Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat–whom you may remember for leaking a draft of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee report in 2014 and then stoking a single-family home preservationist backlash–has struck again, and this time he got smart.
Rather than make his appeal directly about the suffering of single-family homeowners–perhaps less than sympathetic folks since most are sitting on a rapidly appreciating asset already averaging more than $600,000 in value–Westneat focused his latest appeal on low-income renters. Westneat argued recently passed property taxes are hitting apartment landlords hard and forcing them to raise rents.
Nearby I found two drab, mid-50s apartment buildings–one at 525 E. Roy, the other the spiffily named “Cabana Manor” at 712 Summit–that had insane property tax hikes of 57 percent over the past two years. Most every other apartment building I looked at on Capitol Hill, especially the older ones, has seen tax boosts in the 25-percent to 40-percent range.
It’s a perfect storm, with the passage of so many levies by voters combined with escalating building values.
The irony is that while the tax levies are aimed at helping working-class folks–by paying for more subsidized affordable housing, for example–the taxes are hitting the hardest at this older apartment stock, which is Seattle’s last storehouse of naturally affordable housing.
Westneat is straining awful hard to see irony. Irony would be Westneat casting himself as low income renter champion after blocking any changes to the single family home zones covering more than half the city–zones which barely serve low income tenants at all. In our supercharged housing market, the majority of Seattle voters–more than 70% of them–elected to not just renew the housing levy in 2016 but double it. Westneat suggests voters didn’t know what they’re doing and would be unwilling to pay a few dollars more in rent should landlords pass costs along. Knowing the gravity of the affordability crisis, voters choose to invest in more subsidized housing rather than let people like Westneat scare them into inaction with dubious figures and connections.
The various property tax levies pay for a variety of services, including affordable housing, transit, and education. No reasonable person would say stop subsidizing housing, close down public schools, and cut public transit because taxes got too steep. More importantly, these public services are most crucial for the low-income folks whose cause Westneat has suddenly taken up. Wealthy people can afford private school, high-priced Seattle homes, and private vehicles, but low-income folks are pretty much stuck with public schools and more often must rely on public transit and public housing.
The other flaw in the Westneatian worldview is it relies on the goodwill of landlords, a strategy that lasts only as long as either the landlord or the goodwill. And the landlord he built his story around is 79 years old. I’d rather levy for sure thing affordable units than cross our fingers and count on for-profit landlords to rent at below-market rates.
“You don’t think I don’t know I could get more money?” he says when I point out his apartments are easily priced hundreds of dollars per month below one of the hotter markets in the nation.
“My philosophy is if you don’t gouge people, then they’re happy, they stay and it’s less work for me,” he laughed.
But a few weeks ago, Weisenbach, 79 and a retired architect, got a letter from the government that has him questioning how long he can keep up the old-school routine.
For one 20-unit building he owns, at 301 Summit Ave. E., the property-tax bill increased 27 percent this year. Over two years the surge was 36 percent. All told, the bill for this one building is $15,000 more.
“That’s $750 more per unit,” Weisenbach says.
Weisenbach is referring to yearly burden, not monthly rents. The 20-unit property’s tax bill increasing $15,000 over two years means on average each tenant’s monthly rent would need to increase $62.50 to cover the tax bill–or the landlord could eat the cost. Assuming the landlord does not eat the cost and only increases rents enough to cover the increased tax bill, that $62.50 rent increase over the course of those two years would be considered by most Capitol Hill renters a mild increase relative to what many others experienced. The burden did fall much heavier on the 2017 levy, perhaps leading to a steeper adjustment as Westneat suggested.
But now his 2017 property tax bill alone is higher by about $600 per unit–$50 per unit per month. By itself that’s a 5-percent increase on rent of $1,000. That wasn’t advertised during the political campaigns when they said this tax or that was “only $12 a month for the average homeowner.”
The problem with Westneat’s last assertion is that he’s conflating a specific property tax levy with a larger tax bill from a larger valuation. Weisenbach’s Thomas Park Ridge Apartments assessed improvement value went up $1,320,000 from $3,735,000 in 2016 to $5,155,000 in 2017. (The property’s land valuation remained the same at $900,000.) The increased valuation is what caused Weisenbach’s property taxes to skyrocket, much more so than the Move Seattle Levy–advertised at $12 a month to the average homeowner–or the 2016 Housing Levy–advertised at $10 per month to the average homeowner.
The King County Assessor increased these apartment buildings’ valuations reflecting the skyrocketing value of Capitol Hill apartments. The landlord wasn’t a victim of a specific levy so much as his asset’s increasing value. A strange sob story. But to Weisenbach’s credit, he supports a state or local income tax to lessen the property tax burden. The question is would Westneat?
Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.