Marilyn Strickland speech 1.16.20

“Good evening. I’m happy to be here today to talk about housing affordability, the work that you do here at Habitat, and the business case for why business should be involved in these efforts. So the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is a 137 year old organization and we are a business advocacy organization that helps our members thrive in an economy that is equitable and inclusive. And that last part of our mission statement is something that we just added recently because membership organizations need to stay relevant, influential, and be 21st century forward-thinking. So we understand that as you think about the role in business in today’s society, that role has changed.

Marilyn Strickland

There is a group of business leaders who meet every year in Washington D.C. and they call themselves “The Business Roundtable” and these represent the CEOs of the largest corporations in America. And they recently put out this statement that talked about the fact that shareholder value alone cannot be the top priority for 21st century businesses. You have to focus on your employees. You have to focus on the impact that you have on the communities in which you operate, and then yes, if you do those things well you’re actually going to be more profitable, more successful, and more able to attract talent, retain talent, and make a very positive impact on the communities in which you exist.

Now when you think about housing, I think about my experience as mayor of Tacoma from 2010 to 2017. And Tacoma and Seattle are very different communities. Seattle is what I call the prom queen who comes back to the 20-year high school reunion. She does pilates, she lives in a really, really nice house, she drives a fancy car, has a perfect life, and things are just going really well for her. Tacoma comes back to the 20-year reunion and you know, back in high school she kind of hung out behind the building and smoked cigarettes, didn’t really try as hard as she could have. But we see her 20 years later and you’re like, “Wow! Who is that? She is amazing! And she is smart. And she is fabulous! And I want to be like her.” I say this in jest because Tacoma and Seattle in this region, we are all part of one metropolitan region. We are one family. And sometimes siblings aren’t identical, but they belong together because they know each other and they are of each other. 

So as we thing about the housing affordability crisis that we are facing here in this metro region, there is a study that came out about a week and a half ago. And there is an organization that I belong to called “Up for Growth”. And we’re an advocacy organization that tries to influence policy to get more housing built across Washington State. And reports say that from 2010 to 2015, there was underproduction of 225,000 units of housing in Washington State. And as you may guess, most of that happened within the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Tacoma in just the main Puget Sound region. And this a function of many things. Number one, we just never expected the type of growth that we’re having up and down the corridor. The cost of construction is really, really expensive. And also too, the marriage between transportation and housing, which we really didn’t think of decades ago because we just kind of kept building out but we didn’t think about the impact of mass transit with housing. And I often say to folks that housing affordability and where you locate housing must have a nexus with transit. I say to folks if you have access to affordable, reliable mass transit, you have a more equitable economy because you shouldn’t have to own a car to fully participate in the economy. Now if you visit other cities around the country, car ownership is optional. It’s not required to participate in the economy. 

Now with that said, I think about the work that Habitat does and they’ve been doing for years. When I was mayor of Tacoma, I had an opportunity to be part of a build that was on the eastside of Tacoma. Now I will admit I was not working a tool belt or donning a hammer, but we thought about what do these families need. And this was kind of before the internet took off and everyone had access at home. So we decided to actually provide every family with a set of library books for children. So they had a dictionary, a thesaurus, an atlas, and just some basic children’s books that were part of the literary canon for kids. And these books shelves filled with books were so well-received and we did this because we wanted to make sure that these families really felt like this was home. And if you think about your homes, and what’s important to you, everyone has a collection of books more or less. Or you did before all the e-books came out. So this is really about a place to call home. 

And for some families, they are constantly moving because they do not have stable housing. There is an elementary school in Tacoma on Hilltop called McCarver Elementary School and the churn rate of those families is 110%. So when I was mayor of Tacoma, I put a challenge up to our entire community and I said this, education and stable housing are completely related to each other. So I challenged our housing authority to think about how we could stabilize housing. They came up with a program using vouchers from HUD where they took a group of families and said if you stay put for five years, we will give you housing vouchers to make sure that your kids stay in school from kindergarten to fifth grade. Literacy levels went up, the parents were able to find jobs if they were unemployed. It had a huge impact. So when we think about housing, you know this, it is so much more than just putting a roof over someone’s head. It’s stability, it’s a place to call home, it has an impact on education options for children, and it just benefits our communities.

Now I was lucky. My parents bought their house. My father was in the military and then he retired. My mother was a stay-at-home mom which by the way is a ton of work. And on one income, we purchased a house for $17,000 back in the day. Our house was paid off before I was out of high school. That was a very typical experience of home ownership when housing was more affordable. Today, over 48% of households are what you call “cost-burdened” which means they spend more than 30% of their income on rent or a mortgage. If you go back further in the history of America, I think about the fact that after the Civil War was over, freed slaves, about 3 million people, were promised land grants of 40 acres, where they could become property owners and landowners, but that promise was never fulfilled. And when we talk about intergenerational wealth or lack thereof, imagine the fortunes of some families if that promise had been fulfilled after the Civil War. 

So homeownership is essential to financial stability. In this economy, sometimes owning a condo is the first step, or having a chance to own a Habitat home is the first step. So as we think about the role of business in this, this is not just a social services issue. It is good business to make sure that our families have stable homes. It’s an opportunity for the private sector, architects, engineers, builders, union trades people to help work on houses. And with Habitat for Humanity it is a model of sweat equity that allows families to put skin in the game, to have some ownership, to have some pride, to build some financial equity and hopefully, move on to financial stability. We think about the American Dream and what it used to mean, what it should mean, and what it means today. And there are too many people and families who are being shut out of that opportunity. Habitat for Humanity is one of those organizations that can help people realize that dream. 

As people who support business, as people who work in business, as business owners, as employees of large corporations, it is imperative that we step up and fulfill our responsibility to help those who need our help. And there’s no one way to be helpful. You can volunteer to serve on a board. You can ask your company to donate. You can participate and advocate for policies that make sense. But there is a role that business has to play and don’t let anyone tell you that it has to be prescriptive. You decide how you want to give but make sure that you show up, and that you’re vocal about what needs to happen. 

Now in Washington State, this board that I serve on with Up for Growth, we talk about some policies that have to change and improve to make housing more affordable. Believe it or not, in Seattle for example, nearly 60% of the zoning in Seattle does not allow multi-family housing. So that means no duplexes, no triplexes, no apartments. Now when you look around sometimes you think to yourself, “Where would they even build an apartment building in some of these neighborhoods?” There actually is land that is available. So the Seattle Metro Chamber was proud to be part of a mandatory housing affordability effort to make sure that zoning allowed more multi-family housing so that more people had more choices. And at the end of the day we want to make sure that every person who calls this place home has a roof over their head for every age and every stage of their lives. And one question I want to pose to all of us is this, “What does it mean to be securely housed in a metropolitan region like Seattle in the 21st century? Does every apartment have to be 1,500 square feet? Are we open to the idea that three generations can live under one roof and that is perfectly acceptable? Do we think about housing that is higher and goes up many, many floors to get more people in them?” 

This is not about tearing down neighborhoods. It’s about all of us collectively saying that every person deserves a place to call home. And it’s so much more than a roof over your head. It’s stability, it’s helping children do better in school, it’s better for neighborhoods, it’s better for safety, it’s just something that we all have a responsibility to do. So I’m going to stop there and thank you for the opportunity to be here tonight.”