As we move toward renewal of Seattle's housing levy in 2009, we'll be hearing more of this. A new group called the Middle Income Housing Alliance, chaired by former Mayor Charles Royer, has formed in response to our plight.
I say "our" because this is me that they're talking about. My income puts me pretty much squarely at Seattle median. Homeownership within Seattle wouldn't work for me. My family bought in Shoreline, where lower home prices and better schools proved an irresistible draw.
But buy we did, and as a result, I receive my fair share of the four dollars in tax breaks that flow to middle-class homeowners for every federal housing dollar that goes to the poor.
But some are feeling like that's not enough.
A Seattle Times Op-Ed by Royer last November makes the case. Only San Fransisco has fewer children per capita than Seattle, and fewer than forty percent of our fire fighters now live in the City. This, argues Royer, is a question of "values," and we need to resist the unhelpful rhetoric of class war to put more resources behind the relatively privileged.
We have not really had a conversation in Seattle about how this new middle-income housing crisis is affecting our core values. That is, how are our kids growing up and our families coping? What does the continuing loss of the middle class mean not only for those families, but also for us, as a community, both in terms of our economic health and our social fabric? Does it matter if kids growing up in Seattle never live next door to a firefighter, or a police officer, or a teacher? What is a good neighborhood without the presence and the participation of the people who work hard for the city, yet cannot afford to live here with their children? ...Wow. Imagine growing up and never having the opportunity to live next door to a firefighter, teacher, or cop, subjected instead to an unwholesome mix of Merrill-Lynch executives and crack whores.
I think the conversation about our core values needs to start now. And it needs to start with housing our middle-income work force.
It needs to be a civil conversation. It needs to resist the harsh political tactics that pit the haves against the have-nots. We've already seen some of that. And, it is neither honest nor helpful.
Is he serious?
Have you ever noticed how when the "have-nots" push back, that's a "harsh tactic," but when the haves exert their substantial power, we simply call that "the market?"
Among their recommendations is to greatly expand the Multi-Family Tax Exemption. This program, which gives developers tax breaks (a projected $10 million thus far) to include housing affordable to those at up to 80% of Seattle median income in their construction, has been criticized as a "give-away" that creates housing that is more expensive than that delivered by the market itself.
While the MFTE is widely viewed as a not terribly effective program, the solution, apparently, is to make the giveaway even more developer friendly by raising the required affordability to 120% of median, which would mean a single person pulling down around $65K annually. The Office of Housing just released a new report to the City Council that makes the Middle Income Housing Alliance's case. Support for their agenda is also a priority of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
Strangely, the King County 2006 Housing Benchmarks report doesn't really support this dire picture of a disappearing middle class. The most severely challenged income group, believe it or not, are those earning 40% or less of median, where 99,200 households compete for just 31,40 rental units. Those earning 80% of median or more have far more options.
Close to 40% of King County’s rental households - more than 100,000 renters - earn above 80% of median household income. ... Almost 84,000 of these households occupy rental units that would be affordable to lower income levels, which decreases the supply of housing that is actually available to the lower income households.So, not only is there sufficient housing stock to meet the needs of the middle-class, bargain hunters that we are, we spend a lower proportion of our income for housing than most by poaching on that which, in a more just world, might be reserved for the poor.
I guess that tax giveaways to developers to spur more housing for the moderately well-off would, in theory, free up cheap rental stock for those further down the housing food chain, but that seems a rather indirect approach. Why not solve hunger by subsidizing PCC shoppers to not hog all the specials at Safeway?
I hate to harsh Royer's buzz, but in these times of growing inequality, there's something obscene about giving tax breaks to wealthy developers so they'll produce housing that's more expensive than what the market already produces. Why not invest those dollars we give away to developers directly into the schools? Then maybe those of us who have options will have a reason to stay.