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Q&A with Rep. Cindy Ryu on Microsoft’s $500 million affordable-housing pledge

Representative Cindy Ryu represents Washington’s 32nd Legislative District, which includes part of North Seattle, parts of Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds, most of Lynnwood, and the cities of Shoreline and Woodway.

Ryu chairs the Housing, Community Development & Veterans Committee, and sits on the Consumer Protection & Business and Appropriations committees. For this Q&A, we asked for her thoughts on Microsoft’s recent pledge of $500 million to “advance affordable housing solutions” in the Puget Sound region. In its blog post about the commitment, Microsoft explained that it will loan $225 million at lower than market rate returns for middle-income housing, loan $250 million at market rate returns for low-income housing, and grant $25 million to organizations that address homelessness around Seattle.

In the same blog post, Microsoft mentioned asks for the state legislature:

“In the state legislative session that began this week, we’ll encourage the legislature to support the private sector by making additional housing investments and through policy changes to preserve and develop affordable housing. These recommendations include a $200 million appropriation to the Housing Trust Fund to expand support for very-low-income individuals and families, which would almost double the investment from the last budget cycle. In addition, we will support condominium liability reforms, extending the Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE), and new incentives for local communities to enact more efficient land use polic[i]es.”

Sara Gentzler: What was your initial, broad reaction to Microsoft’s announcement?

Cindy Ryu: It’s great. I am very happy that the private sector recognizes — and, I think, everybody recognizes — that we have a problem: a housing crisis, housing supply crisis, as well as an affordability crisis and even an increasing in homelessness crisis. So I’m really happy they’re stepping up.

SG:  What about your reaction to their asks for the legislature?

CR: … I’m hoping they would entertain the notion of preservation of certain housing. For instance, I am spending a lot of time on manufactured-home communities. And, this coming year, we only have two and maybe a third one closing because they have to give twelve months’ notice. But, in the past, we were closing four, or five, or even more homes. And these are a combination of renters as well as homeowners. But they didn’t own the land, and so they were being displaced.

And so, I was hoping, if I could appeal to them — I don’t want to take away from the $25 million that they’re giving as an outright [gift] to service providers — [but] I’m wondering if they could set aside maybe $25 million, or even something as modest as $5 million, for some sort of a revolving account, so that manufactured home community homeowners … don’t have to be displaced.

So, I see a lot of hope in that $500 million.

SG: What are your thoughts on the four specific policy asks for the state legislature in their blog post?

CR: Doubling the $100 million housing trust fund — of course I’m for it. The only problem is, if we double it to $200 million, then we have to take it away from someone else or other programs. So that’s going to be a challenge. Just to stay the course with the maintenance budget, we are still going to cut something anyway. So to grow it by another $100 million is going to be a challenge.

But, yeah, if we could do it, I would love it. But how we do it, which program do we cut? That’s really going to be the question of the day for the next 102 days.

SG: What about extending the multifamily tax exemption, is that a similar story?

CR: That one, yes. Because it does impact the revenue side of things. Obviously the 12-year limit is a little too short, in my own opinion. Last year we entertained, for very limited jurisdictions, maybe extending it to 15 years. We did not pass that particular bill. But it had lots of sidebars on it.

So maybe, I don’t know if allowing the cities to do it is the right way to go or if we need to do it at the state level, but definitely willing to engage in that conversation.

SG: Do you foresee any of Microsoft’s specific asks as absolutely doable?

CR: If I were a freshman who was not sitting on an Appropriations committee, I would absolutely commit to all of them right now. As the only Housing Committee member from the House of Representatives sitting on Appropriations, I’m in a little bit of a different spot. And this is the first year I’m on Appropriations.

Before, I used to say “Yes!” to all of the bills; and then I would punt to my seatmate, Ruth Kagi, who was on the Appropriations for 20 years until she just retired. And then I realized, “Oh, she’s in a different reality here.” And so, I used to explain, “Hey, I can say yes to everything because I don’t have the responsibility of going through line-by-line, dollar-by-dollar.” So, now that I’m on the committee, I’m in her shoes.

So, policy-side, yes. I’m all-for all four of the recommendations they made and the policies they are advocating. The reality is, I actually have the responsibility now, on behalf of the entire House of Representatives, my fellow members, along with a whole bunch of other people on Appropriations committee, of making everything balance. Because that’s the bottom line: We have to make the budget balance.

SG: Does the announcement change the conversation around housing in the legislature at all?

CR: I’m not sure if it will change it as much, other than ‘Yay, we got an alternative source.’ So, yeah, we are all very excited. Obviously they are not trying to supplant any of the things we’re trying to do. So, we obviously need to continue to do what we’ve been already doing.

And, as you know, a whole bunch of us — including Representative Macri and others — we’ve been working of the revenue side of everything. We are basically of the mind that it’s everything and all hands and all forms must work on the shortage of at least 150,000 units of housing that we’re short by. And, as you know, it takes years to get them developed and actually occupiable. And so, in the meantime, what do we do?

Well, for instance: Manufactured homes. Right now, fortunately, because of the slowdown in development – it’s a good thing — we’re not closing as many parks because the demand for buildable lands is not as fierce as it was the last five years. And so, I’m looking at this as an opportunity to look at our processes, to look at our programs, and see where we need to bolster up.

SG: What do you think this kind of commitment from the private sector says about where we’re at with this issue and where state government needs to go?

CR: Many of us have been saying we need all hands on deck: We need private sector, we need churches, we need government — local and state; right now we can’t do anything about the federal. We need everyone on deck. And so, in my opinion, Microsoft’s $500 million pledge, is not just a conversation-starter, but actually an action-starter for that public-private-non-profit partnership that I think, from what I’ve read, that they are looking for.

And so, it’s great. I wish everyone — Jeff Bezos, and every other person — would also jump on this humongous ship that we can all work toward a common goal of making housing prices and access — on both the access part and the affordability part — a solution for a lot of people who are really hurting on there.

SG: And is there anything else you wanted to add?

CR: I don’t want to dilute my message that I want a $25 million revolving fund for the manufactured home community purchase of the land beneath your homes. And so that’s my one-and-only ask right now. But, yeah. Keep up the good work, Microsoft.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.