Seattle’s Head Tax and the Homeless

Seattle is booming economically, and we have a terrible problem with homelessness. The other day I walked by an upscale apartment building in Belltown. Young techies were leaving on their way to work, literally stepping over three people in filthy sleeping bags who’d taken up residence in the doorway and were there overnight.

The city instituted what was called a “head tax”, a per employee tax on businesses grossing over 20M annually, the proceeds to be used to fund solutions to the homeless problem. Almost as soon as the tax was passed by City Council, and uproar ensued and petitions were circulated to roll back the “job killing tax.” Sure enough, City Council folded.

“Less than a month after it passed unanimously, the $275-per-employee tax on businesses grossing more than $20 million annually is set to be undone by the Seattle City Council. On Monday, Council President Bruce Harrell announced that he is sponsoring legislation to repeal the contentious tax estimated to generate $47 million annually for homelessness services, emergency shelters, and affordable housing that is poised to take effect in January 2019. Harrell expects the council to vote on the repeal legislation during a special council meeting on Tuesday at noon. A joint statement in support of the legislation released by Mayor Jenny Durkan and seven councilmembers on Monday indicates that the measure has enough votes to pass, casting uncertainty on the source of additional funding needed to address the city’s rampant homelessness crisis.”

I have really mixed feelings about this one. It’s not clear where money will come from to address the plight of homeless people living on our streets. But our large employers are saying it’s not coming from them.

We want things as a society: money for infrastructure, for emergencies like Hurricane Sandy, for health care, for the homeless. But we apparently also want tax cuts for the rich, which means the federal government isn’t going to fund those common goods. Employers aren’t either.

Not clear where we go from here.

2 thoughts on “Seattle’s Head Tax and the Homeless

  1. Just read about Amazon’s pressure to avoid a “head tax” which would cost the company a pittance. Is there a philosophical or practical basis for their position? Their excuse seems to be that the Çity government does not spend its money wisely. I recommend reading “Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean to understand the underpinnings of a philosophy of property rights that is strongly supported by the Koch brothers and others. Does Jeff Bezos fit in there?

    We who lived in Rochester during the 1960’s when Kodak was still robust thought that the company cared about the community. It certainly supported community institutions but I suppose we didn’t really know what they were about. They were ultimately accused of paternalism by Saul Alinsky but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing?

  2. for Linda: I don’t know much about how Jeff Bezos thinks, but I’m guessing he doesn’t consider himself allied with the Koch brothers. I think Amazon and other large Seattle employers simply don’t want to be on the hook for solving the homeless problem, which seems so far like an open-ended rolling disaster. Too unpredictable, with no way to manage or predict costs. Have you read about the philanthropic efforts of Laurene Powell Jobs? Her Emerson Collective seems fundamentally different to me from what Kodak used to do in its heyday in Rochester. Rather than work through community organizations, she’s funding and operating her own initiatives on social justice, education, and climate change.

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