Voices of the People’s Budget: Sharon Lee on Affordable Housing

This is the first part in our series, “Voices of the People’s Budget.” On the evening of October 30th, labor leaders, community organizers, social service providers, and engaged citizens came together for a People’s Budget Town Hall. Here they shared their concerns about the Mayor’s business as usual budget and began a conversation about what is necessary to make Seattle affordable for all.

Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low-Income Housing Institute

Transcript of Speech as Delivered

Good evening. I’m Sharon Lee, and I am the Executive Director of the Low-Income Housing Institute or LIHI. We’re based in Seattle.

The housing crisis has been building, and building, and building, for years, and years, and years.

And, if you can believe this, the city has a one billion dollar general fund budget: One billion. There is not one dollar of the city’s property tax from general fund—not from the housing levy; the housing levy people voted on to tax themselves—but from the general fund revenue, not one dollar is going to affordable housing.

So how much of a priority is it? Every headline talks about how housing costs, how rents have gone up. Seattle rents have gone up percentage wise, more than New York, San Francisco and Boston. And it used to be that if you paid more than 30 percent of your income for rent you were overpaying. Now there are so many people paying 50 percent or more of their income for rent, and people are saying, “Well, that should be acceptable, because rents are so high.”

So people can’t afford to live in Seattle. Now, many of you have heard about the “1% for the arts” [philosophy]. It’s okay, for when you build a building like this [City Hall], it is okay to set aside 1% for the art. Well, we don’t even have 1% of the City budget for affordable housing.

Can you believe that? High cost cities—I recently came back from a forum—in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., these are high cost areas—their mayors and their city councils are putting millions and millions of their general fund money into low-income housing.

So if you look at this City Hall, the City Council issued bonds so that we could have these palatial spaces for our city workers. And the City’s going to issue a bond so we can spend a billion—not hundreds of millions—a billion on a new waterfront. And of course we’re issuing bonds so we can house the animals at the zoo, and the fish at the aquarium. But what about people? Why can’t the City Council and the Mayor put general fund revenue into building more affordable housing, and making sure that working people, disabled people, and seniors can stay in Seattle? This is totally outrageous.

The one night count most recently showed that there were 3,100 homeless people living unsheltered on the streets, in cars, under bridges, and the number is just increasing. So far close to 40 people have died, men and women have died, from exposure or violence living on the streets. Night after night, at Nickelsville, homeless families are showing up because they spend all day trying to find a place and at night they end up at Nicklesville. And these are families with infants, and young children, and victims of domestic violence.

We have this enormously rich community and we have people having to live in a tent or live under a tree. Right? So until things get better, the City Council should enact a progressive encampment Tent City ordinance. We should allow churches and private property owners, and the use of public land to make sure that we have safe, self-managed Tent Cities. Nicklesville [type] Tent Cities. That should happen immediately.

Now, Ben Noble, the Mayor’s Budget Director, said to the City Council that he did not cut any services. And we thought that at least we should be making progress, because he hasn’t cut any base services. And then we found out that the Mayor’s budget included a $200,000 cut to the Urban Rest Stop.

The Urban Rest Stop is a hygiene center we operate in downtown, and it provides free showers, laundry and restroom use to thousands of homeless people. Even if you are living in a shelter, you may not have laundry facilities. Obviously, if you are car camping or living on the streets you’re not going to have laundry facilities or shower facilities. But even the people living in shelters, the thousands of people, need hygiene services. So we’re asking the City Council to go ahead and approve this. So far, we have three members of Council who are supporting this—including Kshama, Bruce Harrell, and Sally Bagshaw—and we’re asking your help to get two more City Councilmembers to support, making sure that we have sufficient hygiene services for homeless people. Thank you.

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