Seattle DSA Helps Win a Victory for Social Housing!

13.1 minute read

Grassroots work pays off!

Seattle voters just made history by becoming the first city in North America to create renter-run social housing. The passage of Initiative 135 (I-135) is a significant victory over the real estate lobby. As of February 17th, over 57% of voters voted for I-135, and 43% voted against. That’s a 14-point margin, much higher than the initial margin in early ballots. 

DSA members played a critical role in the campaign, and are now gearing up for the next fight: to ensure City Hall fully funds our new social housing developer by taxing the real estate industry, not working people.

Seattle is one of the richest cities in the world. Despite a median household income exceeding six figures, its residents are experiencing a massive crisis of skyrocketing rent, homelessness, and inequality.

The private, for-profit housing market has been an abject failure for working-class residents. Seattle is experiencing a dramatic rise in tent encampments, people sleeping on the streets, and gentrification – a process where whole communities have been priced out of the city.

Many workers, especially workers of color, can no longer afford to live near their jobs in the city they used to call home. As rents have skyrocketed, workers are being forced to spend more time in traffic and commute long hours, exacerbating the climate crisis.

There has been no shortage of articles decrying that the underlying problem with the housing crisis is ultimately our lack of housing supply. While there is truth in this, the real estate lobby has seized on this fact to argue that the shortage of housing units can be exclusively solved by deregulation. If we could just build more market-rate housing without public regulations or state intervention, they claim, the supply will eventually catch up with demand and the problem will be solved. Although the housing shortage makes this argument appear compelling, their framing cleverly bypasses the fundamental questions we should be asking: Who should own new housing developments? How will a handful of real estate developers controlling the rental market result in lower rents for working people, when keeping supply limited and prices high is in their best interest?

Facts tell another story about trickle-down housing economics. Seattle has experienced a huge construction boom where private real estate developers have built thousands of new condos and apartment buildings. Despite this construction spree, the new units are rarely affordable to most working people. Indeed, even the “affordable” units, funded by tax breaks for developers, are often unaffordable to renters and sunset into market-rate units after a fixed period of time.

Reliance on the private sector has utterly failed to solve the housing crisis. Even publicly subsidized private sector development has not stopped rents from skyrocketing. It’s time to build social housing instead.

Following the victory for I-135, Seattle will now create a Public Development Authority (PDA) to develop, own, acquire, and maintain social housing. Housing activists created an alternative vision of what housing could look like, and Seattle voters responded in favor of not letting housing be exclusively dictated by the private market and real estate interests. 

“This shows that social housing is a growing national movement. We’re excited to see California and Hawai’i be next,” declared Rebecca Lavigne of House Our Neighbors, the coalition led by Real Change that spearheaded the initiative.

The radically democratic structures of Seattle’s new social housing developer sets an important national precedent. Renters will make up a majority of the people democratically elected onto the PDA and will be paid for their time and service on the board. Each building owned by the PDA establishes a governance council for residents, allowing the people that live in social housing to establish their own priorities for their residences. The PDA is prohibited from selling off assets or shares to the private market, keeping this housing formally in control of the public permanently.

The Seattle chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) collected thousands of signatures to help qualify the initiative for the ballot. DSA also contributed campaign data for targeting voters, knocked about 30% of the doors contacted by volunteers, and hosted signature gathering events, tables, canvasses, text banks, ballot printing stations, and a social housing rally. 

I-135 campaign co-chairs Tye Reed and Tiffani McCoy noted, “We are deeply thankful to SDSA for their tremendous show of support in passing I-135. Not only were they some of our strongest signature gatherers, their members were responsible for a third of our overall canvassing! House Our Neighbors has always been about more than just one fight or a singular campaign win. We recognize the vital need for solidarity across movements, and know that we couldn’t have accomplished this monumental win without the dynamic organizing of SDSA.”

The Funding Battle Begins

The Seattle Times reported that “the city needs upwards of 20,000 units that are affordable to households earning 80% of area median income or less – which equals to slightly more than $96,000 for a family of four – according to a recent city-commissioned housing study.”

In fact, even more than 20,000 social housing units need to be built in order to put a downward pressure on the rental market and reverse the consistent rise in rents. 

However, I-135 does not require the City to fund the public development authority or find an ongoing funding source to keep it afloat. The City of Seattle will allocate only an initial $750,000 to get the social housing program started.

Where can the City government find hundreds of millions of dollars to build the thousands of housing units we need? 

The working class is already under-paid and over-taxed in Washington, which has the most regressive state tax code in the US. Working people can’t afford to pay more. It’s time to tax the profiteers and speculators who got rich off of the housing crisis.

A large number of Seattle apartment buildings are owned by large corporate landlords, including real estate investment trusts (REITs). REITs are companies that trade like stocks on major exchanges and that invest in real estate holdings. Although REITs are a subset of the large corporate landlord class, they further add to the exploitative nature of the landlord-tenant relationship by adding another player – the shareholder – whose demands for investment return incentivizes ever-increasing revenue from these properties. Both REITs and large corporate property developers share the same goals – keeping housing supply within a narrow range of high-profit, low-maintenance properties that fails to meet the overall housing demand for working people.

The RealPage apartment pricing scandal demonstrates that large property firms collude with one another to keep rental prices sky-high and drive out competitors. For example, ProPublica found that only 10 companies owned 70% of large apartment buildings in Belltown. The co-defendants listed in the class-action lawsuit against RealPage for artificially inflating the price of rentals in Seattle include: 

  • Greystar, a private international real estate developer headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina that is the largest property manager in the US 
  • Essex Property Trust, an REIT headquartered in California that is the 10th largest owner of apartments in the US
  • AvalonBay Communities, an REIT based out of Maryland
  • Equity Residential, an REIT headquartered in Chicago with over 80,000 rental units in the US

These companies do not operate in a vacuum, and allowing these companies to run amuck has resulted in skyrocketing prices and widespread gentrification throughout the Puget Sound area and the nation. We should demand that the companies and landlords that profited off of the housing crisis get us out of it, not by allowing them to “regulate themselves,” but by paying for the social housing we have been denied until now.

Given the frequent appearances of the landlord lobby on the donor rolls of the Democrats who dominate Seattle City Hall, as well as the aforementioned incentives to shut out a not-for-profit competitor to the rental market, it would be unwise to expect the city council to invest in social housing on the scale that’s needed. The Stranger is right to warn against trusting city politicians to fund the new public development authority. Socialists believe it will require a determined, independent working-class movement to break the power of the corporate political establishment to ensure that social housing is made affordable and available to all who want it.

DSA members are excited to hear that House Our Neighbors is exploring a second ballot initiative to establish a progressive tax to fund the new social housing initiative. The I-135 victory in Seattle, combined with other successful recent ballot initiatives across the country, show that voters are receptive to left-wing policies. 

However, Seattle’s ruling elite and corporate media will not sit by if activists propose to tax corporations and the rich. It will take a massive, outspoken grassroots movement to overcome their resistance and their influence on the voters. The left can take confidence in having just won one ballot initiative, which shows that we may be able to win a second ballot initiative.

As Nikkita Oliver declared at the I-135 election night party, “The best part about this, we did it through grassroots efforts. We did it through organizing. We did it without big money. And because we knew we needed it and we believed in it.”

DSA’s two new campaigns, Matthew Mitnick to City Council and Raise the Wage Renton, will help build the grassroots momentum and energy we need to keep fighting and inspire more people to get involved. Matthew Mitnick was an early supporter and field organizer for I-135, and his city council campaign is building momentum for taxing corporations and the wealthy to massively invest in social housing. Please donate to strengthen DSA’s efforts to support these two campaigns.