News The Morning Headline Police
posted by July 26 at 7:58 AMon
Judging from this morning’s PI headline, “Nickels wants to widen tax break on affordable housing,” and this morning’s Seattle Times headline, “Mayor proposes more tax breaks for new housing,” you’d get the impression Mayor Nickels is taking serious steps to address the number one problem in our city right now: The lack of housing for people with low incomes.
You’d be wrong.
The mayor’s new plan encourages landlords to rent to people with higher incomes than is currently allowed under the city’s housing program. Currently, landlords get tax breaks when they set aside a certain amount of units for renters making 70 percent of the median income. Nickels wants to extend the tax break to landlords who rent to those making 90 percent of the median. Translation: Landlords would now get the tax break for renting to individual renters who make $49,000 a year rather than $38,000 a year.
There are certainly some good things about Nickels’s idea. First, he’s making the tax breaks available in more neighborhoods; expanding it from 17 neighborhoods to 39. Second, he wants to add couples into the plan. (Currently, the program only caters to individuals.) The disappointing thing about his plan for couples, though, is this: The plan targets couples making 100% of median—$62,000—rather than the current 70% standard for singles.
Nickels would also extend the break to condo developers. Again, nice impulse. But the benefit to people making average wages seems minimal. The break would be for condo units going for $350,000 a year (or affordable to people making 20 percent above median income, $75,000.)
Team Nickels boasts that the plan for renters would set rents below market rate: About $50 less on average rent for the single renter and about $200-$250 less for couples. That’s nice, but the whole plan seems to miss the original intent of the program by undercutting lower-wage renters.
Although the papers bury it near the bottom, both the PI article and the Seattle Times article do eventually give the microphone to Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox. From the Seattle Times:
John Fox, coordinator for the Seattle Displacement Coalition, said the housing crisis hits people who make less than half the median income the hardest.
“If the developer isn’t willing to come in and set aside units for people who need housing, then they don’t deserve to get millions of dollars of tax breaks.”
From the PI (and a little higher up than the Seattle Times):
Some low-income housing activists also say the program discourages builders from providing low-cost units for the neediest.
“To hear the mayor lament the hardships of the moderate-income category when a tsunami is breaking over the heads of our low-income residents is galling,” housing activist John Fox said in a statement.
Ultimately, Nickels is responding to the fact that developers say they aren’t participating in the current program because they stand to lose money under the existing standard (setting aside units for singles making 70 percent of median).
But Nickels is proposing an off-point solution. If the intent of the program is to provide housing to those making 70 percent of the median, the city should figure out better incentives to make that happen. Nickels’s fix is like lowering standards to raise high school test scores. He’s not addressing the problem.
Final note: What’s really frustrating to me about writing this post is that I’m stuck fighting for a program that’s about renters making 70 percent of the median. What about the people Fox is fighting for—people making 50 percent of the median—or $27,250 for one person, $31,150 for two. I guess they’re still out of luck in this town.
Ultimately, it’s not that I’ve got a problem with a program that helps renters who make closer to the median in its own right.
The problem I see is this: Nickels is responding to the failure of a program that’s designed help lower income people by shifting it to help someone else. Again, he’s not addressing the problem.
And this morning’s headlines could give readers the impression that he is.