Op-Ed: Making a difference for homelessness and business
By Councilmember Mike O'Brien
Last year, over 3,400 people exited homelessness in Seattle. Lifting people out of homelessness is hard work that needs resources, compassionate case managers, and investments in temporary shelters and permanent housing.
The work that the City and community have already done to address homelessness has impacted the lives of many. People like Alice were able to get back on their feet because of the investments the City has made in outreach, temporary shelter and permanent housing.
Alice, a Native American woman, has lived 20 years on the streets of Ballard, her home. After 5 years of connections, outreach workers were able to connect Alice to the City’s sanctioned encampment program and eventually place her in affordable housing. Because of City investments, she now has keys to a Ballard apartment and has since started volunteering at a Ballard homeless services program.
We want to help thousands like Alice, but our efforts have plateaued. The crisis continues to worsen due to rising rents, growing income inequality, and defunded mental health and opioid treatment services from the state and federal government.
I hear from people all the time: we need more places for people. More tiny homes, more sanctioned encampments, more safe zones for vehicles, and definitely more housing. I couldn’t agree more. The question is: how do we build on our successes, and create a pipeline to shelter and housing, when our revenue options are limited?
Last year, then-Councilmember Kirsten Harris-Talley and I proposed generating the necessary resources by asking those businesses that had benefited the most from our economic boom to contribute a few cents an hour for each employee to pay for housing, shelter, and services for those left behind. With consultation from the Progressive Revenue Task Force, that proposal has evolved at Council and now includes the following elements:
- Exempt Seattle’s small and medium-sized businesses, only applying to those with at least $20 million or more annually in taxable gross receipts as measured under the City’s existing Business & Occupation tax;
- Applies only to the City’s approximately 500 largest businesses (or approximately 3% of Seattle’s business owners);
- Large businesses included will pay just about a quarter ($0.26) per hour per employee working in Seattle;
- All nonprofit businesses in Seattle are exempt;
- The employee hours tax will be replaced by a business payroll tax on January 1, 2021;
- For those same approximately 500 largest businesses, the replacement business payroll tax will be calculated as 0.7 percent of all payroll related to work done in Seattle.
Seattle’s small businesses, about 97 percent of all businesses in the city, will not be taxed by this proposal. Just the opposite, this proposal does much of what many small businesses want to see in responding to the crisis – it creates more safe and appropriate places for people to go. I know how hard small business owners work to be successful; they are struggling under the same unequal economic forces that have exacerbated the homelessness crisis. Many small business owners take home less income than their workers to stay afloat, and still have to pay income taxes. Because of our unequal tax system, companies making the most revenue do not pay comparable income taxes. Amazon made $5 billion last year and paid zero federal income taxes. And while philanthropic efforts are appreciated, these efforts pale in comparison to a systemic and sustained approach addressing the inequities that our economic boom has created.
This proposal is not meant to demonize high-grossing businesses, but rather to create more fairness in the system, and to fund the solutions that will benefit everybody, including businesses of all sizes. Helping people is not a zero-sum game. With this investment, we will jumpstart a regional and sustained approach to homelessness that will make a difference for our unsheltered population, and our businesses.