The Seattle Housing Authority’s (SHA) recently shelved Stepping Forward program galvanized a community.
Hundreds of residents came out to five public meetings SHA held in 2014 to present a proposal that would have set flat rents that increased every two years on hundreds of households. Residents took over the sessions, turning most of them into large protests of people bemoaning a plan they said would leave people homeless. SHA officials said they convened the meetings to present information and get feedback on the program, and residents responded with an emphatic, “No.”
The proposal has changed the landscape of public housing. Residents are mobilized and ready for action, with support from the Tenants Union of Washington. Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council came out against the proposal and are poised to appoint SHA board members who oppose raising rents. Together, Murray and the council will have the final say on anything the agency proposes.
Now the agency, which runs the largest network of subsidized housing in the city, is stepping back from the program. It will spend 2015 discussing how to address its financial situation as well as its long waiting list of people, filled with potential residents standing outside of the agency looking in. The agency’s challenge for the future: To find a way to continue serving people as federal dollars diminish and to serve more people from the long waiting lists without displacing current residents.
SHA unveiled Stepping Forward during the summer of 2014 as a panacea for many of its problems. Since the 2008 recession, the agency has cut 18 percent of its staff. Meanwhile, 9,000 people are on the waiting list. Every couple years, the agency opens its waiting list for Section 8 vouchers to rent market-rate apartments. Some 24,000 people signed up to participate in a lottery to get on the waiting list in 2013. There were only 2,000 spots.
SHA’s proposal hinged on the idea that providing current tenants with education and workforce development opportunities would help them find better jobs and leave subsidized housing. To promote education and employment, the agency proposed a set rent that increased every couple of years, which would have forced existing residents to find better paying jobs to meet the increasing rental costs. For example, under a draft proposal, a family in a two-bedroom apartment would have paid $160 a month for the first two years and $850 a month after six years, much higher than residents currently pay but still below market rate.
Residents will have to wait a year to know what will replace Stepping Forward. Whatever plan the agency creates, it will need to be responsive to the diverse population found in SHA housing and on the waiting list. Real Change met with several people this fall to talk about SHA, Stepping Forward and how past and future proposals might affect them — because they will.
“It’s not only Ethiopian, it’s not only Somali, it’s not only Asian; all low-income people,” said Yesler Terrace resident Abdisalan Abdulle. “It’s going to affect all low-income people no matter what happens.”
The following five profiles are of current residents and people on the waiting list. The people — men, women, parents, grandparents, workers and students — live in different neighborhoods, from Northgate to Skyway. All say that SHA’s proposal could change their lives profoundly — for better or worse.
Click on their names to go to their stories:
Sylvia Sabon, 51, Skyway
Berenice Valle, 30, Columbia City
Abdisalan Abdulle, 32, Yesler Terrace
Ellesia Wood, 45, Capitol Hill
This article won Second Place in the Social Issues/Religion & Minority Affairs Reporting category at the Washington Press Association Awards