist on stage, however. Last month, I introduced the People’s Budget movement's proposal for $48 million on new affordable housing in the City's 2019 budget. We have offered three different ways to fund this housing, so that Councilmembers would have a choice. None of the other Councilmembers - as of yet - have agreed to support our movement.  For these politicians who were clamoring so loudly and urgently for action just months ago, the housing affordability crisis has apparently magically disappeared.

But the housing crisis has not disappeared for the rest of us. We live with it every day.

Today more than 100,000 Seattle households, both renters and homeowners, are considered “cost-burdened” – paying more than 30% of their income on housing.

With rents in the city averaging $2,109 for a two-bedroom apartment, a worker needs to make nearly $76,000/year to reasonably afford to live in Seattle. Our families are forced to make choices between rent, food, medicine, and other necessities.

Indeed, the people who make our city run every day can't afford to live here. Last week, Downtown Emergency Service Center, a publicly-funded agency whose workers provide life-giving aid to people struggling with homelessness and mental health issues, had 60 open positions posted - mental health professionals, counselors, nurses, shelter workers. Fully 57 of those positions - 95 percent - paid below what it takes to comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment in our city.

Want to buy a home? With the median sale price in King County of $668,000, you'll need a family income of at least $130,000/year to afford a modest home. A report last year noted that a Seattle public school educator would have to work 15 years before they could afford a downpayment on a typical mortgage.

The latest homeless count found more than 12,000 people living on the streets, in shelters, parks, and cars in Seattle and King County. Those without homes are disproportionately African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. More than 800 are domestic violence survivors.  

There are more than 4,200 homeless children in Seattle public schools - a record high. Of every 13 kids in our classrooms, 1 does not have a home to go to after the school day is over.

The political establishment has long asserted that the private, for-profit market will help Seattle build its way out of the housing affordability crisis. In the wake of the shameful Amazon tax repeal, Mayor Durkan turned to high-tech executives and formed an “Innovation Advisory Council,” as if an app can solve the housing crisis. But even some of the executives she gathered saw through the ruse. “When I look at the problems surrounding homelessness, I think by far the biggest thing we could do is put a lot more money into housing,” said Zillow Vice President Rebekah Bastian.

As a socialist, I recognize these data points as proof of the utter failure of relying on the for-profit housing market. As a city, we must invest in a massive social housing program, to build tens of thousands of high quality, publicly owned affordable homes, so that we can have affordable housing for all. This would also effectively create a green, unionized, living wage jobs program with priority hire.

In the last several weeks, I've met with people in the community from all walks of life who have moving personal stories about how the housing crisis is impacting them. My staff and I have had tea with seniors from the Vietnamese community, who have described how their community is being broken apart. We’ve heard from LGBTQ community members who’ve been pushed out of Capitol Hill and away from services and familiar places, and LGBTQ seniors facing housing uncertainties. We’ve talked with African American homeowners whose families for generations built community in the Central District, but who are now being forced to move. We’ve heard from downtown construction workers and university workers about brutal two-hour morning and evening commutes that rob them of precious time with their families. We’ve visited people in shelters and tiny house villages, trying to get off the streets but feeling that when the political establishment has left them to fend for themselves in the failed private housing market. I’ve heard from college students who have little hope of being able to live in Seattle once they graduate. I’ve listened as our city’s emergency medical technicians - life-savers to thousands - told me of working two or three jobs, or even having to donate plasma, just to be able to pay the rent.

These seniors, workers, and students all have the same urgent message: The city must build much more social housing - now. And they’re not alone. Working people in Portland, San Francisco, and Mountainview are on our side.

But the political establishment, cowed by threats from Amazon and Starbucks executives, carries on with their magic show. In contrast, Amazon warehouse workers have continued to courageously expose exploitative working conditions. Those revelations, combined with the clash with Seattle’s housing justice movement, recently forced Amazon to declare a $15/hour minimum wage, a victory that wholly belongs to the workers and the movement.

The affordable housing crisis is not disappearing, and neither are we. That's why we working people are building a movement - young and old, of all races, genders, occupations, with a singular demand: Seattle must build more affordable housing now!

Our movement is growing. Over the next two weeks, as the City Council debates and votes on a budget for 2019, we will raise our voices, in City Hall and also at a rally today,  Wednesday Nov 7, at 6PM at Yesler Community Center, 917 East Yesler Way.

And our message to the political establishment is clear: We’re not deceived by your magic show. We see through the tricks, the attempt to ignore the crisis. We demand a City budget that funds a massive expansion of social housing, and we won’t settle for anything less.