Big money is at stake in Seattle’s election.
Not the $1.45 million Amazon is spending or the comparable amount unions are contributing.
Those dollars are a distraction — and pocket change compared to what’s coming next.
By my tally, potentially $8 billion worth of new housing and transit spending is being cued up by Seattle’s power brokers, namely elected officials, labor leaders, nonprofits and corporations that benefit from municipal spending.
From that angle, the Nov. 5 election may be a referendum on taxpayers’ willingness to pay more.
The election could also stack the Seattle City Council and Metropolitan King County Council with more people wanting to spend big. They’re the candidates downplaying cost by saying rich people and companies will pay for exciting stuff they’re promising.
Get real. Average residents end up paying, one way or another. So voters should consider whether candidates are realistic and considerate of everyone’s cost burden.
Voters should also look for candidates who acknowledge the city and county can do a lot but can’t afford everything they want.
More housing and transit investments are obviously needed. But they already get a lion’s share of new spending, while basic services and infrastructure aren’t seeing proportionate increases in funding as the population grows.
Here are some big-ticket items the next batch of elected officials will consider:
• Up to $2 billion for Sound Transit enhancements, paid for by Seattle proper. That’s in addition to what Seattleites are paying for their portion of the $96 billion system. There’s funding to extend light-rail from downtown to Ballard and West Seattle, but city and county officials are angling for more expensive route options, including additional tunnels. That could increase costs 25% but won’t increase ridership. No wonder City Hall is rushing to toll downtown streets.
• Another $2 billion to stop collecting bus fares. Ask city and county candidates pitching “free” transit how they’ll fund it. Fares provide Metro around $200 million yearly, or $2 billion over 10 years. Will they cut $2 billion from the budget, or have people pay via taxes?
• Perhaps $4 billion, funded with new taxes, for subsidized housing. This would emulate big California housing measures.
Los Angeles is spending nearly $5 billion on housing and homelessness, with a $1.2 billion city bond and county sales tax collecting $3.5 billion over 10 years. San Francisco last year voted to spend $3 billion over 10 years, using a gross-receipts tax similar to business taxes Seattle already collects.
Seattle and county officials are laying groundwork to go big on housing.
Talking points came from a sketchy consultant report in 2017, saying the region should double public spending on housing.
Last year, a regional housing task force called for 244,000 additional affordable units by 2040. It said the region is already spending $305 million yearly to build or preserve affordable housing in King County.
This year saw the effort to consolidate Seattle and King County homeless services — purportedly to increase efficiency — morph into a proposal to create a new public development authority that could raise taxes. L.A., here we come.
County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Jenny Durkan aren’t saying much about how much money it will seek. My guess is a lot.
If the 2017 consultant report is followed, it could be around $200 million a year, or $4 billion over the task force’s 20-year time frame.
But that won’t fund 244,000 new units. If each costs $300,000, that’s $73.2 billion, or $3.6 billion yearly. Presumably the state and the feds would contribute, and public dollars may entice private development of affordable units.
Los Angeles planned to spend $350,000 per unit. But they’re costing more than $502,000. At that price, those 244,000 units cost $122 billion, or $6.1 billion yearly. That’s more than Seattle’s general fund.
To put this in scale, King County has about 876,000 households. Spending $73 billion to $122 billion is equivalent to $83,500 to $139,167 per household. All of Seattle — every taxable home, building and lot created over 168 years — is now assessed at $214 billion.
While more housing is needed, the region needs to discuss how much more is reasonable to publicly fund, given other needs. That should get as much or more attention than campaign spending during this election.
Do candidates think the paramount duty of local government is providing inexpensive apartments to everyone who arrives and struggles to get by? How big a mortgage should cities and counties take out for this, when subsidized housing is primarily a federal responsibility, and affordability is a nationwide problem?
If we’re spending tens of billions improving lives, should we do so primarily by subsidizing apartment development?
That amount could fund the world’s greatest schools or another university — MIT’s endowment is just $16 billion. It could build bridges, ferries and trains to places with cheaper housing. It’s enough to build hundreds of thousands of houses across Washington and give them away. Or address understaffed classrooms, leaky community centers and maxed out playfields.
I’m spitballing, and the dollars sound outlandish.
But recall that a $9 billion to $15 billion, 15-year Sound Transit expansion ballooned into a $54 billion, 25-year ballot measure.
The person who ran that ST3 campaign in 2016, Abigail Doerr, is running for County Council and suggests, yes, an “ST3 for housing.” She also wants to “double down” on transit spending, cut fares and more.
Free stuff sounds great until the bill comes, so vote carefully.