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Confront the “myth of more money”

Part three in a series on the last eight years of my Seattle housing work.

From 2016 until the end of Washington State’s legislative session in 2019, I changed my approach to challenge the idea of ​​charging fees on new housing development and giving that money to organizations in non-profit. My argument was that the state’s largest city, Seattle, enforced the most rules, slowing production and thus creating higher prices as demand increased. As a result, most of the state’s available grants were consumed by Seattle, which was unfair to the rest of the state. Not only that, I argued, but building nonprofit housing in Seattle was very expensive and inefficient. Conventional wisdom was and still is that what is needed to solve housing problems is not more housing, but more and more money.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to challenge big business and government allies to crush your critics, forget the idea that it’s like the movie Silkwood. There is no Cher or Kurt Russell and above all there is no journalist waiting somewhere to write about it. It’s more like the X Files, if you go up against the big guys you’ll be caught on and ignored. The prize will be an effort to make you irrelevant, mad, or part of some kind of unreasonable clique. I had no idea when I took over the industrial non-profit housing complex.

Here is my logic. Having been a nonprofit developer, I knew these developers had to face a steep climb to build their projects, arguably a steeper climb than for-profit developers. The number of contracts, commitments, and acres of paperwork were all stacked on the same demands as the for-profit sector: finding land, zoning, design review, utilities, and labor costs. But because they had political favors, they could ask for more money to solve these problems and the political structure would oblige them with interventions like Mandatory Housing Affordability, the program that would make it worse and not better for the poor because “affordable housing” would be paid for. for with higher rents (see my last post and many more).

I knew the costs and difficulty of building non-profit housing, housing paid for by the MHA program, when exposed, could make people question the whole program itself. If nothing else, if I could find a way to show that more money was being spent on subsidized nonprofit housing in Seattle (where the MHA extortion program operated) than in the Washington countryside. , maybe we could force a conversation. The data supported my point; housing subsidies were consumed quickly by the state’s most blatant regulator of housing production, Seattle. If I could show that this was done to the detriment of the poorest immigrant farm workers, maybe we could get the press interested.

So I analyzed years of data from the state’s Housing Trust Fund and found that indeed, subsidies were piling up in Seattle while in rural areas, workers lived in their cars. I wrote an opinion piece on how access to water was choking the supply in rural areas and thus harming rural workers, primarily immigrants to Mexico. It infuriated House Speaker Frank Chopp as much as it pleased lawmakers in rural Washington, who were outraged by the rushed court decision by a left-wing Seattle advocacy organization. I had entered into a long-standing conflict on the side of the rural Republicans. Here I was a former Democrat from Seattle, working with Republicans.

My conversations with the President and with the Republican leaders were strange; I was making a valid argument, which went against everyone’s sensitivity. Democrats felt out of place, justifying more and more spending on expensive housing in Seattle (up to $ 500,000 per unit) while talking about how much they cared about rural immigrants, the people who did not benefit from housing subsidies because of rampant spending. in Seattle. Republicans were resistant to big spending schemes and more bureaucracy. So my proposal for a farm worker housing authority to take money out of Seattle and funnel it to farm worker housing fell on deaf ears there. I had managed to make valid points, but the policy was not in favor of the solution, of big changes in the subsidy system and of better management.

In a passive and aggressive Washington, my efforts have certainly been noticed. The President complimented me in an argument saying, “People are mad at you! ” Sure. But making people uncomfortable does not necessarily lead to policy change. Both left and right seem to have made peace with the inefficient way of subsidizing housing. I failed to convince Republicans in the Legislature to support the idea of ​​making the system fairer, and farmers and nonprofit real estate developers in rural Washington seemed intimidated by the task of taking over. the well-funded and politically connected non-profit organization. housing agencies in Seattle.

My campaign against the non-profit housing complex was a failure. He revealed, however, that there is an ongoing disparity in the way housing is subsidized in Washington. Recently, I showed how tax credits are pouring into Seattle, even though there is more poverty in rural Washington. Being white and awake means more money for housing. It was a deadly battle that exhausted many of my supporters, but I’m glad I made the effort. With all the money raised from the fees generated by the MHA fees and other largesse of recent federal legislation, I know the problem will not be solved with more money. It will get worse. The day may come when everyone can do the math and agree that fairness and efficiency are compassionate and that inflation is the greatest enemy of the poor.


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.