For roughly a month, the City of Seattle seemed to be at the vanguard of a new affordable-housing movement, an emblem of what government can do when elected representatives heed the demands of a mobilized working-class constituency.
On May 14, after facing down bitter opposition from corporate giants like Amazon and Starbucks, Seattle passed an ambitious new tax on the city’s largest employers. The “Amazon tax,” as advocates called it, aimed to raise roughly $47 million a year over five years to fund affordable-housing development and fight homelessness in a place plagued by rising rents, ubiquitous gentrification, and spreading displacement. The proposal’s victory at City Hall was the latest show of strength for a robust housing-justice movement that has won a host of local rent regulations in recent years by making common cause with key municipal leaders in Seattle.
The push for the measure began last fall when two Seattle councilmembers introduced a proposal for a tax on large companies. They were promptly backed by housing activists who assembled a broad coalition of organizations to fight for the measure. Calling themselves the Housing for All Coalition, they launched a concerted pro-tax campaign that featured signature gathering, town-hall meetings, direct action, and a flood of phone calls and e-mails to resistant councilmembers. And the councilmembers seemed to listen: Four signed on to sponsor the legislation, and all nine ultimately voted for it.
“We were able to get a unanimous vote on [the] City Council to tax the largest businesses in Seattle to build hundreds of units of publicly owned and permanently affordable housing because we have a fighting movement on the ground,” says the socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant, one of the movement’s principal political allies and an ardent proponent of the Amazon tax.
This interplay between grassroots organizers and committed political allies is unusual in the realm of affordable-housing policy. While the political class has, for the most part, been slow to reckon with the affordable-housing crisis, the Seattle tax tapped into an awakening sense of urgency among municipal leaders, both in Seattle and beyond. As the fight heated up, local progressive officials from across the country came out to back it. In an act of novel cross-city solidarity, more than 50 members of the progressive political network Local Progress signed an open letter to Seattle expressing “strong support” for the tax, while local officials in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley began murmuring about passing their own big-business taxes. A handful of national leaders—including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal—even weighed in.