The Jumpstart Seattle tax was a take-off-the-mask moment for Seattle that is still reverberating through Seattle politics.

Some would have us believe low taxes are more important than investments in the social safety net, the Green New Deal, and racial equity. They’d have you believe a progressive payroll tax on Seattle’s 700 largest companies would result in them packing up shop and heading to Bellevue or leaving the region entirely. And, moreover, if they did that, Seattle’s economy would sputter and it’d be like the Boeing Bust all over again with poor people ending up worse off, or so the argument goes.

Leaning on that story to prop up their case, Seattle’s business elite are trying to get even with the Seattle City Council over passing the Jumpstart progressive payroll tax, which is projected to pull in about $235 million next year. They have backed a slate of candidates (opposite of The Urbanist’s elections committee endorsements) who evade talk of new taxes and insist homelessness can be solved without new revenue — despite repeated studies stating that’s not the case, including a 2018 McKinsey study putting the annual cost for Seattle to solve homelessness at an additional $400 million at least. In 2020, McKinsey updated their report and pegged the needed investment into the $1 billion range.

McKinsey and Company is usually a go-to name in corporate consulting, but in this case Seattle business leaders have ignored the findings. In fact, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is attempting to block Jumpstart with lawsuits — one of which already failed — and hijack homelessness policy with the Compassion Seattle charter amendment effort, which perpetuated the myth that homelessness can be solved without new funds but ultimately was struck down in court before it could appear on the ballot.

But low taxes and deference to big business is not the secret to Seattle’s success or its growth. Seattle grows because it’s a great place to live and it makes infrastructure investments other regions neglect. President Biden popularized the idea of social infrastructure in his jobs plan, emphasizing that things like child care, health care, and housing are infrastructure, just as much as transit, roads, and bridges. To its credit, Seattle has been investing more on a social infrastructure than many other American cities.

Downtown and South Lake Union are certainly economic engines, but look to the University District for what will keep Seattle outpacing its rivals. A major university nestled in a growing sea of skyscrapers but also surrounded by natural beauty and urban forests. Few university campuses can boast of being integrated into a dense urban environment while also being so near top-notch urban parks, state parks, and national parks as UW can. And its bold plans to grow its campus and boost enrollment by 20% will continue to ensure Seattle is where businesses want to be located to have access to that talented workforce.

Few places are adding rapid transit at a faster pace. Light rail just reached the U District, Roosevelt, and Northgate this month, linking them to Capitol Hill, the Downtown, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, and the airport. By 2024, extensions will reach Lynnwood, Shoreline, Federal Way, Bellevue, and Redmond. West Seattle Junction, Lower Queen Anne, Interbay, and Ballard will join the light rail mix in the 2030s.

For people seeking to live where they don’t need to own a car, Seattle is a highly attractive place given the strong and quickly improving transit options. Bike and pedestrian conditions have much room for improvement, but sadly even in their current state rank Seattle as one of the top-most walkable and bikeable cities in America. We see this proven out in national rankings and in census data, as Seattle is leading the nation in the formation of car-free households.

It’s clear some leaders get the secret to Seattle’s success better than others.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda with colleagues Tammy Morales to right and Lorena Gonzalez and Kshama Sawant to left during election rally at Amazon Spheres. (Credit: Teresa Mosqueda)
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda with colleagues Tammy Morales to right and Lorena Gonzalez and Kshama Sawant to left during a 2019 election rally at the Amazon Spheres. (Credit: Teresa Mosqueda)

Council President Lorena González is running for mayor on a platform centered around taxing the rich to fund social housing, homelessness services, and infrastructure to make Seattle a 15-minute city. Being a 15-minute city means a resident can meet all of their family’s needs within a 15-minute walk, bike, or transit ride from home. This kind of systems thinking would help Seattle connect all the dots of good one-off safety projects that don’t quite form a cohesive and easy-to-use whole. It’s also a framework to draw attention where it’s most needed to redesign the dangerous status quo, such as the crash-prone streets of the Rainier Valley.

By contrast, former City Council President Bruce Harrell is talking about corporate philanthropy instead of corporate taxation and electric cars instead of bike lanes or transit, saying he “wouldn’t lead with bikes” at a recent debate, where he also said he was worried Seattle would lose businesses to Bellevue because of its tax policy. Harrell fought to keep the head tax (the predecessor to JumpStart) small and worked with Mayor Durkan to repeal it. He left the council before JumpStart deliberations, but one could imagine he would have reacted the same. If he, Durkan, and the Chamber has succeeded in blocking JumpStart, the city would have $235 million less to invest in its social infrastructure amidst a grueling pandemic. JumpStart already prevented a severe austerity budget last year, as Durkan proved herself better at spending JumpStart funds than she was at raising them. These lost opportunities would have hurt the city much more than theoretical corporate shrinkage will.

Nikkita Oliver, like González, is talking about transforming Seattle transportation and land use to be more equitable and climate-friendly in their inspiring campaign for Seattle City Council. They’re for adding sidewalks, bike lanes, bus lanes, increasing bus frequencies, and lowering transit fares.

Their opponent Sara Nelson has emphasized the status quo, wanting to keep single family zoning and failing to mention these key green transportation priorities in her environment plan, while managing to drop a bizarrely niche idea of “human-powered water transportation as a viable alternative mode of transport for people and goods” — essentially kayaks for commuting plus a dubious Lake Union passenger ferry.

Teresa Mosqueda was the lead author on JumpStart legislation and shepherded it through Council with a veto-proof majority, which was very useful as Mayor Durkan refused to sign the tax and attempted to veto the year one spend plan. She’s been a powerful advocate for pedestrianization efforts, bike lanes, and transit.

Mosqueda’s oppoent Kenneth Wilson’s main policy idea is to open the West Seattle Bridge while it’s still under construction under his hunch that such foolishness would be safe. His other obsession beyond Evil-Knievel style bridge openings and sweeping homeless encampments, is tree canopy protections, which is a very valid issue that he’s pretty clearly using as a not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) dogwhistle.

A Seattle led by González, Mosqueda, and Oliver would be much different than one led by Harrell, Nelson, and Wilson. The latter would choose the path of appeasement to big business and reactionary homeowners. The progressive trio, meanwhile, understands Seattle’s secret to success is its people and the infrastructure that supports them, and they would invest accordingly. Let’s build something together rather than race to the bottom while bending over backwards for big business.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

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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Blair

Where’s your family?
What weather/surroundings do you like?
What lifestyle are you looking for?
Where can you get a job?

These, and similarly personal considerations, are 90% of why people choose to live where they live. Everything else is a tiny share of the decision for most people, and taxes barely rate at all. At best, tax considerations are independent of demographic trends. Taxes as a primary driver for where people choose to live is a silly, broken idea.

asdf2

I generally side with the progressives on issues of zoning and transportation(*), but moderates on almost everything else, including taxes, police funding, housing subsidies, crime, and homelessness.

In the past, I have generally voted for progressive candidates in local races, in order to get more transit and bike lanes. This year, it’s the “everything else” that seems more dominant. Like it or not, part of being a friendly city for walk/bike/transit is being able to feel safe walking through downtown or waiting for buses after dark, and not needing to run the gauntlet of crazies in tents is part of that.

Of all the candidates, Oliver in particular, strikes me as a Sawant-style left-wing ideologue, and is the one I feel most strongly against. I don’t get to vote in Seattle races directly, but I did specifically ask a friend (who leans conservative by Seattle standards, but doesn’t vote regularly) to vote for Oliver’s opponent.

(*) Except for the CCC, which is a complete and utter waste of money. Support for transit is good, but it should not be blind, to the point where anything that runs on rails deserves unlimited money, regardless of mobility benefit, just because it runs on rails.

Blair

I used to feel the same way. Then our police force failed to get out from under supervision for over a decade. Then I started actually reading some of the basic points people like Nikita Oliver were making.

We think that crime is out of control. The data show something very different:
https://www.seattle.gov/police/information-and-data/crime-dashboard

There are very real problems, but voting as if the wheels are coming off the bus is wrong-headed. And when you look into how SPD actually spends their time and the effect on crime, it doesn’t paint a picture of a tool that is functioning very well. Public defenders have complained for years and decades that we consistently waste time, money, and effort on low-quality prosecutions. It costs $167/night to put someone in jail. Jailing the homeless, incompetent, suffering, etc. not only is cruel, it’s just dumb, ineffective policy. And it’s neither making us safer nor more compassionate.

I am not an abolition supporter. I think that’s crazy. But I also recognize that the people espousing abolition have traction precisely because the old ways always were and are now IRREVOCABLY BROKEN. We need new ideas, and prosecuting more misdemeanors (Davison), or just throwing more cops on the beat (Harrell) isn’t going to cut it. It’s going to make things exactly as they are now, with a thin veneer of safety-theater on top. I’m done with the old ways. They’re broken and haven’t been able to fix themselves for decades.

phil Lofurno

I just don’t get the logic……We need to invest 1B to get the homelessness issue under control – after which, it seems to me, more people will relocate recreating the same shortages that are experienced today. If the root problem is income, then provide job retraining with subsides – If the problem is mental illness provide the facilities – If the problem is drug usage quit condoning it .

tacomee

Seattle is 100% toxic towards dishwashers and the like. It’s impossible for lower wage earners to live here. It’s equality impossible for Seattle to function without those workers.

Kevin

Hint: they can live in Federal Way and commute. That’s what the rest of 7 billion human beings in the world do.

Not everyone can afford to live in Queen Anne and Capitol Hill with a water view… Sorry.

tacomee

Well, there’s an Appleby’s that’s hiring in Federal Way, so I doubt anybody is commuting that far for low wage job. Plus the wage/cost of living/quality of life pie chart isn’t much better in Federal Way than it is in Seattle. It’s a problem on the entire 1-5 corridor at this point. The West Coast economy has serious problems.

I guess it all comes down to freedom. Seattle was totally free to build an economy that invited out of State tech workers to move there and mess up the real estate market and jack up the cost of living. Some of the displaced were free to get drunk, live in a tent and poop in public parks. Looking at the big picture, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a real solution from Seattle’s political class …or NPR…. or The Seattle Times…. or Fox News…. or anybody. It’s a real big mess.