Seattle's Socialist City Council Member Thinks Housing Is a Human Right—Unless it Comes at the Expense of Music Venues

Khsama Sawant is doing everything in her power to kill a 442-unit apartment project because it would replace an iconic concert hall.


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Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant favors raising more money for affordable housing, except when she doesn't.

A few months ago, Sawant was fighting for the "Amazon tax," a literal tax on jobs that would have raised some $75 million annually to fund affordable housing and services for the homeless. Now, however, the one self-identified socialist on the Seattle City Council is doing her best to kill a proposed downtown building that would provide 442 apartments and $5 million for the city's affordable housing fund from the project's developer, the Canadian company Onni.

Sawant is willing to forgo that money because the apartment building would replace a music venue that currently occupies the spot, Seattle's iconic Showbox. "If we let the Showbox be demolished, then everything else is moot," Sawant warned Bloomberg last week.

The fight for the Showbox, where performers such as Duke Ellington and Pearl Jam have appeared, began in late July, when it was first reported that Onni's project would require the venue's demolition. A petition calling for the preservation of the concert hall netted nearly 100,000 signatures and the endorsement of famous Seattle artists such as Macklemore, Guns and Roses bassist Duff McKagan, and Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard. The cause was quickly picked up by Sawant, who introduced legislation last week to declare the Showbox part of the nearby Pike Place Market Historical District, which would essentially kill Onni's project.

On Monday, the city council unanimously passed a temporary, 10-month expansion of the historical district, while it mulls whether to make the change permanent. That move prevents Onni from going forward with its planned apartment building for the time being and ensures that any zoning changes can be imposed retroactively.

Helping to kill off a housing project that would add hundreds of new units to the overpriced city in order to save one of Seattle's many music venues might seem slightly hypocritical coming from Sawant. She has called housing a "human right," a right she is now subordinating to preservation of a concert hall. She supported a "linkage fee" that new developments would pay into the affordable housing fund but is now ready to pass up the $5 million offered by Onni.

Last year Sawant voted to rezone the land on which the Showbox sits, which is what made Onni's proposed apartment building possible in the first place. Now she is having second thoughts.

Sawant insisists her Showbox-saving efforts will not cost the city affordable housing. "This is not about affordable housing, and I don't think we should accept councilmembers who say this is about affordable housing," Sawant said during last week's city council meeting. "It is about the community going up against a big developer."

The Stranger quotes Sawant as saying, "We will succeed in saving the Showbox, but…this could be the catalyst for the future struggle for affordable housing. Maybe we can win the Amazon tax that was repealed; maybe we can win a tax on big businesses. Why should we stop with just saving the Showbox?"

The idea that saving a music venue will ultimately lead to more affordable housing seems far-fetched. The city is obviously out the $5 million fee that would have subsidized new housing. And while the apartments that Onni wants to build would not necessarily be affordable for low-income renters, killing the project will only serve to raise rents further across the city as the tenants who otherwise would have lived in the new building bid up prices for the existing housing units.

There is also a concern that the city council's flipflopping on the Showbox site will set a bad precedent that will further constrain the housing supply in Seattle. "The council has shown that they will overturn major land-use policy decisions that took years to develop in response to concerted public pressure from vocal interest groups," observes Erica Barnett at the Seattle housing blog The C is for Crank, noting that there is little to stop the city council from bending to public pressures on future developments.

I think that's a fair concern. The 10-month pause may prompt Onni, which does not yet own the site, to walk away from the project. It's also possible the current owner will sue the city for the reversing the rezoning, arguing that it's a taking of his property without due process. Sawant has suggested the city might buy and operate the Showbox. Whatever happens with the concert hall, it looks increasingly unlikely that Seattle will see new housing on the site anytime soon.