Monthly Archives: May 2018

What’s Next for Homelessness and the Head Tax?

After nine months of meetings, hearings, and headlines, an Employee Hours Tax to help fund affordable housing and homelessness services has finally passed – and raised even more questions for the future.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a last-minute compromise on Employee Hours Tax (EHT) legislation, also commonly called a head tax. The exhaustion and relief was explicit Monday in many of the councilmembers’ comments. But for both elected officials and for the business leaders and community activists who squared off over the issue, there is no resolution. Not really. There is only the next phase of a series of vexing problems with no easy answers.

The compromise legislation is designed to raise about $47 million a year for the next five years, with the revenue dedicated to building permanent affordable housing and expanding homelessness services. That’s less than the $75 million a year that would have been raised when the bill passed through committee last week – and much less than the $150 million a year in new revenue urged by last winter’s Progressive Revenue Task Force – but more than the Amazon-approved $40 million in Mayor Durkan’s last-minute alternative plan. And it’s far more than the $25 million in annual revenue that last fall’s failed EHT package was intended to raise.

Similarly, the 66 percent of that $47 million in annual revenue intended for affordable housing construction (about $32 million) is less than the 75 percent of $75 million (about $57 million) in the original package, but far more than the $10 million a year that Durkan wanted.

However, the city’s estimate that the final bill will fund 591 new housing units over five years assumes a per-unit cost of about $270,000 – significantly lower than past construction estimates of over $300,000 a unit. Given that Seattle real estate prices continue to explode, over five years that target of 591 units may not be realistic. And while every new unit helps, a business-funded study released earlier this month estimated that King County overall would need to spend $410 million on new housing each year just to house those who were homeless here in January 2017 – and even then it would take seven years to catch up with the backlog.

When the January 2018 one-night estimate of our county’s homeless is released later this month, it likely will be at least ten percent higher than last year. Unless the growth in homelessness slows over the next five years, that means hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue, beyond the $410 million per year estimate, will need to be found for still more affordable housing. And that’s just to house the homeless. Such units will also be heavily in demand from poorer and working class residents who are currently housed but who are also being squeezed out of Seattle’s private housing market.

Everything Counts In Large Amounts

Such good news/bad news dichotomies abound in considering where Seattle can or will go next on these issues. Seattle’s new EHT is the largest such tax ever passed in the U.S. In part, that’s because many jurisdictions use payroll taxes instead to accomplish the same revenue goals, but it still means that in the end, the council and even Mayor Durkan stood up to a business lobby that did not want this tax at all – in a city that is now far more reliant on a single employer than any other large city in the country.

That business opposition has not gone away. After the vote, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce issued a statement decrying the compromise. So did Amazon. The obedient Seattle Times editorial board urged a citizen initiative to overturn the tax – a plan that would work better if Medina residents could vote in Seattle elections. But if such an initiative can get on to this fall’s ballot – and while they would need to get 17,632 signatures by June 15, there are plenty of people in Seattle who would sign such an initiative just because they despise the homeless – there is no limit to the amount of money that anyone can contribute to an initiative campaign. That’s how, for example, an attempt to ban plastic bags a few years back was killed single-handedly by the chemical industry and other interest groups.

Beyond that, the elections next year for Seattle’s seven districted council seats offer business interests another, perhaps easier opportunity to control 2020’s city council in a way that would make repeal a likelihood and an initiative unnecessary. More on that below.

For companies like Amazon, which took the unusual step of threatening to pull jobs out of Seattle if the original bill had passed, the $20 million a year the original proposal would have cost them was never the point. The point was to avoid setting a precedent that other jurisdictions might emulate, especially as Amazon conducts a noisy public search for a city that will give it the most tax incentives to locate its second headquarters there. Amazon failed to prevent this precedent. In the end, even Mayor Durkan, with her anemic last-minute proposal, stood up to Amazon and got them to give their reluctant approval. Likely those were difficult conversations, in which Durkan had to explain to some Amazon government affairs executive that political realities required that Seattle act on its crises, and that businesses like Amazon would have to pay something.

The Fight to Repeal the Head Tax, Again

But whether they’ll need to pay for it much beyond 2019 is an open question. In January 2020, Seattle’s seven district city council representatives will be sworn in for a new four-year term. Only four council members opposed the original EHT proposal this spring – and three of them (Bruce Harrell, Debora Juarez, and Rob Johnson) arguably represent what are now the three most liberal of the seven districts. Moreover, it’s being widely speculated that both Harrell and the fourth opponent, Sally Bagshaw, will not seek re-election.

The converse, however, is also true: three of the five EHT supporters on council are also up for re-election, and all are vulnerable. Kshama Sawant’s 2015 re-election campaign against Pamela Banks turned into the most expensive council race in Seattle history, and even more business and third-party money will nbe spent to unseat her next year. Budget Committee chair Lisa Herbold – who also spearheaded last fall’s failed EHT proposal – won her seat against a business-oriented opponent in 2015 by literally dozens of votes. And anti-homeless activists have been baying for Mike O’Brien’s head for years, and may have new business allies in 2019.

Amazon gave a record $350,000 in independent money for Jenny Durkan’s 2017 victory. Her one veto threat last week, and the compromise that resulted, will save Amazon $7 million in 2019 alone – a two thousand percent return on investment in just the first year of the tax. That successful investment didn’t go unnoticed. Even if Harrell is replaced by a more progressive council member in the south end – which seems likely at this early point – if Juarez and Johnson are safe, and either Bagshaw or another business-oriented candidate holds the downtown seat, defeating two out of the three pro-tax incumbents up for another term (Herbold, Sawant, and/or O’Brien) would give the business lobby enough votes to repeal the tax. They have enough money to dominate all of these races, if they choose to do so.

And we’ve been here before. The city turned to a head tax rather than a more equitable payroll tax because implementation would be easier and cheaper. The systems to collect it are still in place from Seattle’s last experience with a head tax, in 2007-10. That history got remarkably little attention during the past year’s debate in part because of how the tax ended: Backed by new developer money, a largely unknown pro-density environmentalist named Mike McGinn campaigned for mayor in 2009 promising to repeal the head tax as an impediment to fighting climate change. That claim hasn’t aged well, but after McGinn was elected, he made head tax repeal one of his first items of business. Approaching 2019’s elections, that ancient history suddenly becomes quite relevant.

Awash in new wealth, Seattle’s local elections next year are going to shatter all previous records for fundraising – and the just concluded head tax debate will be back with a vengeance.

The Bills Come Due

That’s doubly unfortunate because it’s likely to eclipse an even bigger problem over the coming year: the failure of at least the last four elected mayors and two decades’ worth of developer-friendly city councils to adequately plan for Seattle’s explosive population growth. While nobody in 1998 could have known that Amazon would become a global juggernaut, a coalition of developers and climate change-obsessed environmentalists have successfully pushed a develop-at-any-cost approach to increased population and density that ignored existing neighborhood plans. It concentrated development near arterials but left many single-family home neighborhoods nearly untouched.

The unintended impacts included building new market-rate housing on land made available through the destruction of affordable housing Seattle now desperately needs. But while city leaders underwrote development and funded expensive real estate development schemes and civic amenities (the Mercer Mess, streetcars, the downtown tunnel and waterfront development, convention center expansion, etc.), they failed to fund numerous infrastructure improvements that were needed to absorb so many new residents. That includes not just affordable housing, but transportation (including badly backlogged maintenance projects), public transit, sewage and utilities, public school capacity, and much, much more. Homelessness and housing were simply the focus new because that’s the crisis that already has a death toll. But it isn’t be the only crisis.

After 20 years of misplaced priorities, the bills are coming due. The businesses that city leaders have encouraged while heavily taxing everyone else are the only serious remaining source of money that our city can turn to in order to address a whole series of urgent issues. That funding was already going to be a tough sell, with taxpayers reasonably asking why city leaders should be trusted to collect still more taxes when they’ve gotten it so wrong in the past. That argument already surfaced with objections to the head tax based on that crisis having worsened despite past funding increases. Now, those objections are also fuel for business interests who, between Amazon’s successful extortion and the unprecedented money that put Durkan into office, also have a political road map for how to stop any effort to tax them further.

How to Spend the New Tax

Most immediately, as part of its annual budget process the city council and mayor will need to decide this fall how, exactly, to spend the new revenue. That will also be contentious.

As a companion to the new legislation, city council also passed a resolution outlining its priorities for spending the new revenue. But that resolution isn’t just non-binding; its numbers were hashed out behind closed doors over one weekend, with no study or public input, and are likely to be challenged this fall on several fronts.

The most obvious is the reduction in the compromise proposal, both as a percentage and in absolute terms, in the amount of money dedicated to new affordable public housing construction. A lot of people will push to see that component reprioritized. They’ll face resistance. Mayor Durkan has continually pushed to move dollars away from housing and into homeless services for reasons that are unclear, given that the sole focus of the city’s current “Pathways Home” approach to homelessness is to steer people into affordable housing that does not, as yet, exist. And as noted above, the goals for this section of the spending resolution seem unrealistically optimistic – as well as still falling far short of the need.

There will also be several activist-led fights over the services portion. Durkan has already indicated that she wants that money to go primarily into expansion of existing programs, many of which service providers and advocates have been decrying for years. For starters, there’s the dramatic escalation in homeless encampment sweeps in recent years – a homelessness “service” which cost the city over $10 million last year alone and which has continued apace under Mayor Durkan.

Beyond that, Durkan wants to spend much of the money on expansion of Navigation Teams – which connect individuals to case managers and services, but not, usually, to housing – and a private market voucher program that most advocates seem to regard as not only ineffective, but somewhere between a brief respite and a cruel fraud for those seeking to escape homelessness. Increased spending for all of those programs will face opposition. Beyond that, there’s also the noisy band of residents who seem to loathe spending money of any kind on the homeless. They’ll be around, too.

Meanwhile, Back in Reality…

While wrangling over this tax has droned on, and more fighting over both the tax and how its revenues will be spent seems inevitable, the problems the EHT proposal was meant to address keep worsening. The King County Medical Examiner is now recording, on average, almost four homeless deaths a week so far in 2018, a pace that would shatter last year’s record. The release later this month of last January’s “one night count” is also likely to not only set another new record, but chronicle the spread of increased homelessness into every corner of King County.

Rent increases have slowed a bit in recent months, but an average Seattle apartment still rents for close to $2000 a month. With the standard measure of affordability being 30 percent of income, that means affording even a basic apartment in our city requires a household income of around $80,000 a year. If you’re, say, retired, disabled, or otherwise on a fixed income, or working one or more low-wage jobs – as many homeless individuals are – a case manager can’t bridge that chasm. Activists are sure to push a variety of non-EHT reforms this year to help reign those costs in, from more relocation assistance to protection of remaining affordable housing and increased “in lieu of” fees for new housing to (gasp) rent control.

We’ve learned several important things from the EHT debate so far. One is that even the political power of Amazon can be overcome – for now – if the need is urgent enough and the demands for it are loud and disruptive enough. Another is that while this victory was important, it does not nearly meet the scale of the need, and it may not be possible to pass anything that can meet the scale of the need.

But the two most important takeaways are that, one, the battle to overturn this tax – or divert its revenues to other needs – is ongoing. It’s not over. And secondly, as competing interests continue to block more comprehensive solutions, people keep dying on Seattle’s streets. Every week.

Durkan’s Alternative Head Tax Proposal: Details and Analysis

What you need to know about the competing plans.


Durkan’s plan:

* Is timed to kill the existing proposal, and delay any solution.

* Is even more grossly inadequate to the scale of the problem.

* Abandons any serious effort to build additional badly needed permanently affordable housing.

* Puts more money into homelessness programs that only help a small segment of the homeless population.

* Rewards Amazon’s extortion, and gives companies like Amazon effective veto power over what our city does on any issue.


Both plans raise money based on the number of employee hours worked in Seattle each year by the top three percent of the city’s companies, based on gross revenues of at least $20 million. Durkan’s plan would charge about $250 per full-time employee per year; the existing plan charges about $500. Annual revenue would be under $40 million rather than $75 million.

Durkan’s plan eliminates the proposed 2021 shift to an equivalent, more traditional payroll tax. Instead, the head tax would continue, but then end after 2023.

Durkan’s plan also shifts spending. The previous plan dedicated about $50 million to building permanent affordable housing; $20 million to homeless services; and the rest to administration. Under Durkan’s plan, homeless service funding from the tax would increase from $20 million to about $28 million, but the affordable housing component would be reduced by four-fifths, from $50 million a year to only $8 million.


1. A report released yesterday estimated that King County needed to add 14,000 new affordable homes just to address 2017’s homelessness – let alone any future increases. The previous plan was an inadequate but important step in starting to address this shortfall. On this point, Durkan’s head tax plan moves from being inadequate to being nearly irrelevant. It would build about 24 housing units a year, or about 120 over the course of its entire five-year existence.

2. Durkan has already said that she wants to see head tax revenues for services funneled into the city’s existing “Pathways Home” programs, particularly its Navigation Teams and a private rental market voucher program. The Navigation Teams are meant to connect homeless individuals with a case manager and support programs that, if completed successfully, essentially allow the person to apply to get on waiting lists or for vouchers. Since most waiting lists are frozen or years long, this usually would mean the vouchers, in which people are given three- to nine-month rent support and then left to fend for themselves and counted as “permanently housed.”

Under Durkan, the city this year tried to defund most of the city’s existing emergency shelter network, on the grounds that they did not require guests to become part of this program. The city council blocked this attempt, which would have literally left thousands of people with nowhere to go while they wait for affordable housing that does not, as yet, exist.

The Navigation Team approach is far more comprehensive per person, but also far more expensive per person. Given the lack of overall additional revenues, this necessarily means helping far fewer homeless people.

At best, the city’s approach is to focus service on those individuals whose homelessness issues are personal and can be “fixed” or managed – substance abuse, mental health, etc. – while deemphasizing structural economic reasons (e.g., rent in Seattle is hella expensive). It presumes that people can easily afford a $2000/month private rental unit once their vouchers expire, since the personal problems which led them to become homeless will have been resolved. And some homeless individuals do fit that description. But most don’t – the issues are economic, or a complex mix, or not easily resolved in a few months.

That’s at best. At worst, Durkan is doubling down on an approach that amounts to corporate welfare to landlords, while abandoning most homeless people to fend for themselves.

3. Durkan’s plan would raise only a quarter of the revenue originally recommended by last winter’s Progressive Revenue Task Force, the most representative public body so far to consider the issue – and the task force acknowledged that its $150 million per year recommendation was inadequate to the scale of the problem. Durkan’s $38 million a year and 24 new homes a year isn’t a bad joke – but it’s close.

4. Durkan’s plan extends for five years one of the major problems with the existing proposal: its reliance on gross revenues, making no distinction between industries with large profit margins and those with notoriously thin ones.

5. Due to past decisions, the city doesn’t have any obvious constituencies other than its wealthier businesses from which it can raise significant additional revenue. But the scale of Durkan’s proposal appears to be a response not to the need or to any long-term plan, but to appease Amazon and other big business opponents of the original proposal. There are reports this evening that Amazon has said it would lift its freeze on two major downtown developments if Durkan’s plan passes.

6. Unlike the existing plan, which was developed over eight months and countless meetings and public hearings, Durkan’s plan was developed secretly behind closed doors “working with people across the city” who she has not yet named.


Durkan’s plan is supported by the four pro-business city council members who have opposed the existing head tax plan, including CM Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the committee considering the existing proposal. That proposal is co-sponsored by four council members and supported by a fifth, Kshama Sawant.

Friday morning, May 11, Bagshaw’s committee meets at 9:30 AM for what was expected to be a final committee vote on the existing plan. A full council vote on that plan is scheduled for the next business day, Monday, May 14.

The existing plan has the five votes to pass but is opposed by the committee chair and does not have the six votes needed to override what would now be a certain veto by Durkan.

At minimum, the timing of the release of Durkan’s plan is designed to maximally delay any final decision. Bagshaw is likely to call to postpone any vote pending new hearings and studies on the competing proposal – even though it clearly does not have the votes to pass council. Neither side has a clear path to its proposal becoming law now. Serious lobbying will start to either find a middle ground or (more likely) try to peel off at least one of the sponsors of the existing plan, with the explanation that “it’s the best that we can do.”

Durkan’s announcement delays badly needed additional revenues of any sort for a crisis that is now in its third year as a formally declared city emergency, and that is now literally killing people in our city each week. And the fact that Durkan’s plan is based not on need but on appeasing our city’s largest employers sets a terrible precedent. If her last-minute proposal ends up carrying the day, the City of Seattle is giving companies like Amazon effective veto power over city laws and policies. Is that the city, and government, we want?

Let’s Call Amazon’s Bluff

Amazon says they’ll halt new office projects if Seattle enacts an employee head tax. Good.

The debate over a proposed Employee Head Tax (EHT) on our city’s largest employers, with revenue dedicated to affordable housing aand homelessness services, is coming to a head. After eight months of debate, the Seattle City Council is scrambling to meet a self-imposed mid-May deadline for trying to pass the proposal, with a final vote currently scheduled for Monday, May 14.

In the face of civic activists demanding long-overdue major action on Seattle’s critical affordable housing and homelessness crises – and packing council meetings to press their demands – five of the nine council members have said that they support the current bill. At least one of those council members must change their minds to kill or significantly weaken the bill. That effort, already in full force, was turbocharged this past week by Amazon’s freeze of two new office facilities downtown, suggesting it would “rethink” further Amazon expansion in Seattle if the new tax passes.

Ordinarily, this alone would be enough to kill the bill. A notorious Seattle Times headline last year – “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s Biggest Company Town” – wasn’t wrong, but politically and economically, it missed the larger context. Seattle has always been a company town. Before Amazon, it was Microsoft; before Microsoft, Boeing; and before Boeing, a century ago, Weyerhaueser, and before that, servicing the Yukon Gold Rush. The history of Seattle has largely been shaped by its political leaders giving the boom economy of the day whatever it wanted. Amazon is just the latest and biggest company whose displeasure is, for a certain type of Seattle politician, unthinkable.

Most recently, political obsequiousness has basically created our city’s twin crises in affordable housing and homelessness – crises so extreme that this tax might just pass anyway.

And it should. Seattle should call Amazon’s bluff.

The Opposition

It’s impossible to understand why our city should defy what is now by far its largest employer – Amazon already has 20 percent of Seattle’s office space – without understanding the literal bankruptcy of tax opponents’ arguments. These fall into two broad categories: the people objecting to such a tax being collected, and those objecting to what it’s being spent on.

In terms of its purpose, homeless advocates and social service providers have expressed serious concerns about how Mayor Durkan has said she wants to direct any EHT revenues, particularly the portion that would go to services. Durkan wants to funnel that money to Seattle’s badly flawed “Housing First” approach, in which emergency shelter, transitional shelter, and support services are defunded in favor of forcing the homeless to sign up for waiting lists for affordable housing units that don’t exist, and sweeping the unsanctioned encampments that spring up in lieu of organized ones. For example, Durkan wants to put more money into the “Navigation Teams” that help refer homeless people into resources. Yet despite official claims that thousands of local homeless were housed in 2017, the Navigation Teams successfully referred exactly one homeless person into permanent affordable housing. One.

The bulk of the new EHT money would go not to services or shelter, but to building badly needed permanently affordable housing – but even funding that is halved from the $150 million EHT recommendation of the task force city council created after last fall’s failed EHT bill. And the task force acknowledged that its recommendation would only put a dent in the need for tens of thousands of new affordable units.

Meanwhile, while even that inadequate level of housing is being built, where are homeless people supposed to live? Defunding shelter and services only forces more people onto the street – making their path out of homelessness far more grueling and difficult, and in some cases deadly. Seattle set a record for homeless deaths in 2016, and again in 2017, and is well on its way to a new record in 2018, with dozens having already been lost. With any other group of people, that would be an international scandal. For Seattle’s homeless, it’s just another number.

Despite those problems, advocates for the homeless unanimously support the current EHT proposal, figuring that the fight over how revenues are first spent is less immediately important than establishing a long-tern, dedicated revenue source for addressing the issue. But Seattle has plenty of people who object to any public money being spent to help our city’s most vulnerable residents.

That Trumpian impulse was on full display at a Ballard town hall meeting on the EHT proposal this past Wednesday. The panel format, hosted by EHT bill co-sponsor CM Mike O’Brien, never happened, shouted down by a loud, abusive, ill-informed mob that spewed hate at every speaker not in their tribe and that drowned out with denials anyone who patiently tried to present simple facts on the issue. It was so bad that the notorious Alex Tsimerman, an abusive, obscenity-spewing nutcase whose unhinged rants have routinely gotten him banned from city council meetings, was one of the more lucid speakers.

The Ballard fiasco was a stark reminder that, contrary to the placid belief of many Seattle liberals, the ignorance, hatred and fear that, with Russian help, propelled Donald Trump to the presidency isn’t strictly a red state phenomenon. There’s plenty of such residents here, and plenty of demagogues (like KIRO-FM’s execrable Dori Monson) willing to transform even legitimate concerns into vehicles for punching down. Regardless of how the head tax fight plays out, that contingent will surely produce candidates running against the bill’s sponsors next year. If any of them gain traction, the big business opponents of the tax will face a difficult choice.

As is, the Tsimmerman contingent is a de facto ally in the anti-EHT fight with our city’s economic giants. In testimony to city council, local business leaders have taken pains to emphasize how much they love the poors, and how much they already have done to help them. (Such claims from a Vulcan executive drew spontaneous, derisive laughter from an otherwise polite pro-tax audience.) But corporate help, those leaders cautioned, can’t come through taxation and publicly accountable programs, because…..uh, reasons. Essentially, the position is: we’re notwilling to make less money, so if we’re taxed by this we’ll have to cut expenses elsewhere – by either cutting jobs or relocating to a place, any place, that doesn’t have this tax.

But companies don’t create new jobs because they’re generous and have the spare money for it. They do so because they need those jobs to meet the demand for what they sell, or as an investment to create that demand. A job is created when, and only when, a company thinks the expense of it will be more than offset by the money that position helps earn. An EHT that amounts to about $500 a year for a full-time employee, for Seattle’s largest employers, is not a serious hit – as demonstrated by the lack of difficulty such employers have had absorbing much more costly minimum wage increases across the country despite identical arguments.

But for a company like Safeway or Kroger or Amazon, with not just national but global employee bases, the cost of a Seattle tax isn’t the point – it’s the precedent that tax would set for all those other jurisdictions.

A recent study put the annualized global median income for an Amazon employee at $28,000 a year, far lower (and more likely to contribute to homelessness) than the $110,000 median income for Seattle Amazon employees. But those figures imply far more than a reason for Amazon to extort our city. Amazon owns Seattle now; it doesn’t need a good reason to extort us. That’s how company towns work. The companies are inevitably going to leave. Sooner or later, Amazon executives will look at that $110,000 figure and start “rethinking” it.

For reference, Seattle’s previous company “owners” haven’t gotten any smaller – they’ve just deemphasized our region. Microsoft has lost much of its tech dominance to Google, Facebook, and others, but it still has enough lucrative global monopolies to be a hugely profitable company. But for a couple of decades it has quietly been putting more and more of its resources into lower-wage countries like India.

Seattle’s previous owner, Boeing, was and remains a high-profile extortionist of our local and state governments. A 2013 Olympia special session of our state legislature, held in three days with no public notice or input, had as its sole purpose responding to a Boeing threat by approving the biggest single package of state tax breaks in US history, worth $8.7 billion. But Boeing has bled jobs from our state anyway, mostly to lower-wage, non-union states. Similarly, Boeing’s 2001 move to Chicago wasn’t because Seattle was untenable; it was because Seattle could not come close to matching Chicago’s offer of huge incentives and tax breaks. And even Weyerhaueser, a century on, remains one of the world’s largest owners of privately held timberland. Most of it just isn’t in the Pacific Northwest now.

In the race to the bottom, someplace else is always cheaper. And as a global empire, Amazon has no more home town loyalty than Boeing or Microsoft or Weyerhaueser. To pretend otherwise is naive.

Amazon’s current rapid expansion in Seattle won’t last. At some point, it will conclude that those $110,000 a year jobs can be performed more cheaply elsewhere. If it’s not the EHT, some other pretext will be used to justify it/

The other lesson of those past dominating companies is that despite the initial panic, Seattle is doing just fine with their reduced footprints. We’ve somehow still got the best local economy in the country. If Amazon pulls back, our city has a very good track record of replacing those jobs with other, likely better jobs.

The Social Contract

Meanwhile, Seattle literally cannot keep growing like this. Twenty years ago, Seattle was a national center for the dot-com boom. Since the height of that boom, though, our city has added more than a fifth of its population, growing from 563,374 in the 2000 Census (and 513,269 in 1990) to an estimated 704,352 in 2016 – all with making virtually no significant infrastructure investments to accommodate all of that growth.

Certainly, Seattle’s revenues have grown along with that population and job growth. Where has the money gone? Some of it to expand existing amenities such as parks and libraries, to be sure. But many of its biggest-ticket items have been real estate schemes disguised as infrastructure – the Mercer Mess, streetcars, the downtown tunnel.

Though light rail is finally being built out – years after many mostly smaller U.S. cities (e.g., Portland, Salt Lake City) started their systems – Seattle still only has one line with 16 stations, with the next expansion – three more stops on the same line – not due to open until 2021. Seattle’s busses and schools are bursting at the seams. Traffic gridlock remains a constant, and as one neighborhood after another gets terraformed – 27 major neighborhood upzones are in the pipeline – parking spaces will become mythological. Our garbage and sewage systems are beyond their capacities. And, of course, our social services are wholly inadequate to the demand as Seattle’s gap between rich and poor widens.

Seattle, like a handful of other cities (including Portland and Vancouver B.C.), has pioneered a new political and ideological alliance to justify its rapid growth this century: the need for urban density in response to climate change became an environmental justification for real estate development at any cost. In Seattle, this meant that 20-year neighborhood plans, carefully developed with resident input, were simply ignored under the mayorships of Nickels, McGinn, Murray, and now Durkan. When neighborhood councils strongly objected, the city just stopped funding the councils. When commercial and residential property values (and rental and lease rates) skyrocketed as a result, the city doubled down, in the Randian (and idiotic) belief that more extremely expensive new housing would somehow be a solution for the loss of existing affordable housing stock.

In short, many of Seattle’s growth problems can be traced directly to city leaders’ past, decades-long failure to plan to address the consequences of future growth. Even now, in the EHT debate, the city’s Housing Now fiction that thousands of homeless are being housed each year is apparently preventing leaders like Mayor Durkan from acknowledging that at least until new public housing comes on line, still-exploding housing costs inevitably mean that we need to plan for even more homelessness in coming years. (Conveniently, while this year’s “one night count” was taken in January, its sure-to-be-a-new-record results aren’t set to be released until the end of this month, after the EHT vote.) Perpetually ignoring today’s problem has required, for decades, that they not be anticipated as even bigger future problems.

Fixing those problems won’t be easy. Seattle’s options for funding solutions are limited. Thanks largely to its lack of an income tax, our state has the most regressive tax system in the country, and a study released last month showed Seattle to have the most regressive taxes in the state. Lowe and middle class taxpayers in Seattle are already maxxed out.

The city tried to address this last year by passing a high earners’ income tax, but that measure is on hold pending court challenges. That leaves local big businesses as the only remaining stakeholders financially capable of absorbing a major initiative. The only alternative is increased property or sales taxes that will, essentially, tax the poor to help the poor. It’s a complete negation of the social contract that liberals in particular are supposed to hold dear.

That social contact – the basis for the “commonwealth” language beloved by this country’s founders – is the centuries-old notion that justifies modern government. It holds that we, as individuals in a society, surrender some of our rights in order that other, larger rights might be protected. A corollary is the inverse: that we do better as a society when we each do better individually. An injury to one is an injury to all.

No one bill can solve the many problems brought on by Seattle’s poorly planned growth. Housing and homelessness are only a part of what’s gone wrong – though they’re arguably the most urgent part, the part with an ongoing death toll. And the EHT bill is an important step, but only one step, in addressing these crises. But if even this proposal can’t be passed – after eight months of negotiation, for a tax Seattle has already had – how will anything else succeed?

Does Seattle, as a city, want to honor its social contract? Or does it want to adapt to climate change by becoming a comfortable ark for the wealthy, floating on ever-rising sea levels while everyone else drowns?

When Amazon issued its threat, EHT bill co-sponsors issued a statement insisting that the debate over their bill wasn’t about Amazon. Of course, it is, at least for that certain type of owned politician Seattle has always had.

But in a broader view, the co-sponsors are right. Honoring our social contract – before the path to arkdom becomes irreversible – is more important than what any one company, no matter how large, chooses to do. And setting precedents isn’t just an Amazon concern. If Seattle stands up to its corporate overlord, that statement of priorities will resonate far and wide.

Seattle should call Amazon’s bluff. The city council should pass the EHT proposal without weakening it, and Mayor Durkan should sign it.

The alternative future, in which the debate is over which and how many of us are disposable, looks a lot like that town hall mob in Ballard.