Seattle Council Passes Smaller $275 Head Tax After Mayor Durkan Threatens Veto

Housing For All advocation showed up at Seattle City Council on Friday. (Seattle Channel)

On Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an amended version of the Employee Hours “Head” Tax built on a compromise with Mayor Jenny Durkan that lowered the cost per full time employee from $500 to $275. On Friday, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she would not sign the $500 head tax and proposed a $250 version with a five-year sunset clause, which pushed councilmembers and their staff to work overtime over Mother’s Day weekend to hammer out a compromise.

Councilmembers Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda said their negotiated compromise maintained the council spending priorities. Namely, it will spend the majority on building deeply-affordable housing rather than on emergency homelessness services that do less to tackle the problem long-term. The council’s bill passed Friday had a roughly 60/40 split with affordable housing creation taking the lion’s share of $75 million in annual revenue. The compromise bill has a 66/32 split on an average of $47.4 million in annual revenue. The head tax will apply only to for-profit businesses with $20 million or more in revenue.

With $28.7 million per year on average for affordable housing creation, Council Staff project the head tax will create 591 new homes for people below 30% of area median income. That works out to approximately $242,600 per unit. An additional $12.5 million over the last three years of the head tax will support the operation another 302 existing deeply-affordable homes. In essence, the head tax is like having another housing levy, but not funded through property taxes.

Mayor Durkan’s priorities that made it into the compromise bill include a five-year sunset clause and the tax rate ended up much closer to her $250 number than the original $500 proposal. The sunset clause means the tax will expire after five years if council does not renew it and will not automatically convert to a payroll tax (0.7% after two years in Friday’s version) that would have more equitably spread the business tax, lowering the burden on employers paying lower wages and raising it on employers paying higher wages.

Amazon, which had signaled its displeasure last week by pausing one construction project, announced it would resume work, but painted itself as very let down.

“We are disappointed by today’s City Council decision to introduce a tax on jobs,” Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement. “While we have resumed construction planning for Block 18, we remain very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

The spending plan would spend $27.5 million or 61% on affordable housing production in the first year. (Seattle City Council)

The online retailing giant is still deciding what to do with the space it leased in currently under construction Rainier Square tower, which last week threatened to sublease. The $500 head tax was expected to cost Amazon more than $20 million per year in year one, but the $275 head tax will lower Amazon’s cost to about $12.5 million in year one, Seattle Times reporter Mike Rosenberg tweeted. Thus, Mayor Durkan’s stand will save Amazon about $8 million per year. Amazon donated $350,000 to the Chamber-led PAC backing Mayor Durkan’s campaign last year. That the amended head tax Amazon will save more than $40 million over its five-year life (versus the version passed out of committee Friday) suggests more than a hundredfold return on that investment.

Part of the reason Seattle considered a head tax in the first place is because the city and state were blocked in their efforts to implement an income tax in order balance out revenue sources. Our state has the most regressive tax system in the nation. Tech multibillionaires like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and Microsoft co-founder and Vulcan, Inc. founder Paul Allen opposed a state income tax in 2010, donating hundred of thousands to the “No” campaign. Seattle passed a city income tax last year–Bezos opposed that, too–but it’s tied up as courts decide the state constitutionality.

Amazon’s move to open a second headquarters (HQ2) was even painted as a reaction to the City of Seattle daring to attempt a city income tax. But many of the HQ2 finalists have income taxes. Seattle is also far from the only city to pass a head tax or payroll tax.

Although the mayor had argued the $500 head tax would cost jobs and have a chilling effect on the economy, she said the $275 version does not risk job losses.

 “This legislation will help us address our homelessness crisis without jeopardizing critical jobs,” Mayor Durkan said. “Because this ordinance represents a true shared solution, and because it lifts up those who have been left behind while also ensuring accountability and transparency, I plan to sign this legislation into law.”

The extra revenue the head tax brings will also fund a four percent raise for homelessness service providers, who are often rather housing-insecure themselves given relatively low wages and Seattle’s harrowing rent increases

In her post-vote press release, Mayor Durkan hinted she would continue unabated the practice of homeless sweeps and again placed emphasis on cleaning up garbage and needles, seeming to blame homeless people for these problems by linking them to this discussion.

“Looking ahead, I will be taking urgent action to move people off our streets and into safer places and to clean up garbage, needles and waste from our parks and communities,” Mayor Durkan said.

Mayor Durkan also spent a paragraph talking about innovation, a common theme for her administration thus far.

“I believe in my bones that our City will continue to be the place that invents the future, and continue to be the most exciting and innovative city anywhere,” Mayor Durkan said. “Seattle can continue to innovate, invent, and grow–and we can continue to come together to build a more affordable, inclusive, and just future for all who call this great City home.”

If a $275 head tax is innovative, then there’s an argument a $500 head tax is even more innovative. Mayor Durkan said she would continue her regional approach to reduce homelessness she announced two weeks ago: “We will also continue to work towards a regional solution to homelessness because Seattle cannot go it alone.”

Perhaps this means a return of the countywide homelessness levy that Mayor Ed Murray had floated early in 2017. Mayor Durkan has not specified either way. Some have argued it’s time for the County to pony up one way or the other. King County Executive Dow Constantine opposed the head tax.

Mayor Durkan Seeks to Halve the Head Tax, Add Sunset Clause

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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.

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I’m not necessarily against the compromised version of the head tax, but I fail to see how a tax on jobs is an “urbanist” issue. This tax will if anything incentivize jobs to move out of the city limits into suburban office parks.


Common sense. Something the entire city council, and mayor, is lacking.


Affordable housing is an urbanist issue. Tax policy more broadly is an urbanist issue.


“Mayor Durkan hinted she would continued unabated the practice of homeless sweeps and again placed emphasis on cleaning up garbage and needles, seeming to blame homeless people for these problems by linking them to this discussion.”

I agree that accumulation of garbage is not the “fault” of the homeless. But on the flip side, if there are lots of needles around an encampment, I don’t think you can ignore its source. Obviously this is just a small part of the wider opioid crisis, but we also discarded needles are a public hazard.

Doug Trumm

I was suggesting if we see a needle on the street, we don’t actually know if it was discarded by a homeless person. That’s just an assumption we make. We can make a guess that its the case if it’s near a camp, but it’s also possible a housed person or a tourist shot up near there and tossed the needle.

I agree nobody wants discarded needles in public spaces. Closely tying public sanitation and homelessness may do a disservice by furthering the stereotype that homeless people are dirty and addicts. By contributing the stereotype we make it harder for people to think of the homeless as people and support services and funding. But it’s a tough discussion because obviously encampments should have garbage pickup until we find workable permanent housing for everybody.


All the garbage, discarded needles, and the massive pile of bikes just east Denver Ave S & 2nd Ave S were all from a homeless encampment… don’t front like they weren’t. Whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, unauthorized camps more times than not are a big hub for used needles and stolen bikes.

Doug Trumm

Ok let’s assume that. How should that change the City’s decision making?


You seem to be the one taking issue with the Mayor placing blame on the homeless for the messes their encampments tend to make, not me brotha

Doug Trumm

Is laying blame a solution?


Yes. We have to be honest with ourselves and clearly identify the root cause before we can develop the solution. Pretending that the excess garbage, used needles and stolen bikes around many of these encampments are not directly related to the camps themselves prevents us from getting to the solution. Mayor Durkan is not pretending that homelessness and the public safety concerns listed above are unrelated issues hence she’s “taking urgent action to move people off our streets and into safer places and to clean up garbage.” Whether you like it our not these two issues are intertwined.


Yes and no. Of course we need to have a clear eyed understanding of how things work, and not blindfold ourselves in the name of fairness. But in practice, it’s a fallacy that the “hard headed realists” fall into. Having determined that it’s their fault, we’re excused from responsibility – an ersatz solution, as the needles and feces probably don’t go away.

But the mayor doesn’t invite the media to her office to work out policy directions. She’s speaking to the crowd, and they sure do want to hear that we’re taking action on the campers. The Murray legacy – his fumbling, and the ensuing council attempts to take control with ultra-permissive legislation – left a legacy of citizen discontent that will be with us for a long time, and it’s severely impacting larger homeless policy. If Durkan’s moving effectively and publicly on that, she’s doing the single best thing the city can do for the homeless right now, because the whole thing is being dragged down by that element.


There was a homeless encampment near the I-5 on-ramp at 45th last summer. Garbage and crap was everywhere. It wasn’t coming from “housed people” or “tourists”. It was coming from the people living in tents next to the freeway.
If we want to come up with real solutions we have to first be honest about what’s actually going on.

Doug Trumm

I don’t disagree that a good portion of it probably was. But it’s not like motorists never litter. Every piece of trash on a roadway can’t automatically be attributed to homeless people. Money for sanitation services was funded with the head tax. Was that not a real solution?


Oh come on. You know full well the needles on the street and garbage around homeless encampments are from homeless junkies. It’s not a stereotype to say something that is obviously and blatantly true and staring you in the face.

Homeless encampments ARE a huge sanitation issue. San Diego had a Hepatitis A outbreak because of this very problem.

There are other even worse problems with the homeless encampments including rape, murder, and property crime. Those aren’t stereotypes, just facts.

Doug Trumm

It sort of reminds of some conservatives insist if we use the term “Islamic Extremist Terrorists” and suggest by doing so we cleared apparently the biggest hurdle to solving the problem of terrorism.

Sure we can always bring up needles when we talk about homelessness funding issues, even in a triumphant press release. Just call it like we see it, we can argue. But it seems like a big part of use of imagery of garbage and needles is a dogwhistle for anti-homeless-people Safe Seattle types. It others homeless people. Maybe this is useful as you say, but it may also be counterproductive in the long-run.