County Council Approves 0.1% Sales Tax to Fund Affordable Housing and Behavioral Health

Snohomish County Council’s Dec. 15 public hearing on the proposed sales tax increase was held via Zoom. (Composite created from individual photos of board members speaking Wednesday.)

Snohomish County Council on Wednesday voted 3-2 in favor of passing a 0.1% county-wide sales and use tax to fund more affordable housing and behavioral health services

Starting in April 2022, the county will collect $ 0.01 per $ 10 purchase. It is expected to raise around $ 116 million over the next five years.

The five council members listened to more than three hours of commentary during Wednesday’s public hearing before voting on the measure, with the vote ultimately falling party-favored. Council Democrats backed its immediate approval while Republicans proposed that the measure be presented to county voters next spring instead.

“Today’s decision is one of many steps we are taking to tackle the housing affordability and homelessness crisis,” said board chair Stephanie Wright, a Democrat who represents the 3rd district which includes Edmonds and Lynnwood. “The housing crisis is an overwhelming burden on too many residents of Snohomish County, and we must act now to help those in difficulty. These strategies will help stabilize families, get people off the streets and provide the services they desperately need. Public safety and the health of our community require these bold measures. “

County officials predict that over the next five years, the fund created by the new tax will support the creation of a project of 300 new affordable housing units. This would more than double the current production rate and bring the total number of new affordable housing units in the county to 522. The fund is also expected to create at least 100 new units of bridges and permanent supportive housing which, combined with other investments, could move up to 42% of all homeless residents off the streets to safer places.

“Housing affordability is negatively impacting people from all economic walks of life in Snohomish County,” said council member Jared Mead, a 4th District Democrat who represents Mountlake Terrace and Brier. “This is a modest and sensible approach to the crisis that too many families are facing. If we act now with the urgency of this crisis, we can begin to move forward. It would be easier to do nothing, but it would also leave us with problems that become even more difficult to solve.

Council Vice-President Megan Dunn, Democrat of District 2, said she was “proud to support this effort to tackle homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.” She added, “There are families across the county who are suffering because soaring housing costs and the lack of housing options have left them homeless or living in precarious situations. We can start to make a difference with these investments.

Opponents of the tax have said they see it as regressive and also noted that some towns in Snohomish County already have some of the highest sales tax rates in Washington.

Council members Sam Low and Nate Nehring, who represent the county’s 5th and 1st districts respectively, voted against the sales tax increase. Both recognized the need to address issues of affordable housing and behavioral health services, but said they felt the process was flawed, lacked transparency and had been rushed in its timeline – and also said said the measure should instead be presented to voters in an election next April.

Earlier this week, some elected officials from the towns of Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and the town of Woodway were among the 58 names on a letter sent to County Council and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, requesting that the proposed sales tax increase instead be entered on an upcoming ballot for a public vote.

Nehring said the tax proposal should have been discussed at a council committee meeting, and added that it would have been beneficial to allow more time for additional comments before a public vote.

Throwing more money at the affordable housing problem isn’t necessarily always the answer, said Nehring, citing Seattle and King County as examples he hoped to avoid.

“My fear is that if our only movement is to raise sales taxes and subsidize housing costs, which isn’t a long-term solution – it’s a band-aid – then we’re absolutely preparing for the same path of failure, ”said Nehring. “And I haven’t heard yet how what we’re planning to do is very different from the approach that’s taken in Seattle.”

Nehring said he would rather see the council discuss how it could possibly lower barriers to homeownership through policy changes such as regulatory cuts, increased housing supply. and advocacy for reform of the growth management law at the state level. “If I thought that we could solve homelessness through this proposal, I would be happy to support a tax increase, but I don’t think that is going to shake things up an inch,” he said. he adds. “I don’t trust the plan before us.”

Low said the board should have addressed the issue during its budgeting process: “This board just passed a historic, record-breaking $ 1.2 billion budget, which included record revenues, last month,” he said. he declared. “I don’t think it was fair to the public that this need for additional housing was not presented during the three month budget process so that it could be prioritized in the budget. He added: “This is extra taxpayer money that we are asking now, out of their wallets, they should also have a voice on it, which is why I am supporting it to go to a people’s vote. “

Council members in favor of the tax said the council is elected to make sometimes difficult decisions and voters will ultimately reflect their support for those choices when they decide to re-elect them.

Several board members noted that they appreciated the diverse perspectives provided in the comments, as well as the sheer volume of comments received from the community, which they believed helped lead to solid discussions on the proposal.

Nehring and Low also backed an amendment to extinguish the tax after five years, with the option to renew it if a set of parameters – to be agreed by the council – have been met at that time. This amendment, along with two others, was not carried by a board vote of 3-2. One of those amendments related to the powers and duties of the Chemical Dependence / Mental Health Advisory Council to include oversight and recommendations on the use of tax funds. The other would have required the allocation of at least 25% of the tax funds to behavioral health-related expenses such as the acquisition of land and the construction of such facilities as well as the operation of programs and services. treatment.

An amendment to the ordinance was passed unanimously ensuring that the Snohomish County Executive Office will coordinate with council, cities and community partners on creating a final business spending plan for tax funds. These efforts include coordinating all proposed spending for affordable housing, shelter and behavioral health projects with the Snohomish County Housing and Community Development Technical Advisory Committee as well as the Policy Advisory Board – which both have representatives from affected communities, towns, villages and housing experts. . This plan must then be presented to the board for review and final approval prior to any expenditure of funds.

The Washington State Legislature passed Bill 1590 (HB 1590) last year, which allows cities and counties to pass a 0.1% sales and use tax that can provide funding for affordable housing.

“The council has shown real leadership today, and I look forward to working with them, our community, our town and our tribal partners to ensure that these funds are spent in a fair and equitable manner to meet the needs. from our residents across the county, “Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said in a statement. “No one can deny that there is a housing affordability crisis, and no one can dispute the need for bold action. We cannot allow this crisis to further erode our economy, our environment and the health of our community. We will now start to make a difference.

Other Washington counties and cities using the permission granted in HB 1590 to increase the affordable housing stock by allowing a 0.1% sales tax include Jefferson, King, Skagit, Spokane and Whatcom counties, and the towns of Anacortes, Ellensburg, Olympia, Port Angeles, Poulsbo, Tacoma and East Wenatchee / Wenatchee.

– By Nathan Blackwell

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