Seattle City Council discusses Downtown MHA. (Seattle Channel)

Mayor Jenny Durkan is trying to block the Seattle City Council’s Left wing from passing a head tax worth $75 million per year and focused on permanent affordable housing and replace it with one worth $40 million and focused on temporary homelessness services and sanitation. Negotiated with Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, the mayor’s “compromise” bill also includes a five-year sunset clause.

Mayor Durkan claims to have the support of four councilmembers–Bruce Harrell, Debora Juarez, Rob Johnson, and Bagshaw–for the shrunk head tax, while the five other councilmembers are standing behind the larger proposal. This could set up a showdown since it takes six councilmember votes to override Mayor Durkan’s veto, should she use it. The last minute maneuvering suggests Mayor Durkan may be prepared to veto. It also possible that one or more of the councilmembers will flip sides. The council is debating the competing head tax measure in finance committee this morning, which you can watch live on Seattle Channel starting at 9:30am. That’s why we encourage you to contact your councilmembers or attend Monday’s full council meeting at 2pm.

Lisa Herbold, District 1
Bruce Harrell, District 2
Kshama Sawant, District 3
Rob Johnson, District 4
Debra Juarez, District 5
Sally Bagshaw, District 7
Mike O’Brien, District 6
Teresa Mosqueda, Position 8
Lorena Gonzalez, Position 9

The original proposal called for a tax of $500 per employee at for-profit employers grossing $20 million or more in revenue–compared to Mayor Durkan’s $250 per employee. It’d also convert to a 0.7% payroll tax in 2021, allowing the City time to set up the infrastructure to implement a payroll tax. Employers (particularly the one with lower-wage workers) see the payroll tax as more equitable since it falls harder on companies with higher wages.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she will introduce an amendment that cancels the payroll tax conversion and reduces the head tax starting in 2024 to the minimum needed to pay off the bonds, effectively introducing a sunset or tapering clause to the larger head tax.

Last week Mayor Durkan told The Seattle Times that finding efficiencies wouldn’t net enough money to solve the homelessness crisis. Yesterday, she said we couldn’t tax our way out of the crisis. If neither efficiencies nor taxing can solve homelessness what can? What is the Chamber of Commerce plan to solve our housing crisis if an employee hours tax, a payroll tax, and income tax–which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also opposes–are off the table?

The recent McKinsey homelessness study contradicted the position held by Mayor Durkan and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce that big investments are unnecessary. The study showed that the region needs to invest $400 million per year to create the 14,000 homes the firm estimates we’d need to deal with the homelessness crisis. Meanwhile, some housing advocates, like former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, have argued the mayor’s move shifts yet more resources to homeless sweeps.

Passing the full $75 million head tax is crucial because the focus on affordable housing has much longer lasting benefits compared to Mayor Durkan’s smaller tax’s focus on temporary services and needles and trash.  Beside those being obvious dogwhistles for people who want to dehumanize homeless people, increasing funds for sweeps when there’s a housing crisis seems inefficient and like misplaced priorities. Let’s funnel money to permanent affordable housing, like all the consultants and experts keep telling us to do.

The sunset clause also cedes leverage for getting a future progressive funding source (whether a countywide or statewide income tax, a carbon tax, or something yet to be proposed) and hastens the next homelessness funding crisis. We can repeal the head tax when it’s clear the crisis is over or a sufficient amount of other funding has been secured.

Correction: This article originally identified the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce as the party that commissioned the McKinsey study. That’s incorrect; the chamber was on a steering committee.

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Doug Trumm is publisher 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.