Small tax on Uber, Lyft rides will help drivers and housing affordability

Sep. 22, 2019 at 12:01 pm

As Seattle continues its unprecedented growth in population and wealth, affordable housing production and investments in transportation are falling far short of the need. Many of our neighbors are left wondering how they will manage to stay in the city they call home. The housing crisis we now find ourselves in undermines the collective benefits that economic growth should bring to any city.

Our region’s sustained vitality depends on policies that support inclusive, equitable and livable communities fostering stability and economic resilience. Working people in Seattle are struggling to make it on incomes that aren’t keeping pace with some of the highest rental costs in the nation. King County’s Equal Housing Opportunity Report shows that the lowest-income households, working families, people of color, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities and seniors are disproportionately affected.

Mayor Jenny Durkan just responded with proposed legislation that will provide worker protections for thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers; increase investment in transportation projects; and provide more affordable housing near transit for low-wage workers. This is an opportunity to leverage our city’s growth and ensure essential labor standards while also tackling the two biggest cost burdens for low-wage households: housing and transportation.

More than 30,000 people are licensed to drive for Uber and Lyft in Seattle and King County. Many are immigrants and people of color, for whom this is their full-time job. Yet these gig-economy workers are not protected by the minimum-wage law. Every person has the right to fair pay and worker protections; it’s time for those rights to be extended to Uber and Lyft drivers.

Services like Uber and Lyft play a big part in Seattle’s booming economy. But we must recognize that these rides don’t happen in a vacuum. They add more vehicles and have both tangible and intangible impacts on roads, public resources and people. Last year, Uber and Lyft had more than 24 million rides in the city of Seattle, half of which either started or ended downtown. The city expects that number to grow to 28 million this year and continue to rise.

For these reasons, we need to increase our investments in safe streets and transportation projects to match our region’s growing demands. We also can ensure that ride-hail companies are contributing to thriving, livable communities by implementing a modest tax on trips to fund transportation improvements and affordable housing near transit. Durkan’s Fare Share plan includes a 51-cent charge on Uber and Lyft per ride. The tax is estimated to raise $25 million a year over the next five years.

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The proposal would direct $52 million in total over five years toward affordable housing near transit, focusing on families and individuals making between $15-$25 per hour. It would also support $56 million in investments to fully fund the Center City Connector streetcar and establish an independent, and first-in-the-nation, Driver Resolution Center to help drivers resolve workplace issues.

From passing the nation’s highest minimum wage to connecting neighborhoods via light rail, Seattle knows good policy makes lives, and economies, better. The mayor’s proposed legislation is a timely and smart example of that tradition.