SEATTLE – Reaction to a proposed Seattle business tax for housing and homeless services jolted elected officials this week as flare-ups of opposition revealed deep frustration with the city’s handling of its homelessness crisis.
If Seattle City Council members were surprised by the reaction — including a raucous town-hall meeting in Ballard and an unexpected protest by construction workers — the response of many residents and business owners seemed to be, what took you so long?
“They’re hearing the whole story now,” said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Alliance. “They have been listening to a very small subset for a long time and have not been listening to their actual constituents.”
Amazon announced Wednesday morning that it was pausing construction of a new downtown tower until the council votes on the $75 million-a-year tax on large companies.
Hours later, residents shouted down the four council members who sponsored the tax legislation at a 90-minute town hall at Ballard’s Trinity United Methodist Church.
Many residents expressed general empathy for people experiencing homelessness, but lashed out at the City Council — especially Council Member Mike O’Brien — for lax financial management and failure to address the consequences of widespread, unauthorized tent camps.
O’Brien declined to comment on the meeting.
Bruce Miller, a Seattle resident since 1971, said he traditionally supported tax levies, but no longer will. “I feel like city government doesn’t understand and respect taxpayer dollars, and doesn’t take responsibility for them,” said Miller, to applause.
The crowd aggressively heckled the council, the event moderators and the occasional person who spoke in favor of the head tax, drawing rebukes.
The crowd erupted in the strongest applause for speakers who demanded more cleanups of the estimated 400 unsanctioned homeless-tent camps citywide.
“Your policies and what we’re doing in this city has unleashed chaos and crime on law-abiding people,” said one speaker.
One city staffer who attended the meeting, but asked not to be named, said the anger and incivility in the room was shocking.
“That did not feel like Seattle,” the staffer said.
The debate over the tax took another turn Thursday when members of the Iron Workers Local 86 crashed and took over a rally planned by Council Member Kshama Sawant.
Every time she tried to speak, the workers shouted, “No head tax, no head tax!”
Their yells echoed off the nearby Amazon towers, which many of the iron workers had helped to build, as downtown professionals and tourists looked on in confusion. Sawant, a socialist with strong ties to labor, tried to calm them down, referring to them as her “brothers,” but they yelled over her.
“To reduce the jobs only increases the possibility of additional homelessness,” said Chris McClain, business manager for the union chapter, which has about 2,600 members.
The current version of the tax, which has not yet passed out of a council committee, is expected to raise $75 million a year from about 600 businesses citywide. Of that, $50 million would go to affordable housing construction, $20 million to homeless services and $5 million to city administrative costs.
The region’s homeless population has increased significantly in the 30 months since Seattle and King County declared states of emergency; the number of people sleeping outside has doubled since 2014 according to snapshot counts of homelessness.
Seattle’s proposed head tax is estimated by council staff to create about 1,700 more units of housing, but it would take least two or three years to design and build them.