Snohomish County proposes 0.1% sales tax increase to fund affordable housing

Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst (left) and Snohomish County Councilmember Stephanie Wright (right).

Seeking more funding for affordable housing, the Snohomish County Council is considering a proposal to raise sales tax across the county by 0.1%. The measure could go into effect by the end of the year.

Last week, the Snohomish County Council introduced a plan to raise the countywide sales tax rate to pay for additional affordable housing units. With the funds, county officials estimate they can more than double the number of new affordable units in the next five years. 

A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15 to allow for community input, but residents will not be able to vote on the matter. Under a new Washington state law, county leaders have the power to levy the sales tax to fund affordable housing without voter approval. The council is set to vote on the measure after the hearing.

During the Dec. 1 county council meeting, Snohomish County District 1 Councilmember Nate Nehring said he objected to the proposal’s rushed timeline, which goes against the traditional process.

“Typically, proposals to increase the sales tax rate are placed on the ballot for a vote of the people,” he said. “In this case, a loophole passed by the state Legislature is being used to avoid a public vote. That isn’t right.” 

Additionally, Nehring said there’s no reason the tax needs to be rushed through with minimal transparency, and that council members who support the increase should plead their case to constituents “through a robust process of public input and deliberation.”

Nehring said he is drafting an amendment which, if passed, would send this proposal to the ballot for a public vote.

As housing prices across the region soar, many have expressed the need for more affordable housing but say a new tax isn’t the way to go. In Lynnwood, city leaders have repeatedly said they oppose increasing the sales tax, noting the city’s current sale tax is 10.5% – among the highest in the state.

“It really is putting the city council in a tough position because we really don’t want the sales tax to increase,” said Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst.

Should the county council decide to raise the tax, Hurst said he would prefer that the city maintain control over the funds, which he estimated would be between $2.2 million and $2.6 million each year. 

In 2009, the county approved a 0.1% chemical dependency and mental health sales tax that Hurst estimated has generated more than $150 million but the city hasn’t benefited much from. Between 2017-21, the city received just over $37,000 from the tax for the Lynnwood Senior Center and First Responder Flex Funds. 

“They (the county) haven’t built detox beds, they haven’t built mental health facilities,” he said. “So, my concern is what are they going to do with this money that is supposedly for housing?”

Last month, the city council sent a letter to county officials opposing “any increase in the sales tax rate in our county and specifically in the City of Lynnwood.” The letter was met with its own opposition from state leaders and housing advocates, some of whom gave public comment during the Lynnwood City Council’s Nov. 8 business meeting

Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County Executive Director Mark Smith said it’s easy to vote against taxes but added that any vision for Lynnwood “needs to include a safe, healthy and affordable home for everyone,” and the sales tax would assist that effort countywide.

In a press release, County Councilmember Stephanie Wright – who represents District 3 that includes Edmonds and Lynnwood – said it is a “moral imperative” that the council authorize the tax.

“There are people throughout Snohomish County who are being forced to choose between food, medicine and losing their home. This is not just a crisis for those experiencing or living on the verge of homelessness but one that affects the safety and economic health of our entire county,” she said. “We have the opportunity to make significant, long-term impacts on homelessness, and to provide holistic services that address the root causes.”

In an email, Edmonds resident Tom Nicholson called the fast-tracked proposal “outrageous” and said that he and others plan to testify during the Dec. 15 public hearing. 

“We hope that we can change their mind and demand a public vote on something that is as fundamental as sales tax increase,” he said. “The fact that they say this is designated for affordable housing and homelessness is without merit.”

Snohomish County Councilmember Jared Mead – who represents District 4, which includes Mountlake Terrace and Brier – did not respond to requests for a comment.

–By Cody Sexton

  1. Thank you for this informative article. I was unaware that the legislature changed the law so that the people have no vote on an increase in sales tax. This law should be changed.
    I never cease to be amazed that many politicians don’t see any correlation be taxes and the cost of living, including housing.

  2. I have lived in Edmonds for almost 40 years and never seen beggars and homeless people in our area like I see today. A friend visiting Edmonds last fall recently commented that homelessness in our area was terrible and she didn’t understand why it was such a problem? This was uncomfortable as I have always loved and been proud to live in Edmonds.

    Ironically I was trying to help a relative with severe mental illness find a place to live because he was homeless. I worked with him for a month through the county 211 system as we were told by the Housing Authority it was the only way to gain entrance into the housing “system”. After hours of exhaustive research calling and emailing leads for supportive housing from the 211 Housing Navigator my relative was accepted onto one waitlist in Lynnwood for supportive housing – the disclaimer in the acceptance letter noted “his wait could be as long as 10 years”. I was told by other apartment managers that most affordable apartment waitlists are so long they are closed and not taking new names as the existing waitlists are overwhelmed. These are apartments we were directed to by the 211 Housing Navigator. It was the best that 211 has to offer. The Housing Navigator admitted that little more than 5% of people who contact 211 actually find housing through Snohomish County’s 211 housing system.

    Is this who we are? Is this the world we want for our children and our children’s children?

    I support and encourage my Snohomish County Council Woman to vote yes for Ordinance 21-098. We need more affordable housing. Lack of supply of safe affordable housing is the bottleneck.

    Gay-Lynn Beighton
    District 3 Snohomish County

  3. This tax increase will cost one penny on a $10 dollar purchase. Most households spend 80% of their income on food, housing, transportation and healthcare. Very little of this is subject to sales tax. Using US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor data, it is estimated this will cost a low income household about $5.20 a year and a high income household (income of $250,000 and above) $49 per year. This measure will raise $23M every year for affordable housing, mental health facilities and related services. This is a small price to pay to help our friends and neighbors in need.

    I’m glad our elected officials are there to make these decisions. We live in a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. We, “the people”, don’t vote on tax increases or decreases at any level. We don’t vote on the city’s budget. We don’t vote on which roads get paved or which city parks get upgrades. We elect people to make these decisions because it is our elected officials that have the context and broad understanding of all of the city’s needs and issues and where more public funding best meets the greater needs of the community.

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