Leschi residents had plenty of questions for Kshama Sawant during the September community council meeting, but the District 3 city councilmember mostly focused on her ongoing mission to unburden Seattleites by taxing big businesses.
Sawant said she wasn’t counting out the possibility of bringing back an employee-hours tax the city council earlier this year approved unanimously and then repealed a month later, which she called a “shameful capitulation to big businesses.”
She lauded fellow Socialist Democrat, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for introducing his “Stop BEZOS” bill to tax Amazon and other large companies for the cost of their employees’ food stamps and other public assistance, but said that is different from what she is considering.
The push to tax big businesses, just like the employee-hours tax would have — just 3 percent of Seattle companies — remains focused on creating critically needed affordable housing as the city nears the third anniversary of when a homelessness state of emergency was declared.
Sawant pointed out that several California cities are taking the question of taxing big companies to alleviate the affordability crisis to the November ballot, including San Francisco, Mountain View, where Google is headquartered, and East Palo Alto in the Silicon Valley.
“This is a problem that affects all districts,” Sawant said about Seattle’s housing affordability crisis, “and I don’t think we should be parochial in how we see it.”
The councilmember also chastised the King County Council for approving $135 million in maintenance and upgrades for Safeco Field, which was less than the more than $180 million the Seattle Mariners had requested, and more than some councilmembers wanted to spend in hotel/motel tax revenue. Councilmember Rod Dembowski had wanted to put the funding to a vote of the people, while Jeanne Kohl-Welles had proposed just paying for maintenance costs and making a larger investment in affordable housing and homeless services.
A resident asked if there was anything that could be done to get the King County Council to reconsider. Sawant said it would be a challenge to get so many ordinary people organized for such a campaign, but didn’t dismiss it as impossible.
Sawant said she’s not holding her breath about corporations volunteering to work with the city to pay their fair share.
The Seattle City Council in mid-August approved a resolution that makes a nonbinding request that Mayor Jenny Durkan require better wages and benefits for American Medical Response’s emergency medical technicians. AMR is a city contractor, and EMTs have spoken publicly about receiving minimum wage for the work they do caring for and transporting the sick and injured in Seattle.
“We had the hardest time getting that through,” Sawant said about the resolution, “because the corporation was constantly collaborating with the mayor to either nix it or water it down.”
Sawant’s legislative aide Ted Virdone, who ended up responding to most of the questions coming from residents during the Leschi Community Council meeting, also criticized the One Table regional work group that included Durkan, County Executive Dow Constantine and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus. He said the group set a target of 5,000 affordable homes, but didn’t identify any funding to accomplish that goal.
“And they said, ‘We’re done,’” Virdone said.
The last One Table meeting was on Aug. 3, and the one prior to that was held in April. Short-term recommendations from One Table include using public land to build more affordable housing, expediting permitting, reducing fees for affordable housing development, increasing financial resources at all government levels and improving tenant protections.
Sawant told attendees at the Leschi Community Council meeting about her plans for an economic eviction assistance ordinance, which the councilmember began talking about in 2017 but has not yet introduced as legislation.
“We’ll need a movement to win this,” she said.
The ordinance would require a property owner to help tenants acquire new housing if they are priced out of their current homes with a rental increase of more than 10 percent, Virdone said.
Sawant said she sees no other solution to the housing and affordability crisis than publicly owned housing, where rents only increase enough to address future building maintenance costs.
She confirmed for a resident that she’s still very much opposed to sweeping homeless encampments, as they just move people from one area to another, disrupting their lives and separating them from their social supports.
Getting back to the subject of taxing those at the top, Virdone pointed out that Seattle does have an income tax on high-income earners, however, its fate has not yet been decided by the state Supreme Court.
The state Constitution was amended in the 1930s to a broader definition of property, and the Supreme Court ended up ruling income as a form of property. As the Constitution also says all property must be taxed the same, that goes for income. The city is hoping for a different interpretation.