Every two years it’s budget time for the City of Seattle. The mayor solicits info from each city department and draws up a budget, which he presents to the City Council for review and approval. Two weeks ago, Mayor Paul Schell released the draft budget for 1999-2000, and it contains one item that’s particularly controversial: a radical shift in the city’s housing funds.

The new budget would split off all of the housing funds and personnel from the Department of Housing and Human Services, and then combine those funds with the management of “large, interdepartmental, complex projects” into a new department called the Office of Housing and Project Management.

In prior years, housing and human services were combined in their own office under the Department of Health, Human Services, and Recreation. The bulk of Housing and Human Services money has gone for servicing people most at risk of becoming homeless (if they’re not already), including: retirees on fixed incomes, elderly folks who need community services, “at-risk” youth, and people who need more job-training. Splitting off the low-income housing funds from the money used to provide services to homeless folks, the elderly, and the poor will ghettoize this already economically desperate population.

The move simply makes no sense … until you look at where the money and staff is going. Schell’s proposal would move the housing funds to a new office directly under the Executive Department–meaning that he and his staff would have more direct control over the funds. This could set in motion a process that will downplay low-income housing and place an emphasis on housing for middle-income families, first-time home buyers, and services for vaguely defined public-private partnerships (i.e., developers). This shift becomes clear when we read such statements as: “The office will expand the definition of affordable housing to include mixed-use, moderate income units…” or “The purpose of creating a new office is to provide a clear point of contact for community and private partners…” Two of the major goals of the office are to “Increase supply of housing at all income levels in ways that will enhance communities,” and to “Strengthen partnerships to leverage community resources and public and private dollars.”

We’ve heard the public/private mantra before: to justify spending public funds on sports palaces and luxury condominiums for cars. By now, Seattle residents should be justifiably suspicious of these proposals and sick to their stomach of the kind of vague rhetoric that leaves the door wide open for corporate welfare–in this case, for private developers.

It doesn’t help that Paul Schell is a former developer and, as the PacMed deal showed, is willing to help out his former buddies whenever possible. Creating this new office under the Executive would give him and his staff access to and control of funds that should be moved as far away from him as possible. That he has proposed combining housing money with the construction of capital projects like the Ballard Civic Center, downtown Justice Center, and new libraries, is further evidence that he may be trying to set up his own personal development company within the city bureaucracy.

Schell ran for mayor with the goal of providing solutions to Seattle’s housing crisis. He even sat before a group of homeless folks and service providers to give his ideas for increasing the supply of low-cost housing in Seattle. Most of his speech then–and his subsequent “housing agenda” proposal–relied on tax and regulatory breaks for developers and current homeowners. This budget clearly shows where his priorities lie: low-income housing deserves only a pat on the head, while public funds and staff-time will be directed towards stimulating “market-rate” construction–the very type of development that has already displaced much of Seattle’s scare low-income housing.

Happily, City Council members have expressed puzzlement over the proposed new office, and why the mayor wants to combine housing funds with public construction projects. Since the City Council must review and approve the city’s budget by late November, it’s important that they hear as soon as possible what the public thinks about all this.

Martha Choe will answer budget questions on a live call-in show on Channel 28 at 7:00 p.m. this Thursday, Oct. 1. Then, on the following Monday, Oct. 5, the City Council will have a public budget hearing in the council chambers at 5:30 PM. Usually, the city’s budget is approved with few changes and little fanfare; it’s time to demand that the council perform a some oversight of the city and Mayor’s office, and not rubber-stamp this budget.

The draft budget can be accessed on the city’s web page at http://www.ci.seattle.wa.us/budget/