SEATTLE -- On Monday, we sat down with Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who supports the proposed employee head tax on big businesses but she is also behind an amendment that would ban those tax dollars from being used to "sweep," or clear out, unauthorized homeless camps.
If the employee tax passes, businesses making $20 million or more will have to pay $500 per employee every year. It’s estimated to raise $75 million every year that city leaders say will be used to build affordable housing.
Last Wednesday, Amazon announced it was pausing construction on a new office tower in downtown Seattle while the city debates a controversial “progressive tax on business.” The projects they've paused would bring 7,000+ new jobs to the Seattle, plus the construction-related jobs.
Amazon Vice President Drew Herdener provided the following statement to Q13 News:
“I can confirm that pending the outcome of the head tax vote by City Council, Amazon has paused all construction planning on our Block 18 project in downtown Seattle and is evaluating options to sub-lease all space in our recently leased Rainier Square building.”
In Seattle, there are 400 unsanctioned homeless encampments. Navigation teams can’t remove them all but will spend weeks doing outreach at these encampments offering campers help.
The navigation team says the encampments that end up being removed are sites ridden with human feces and other sanitation issues. Often, open drug use and crime become problems.
But Sawant says year after year the city and the mayor’s office has spent millions and it hasn’t solved homelessness.
Sawant, who is a socialist, wants tax dollars used on hygiene and other resources so campers at the 400 unauthorized encampments can stay where they are.
We asked Sawant a series of questions and she didn’t hold back, calling Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a bully and some residents upset over the encampments as right-wing NIMBYists, an acronym for Not In My Back Yard.
Q: A lot of the times homeowners are saying they are compassionate towards homelessness (but) they are not compassionate when it comes to lawlessness. What is your message to those homeowners negatively impacted and not getting the help?
A: “I think a lot of ordinary people who own homes, who are renting, are being impacted by, you know, they are being impacted by increased incidences of house break-ins and car break-ins -- my own car was broken into -- but if you want a real solution to the problem you are worried about, then it's not going to be solved by blaming homeless people."
Q: So far we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars; there are people angry that they are not seeing improvements. They directly blame City Council members like yourself, for mismanagement of funds?
A: “I think the media is paying too much attention to the few very, very loud right-wing NIMBYists who showed up to the council meeting at Ballard."
Q: Is it fair to call them right-wing NIMBYs? Many of these people voted for (fellow City Council member) Mike O’Brien?
A: “I think the people who went to Ballard and spewed anti-homeless slurs, that is a right-wing approach."
She was referring to a town hall meeting last week in Ballard, where angry homeowners say campers are stealing from their homes and defecating on their property.
Q: As a city leader, is it responsible to call Jeff Bezos a bully in your tweet?
A: Jeff Bezos is a bully, I think we are in broad agreement on that. We saw the tweet from Bernie Sanders. What is happening is Amazon and Jeff Bezos are using their incomprehensible amount of wealth to hold an entire city hostage, to hold construction jobs hostage, saying they can’t pay a pocket change worth of taxes -- that’s the behavior of a bully."
If the head tax passes, it would affect 600 of the biggest businesses in Seattle raising about $75 million a year. We asked Sawant how many affordable housing units the money would build.
She didn’t know the answer during the interview, but said, “Seventy-five percent of the amount of money will be raised by taxing big businesses, mind you -- not your ordinary homeowner. (It) will go towards building what I call social housing, will go towards social housing."
Later in the day, a city council spokesperson got back to Q13 News to say that the $75 million would go towards building 1780 affordable units in over 5 years.
The issue will come up for a vote this week in committee. It needs five of nine votes to pass. A full council vote is expected on Monday when it also needs five council members to support to pass.
It’s unclear where Mayor Jenny Durkan stands on the issue, whether she will support or veto the tax. If she vetoes it, the City Council can vote again when six votes are needed to override Durkan’s veto.
Q13 News reached out to Amazon about Sawant calling Bezos a bully. Amazon did not address the name-calling and re-released Herdener's statement from last week.
Between 2010 to 2016, Amazon’s investment resulted in an additional $38 billion to the city’s economy. It’s the kind of investment many are worried will disappear.
Sawant says many unions support the head tax but construction unions have come out loudly in opposition.
Union leaders say about 20,000 workers in King County alone are against the measure and they worry that working-class families will lose their jobs.
Here is the full interview: