Hundreds of Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) tenants and supporters arrived at the High Point Community Center in West Seattle Sept. 29 with paper signs bearing the public housing provider’s house-shaped logo and phrases such as “Tax the rich” and “Show me the jobs.”
It was meant to be the final information session where SHA officials would explain Stepping Forward, a proposed plan to raise tenants’ rents over the course of six years. The meeting turned into another protest where hundreds of angry residents said the plan could leave them homeless and push more people of color and immigrants out of Seattle.
Now, members of the Seattle City Council are siding with residents and opposing SHA’s proposal.
Currently, tenants pay 30 percent of their income, no matter what they make. If the SHA Board of Commissioners approves Stepping Forward in 2015, it will set flat rents for non-elderly, non-disabled residents based on the size of their apartments. The rents will then increase every couple of years to a rate that is below the market but much higher than what many people pay today. Stepping Forward will also provide workforce training and education to help people find better paying jobs to afford the higher rents.
Partway through the session, after shouting down SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton, most protesters walked out to hold their own meeting in a gymnasium in the same building.
The group decided to urge the mayor’s office and the nine city councilmembers to fight against SHA’s proposal.
“Seattle Housing Authority is not listening,” said Yusuf Cabdi, who lives in a house managed by SHA. Cabdi was once a member of SHA’s Board of Commissioners but quit in 2012 in protest over the redevelopment of the Yesler Terrace neighborhood. “We’re going to take this fight to the city hall.”
Program could be a ‘litmus test’
Cabdi and others want the mayor and city council to use their clout to persuade the housing authority to abandon Stepping Forward.
The city has some leverage this fall. Mayor Ed Murray is set to appoint four people — a majority — to SHA’s seven-member board of commissioners. The board will have final say on Stepping Forward in early 2015.
The city council votes to confirm or reject the mayor’s candidates for appointment. Some councilmembers say each candidate’s opinion on Stepping Forward could make or break a nominee’s appointment.
“If this proposal is still alive by the time we’re appointing board members, I suspect that will be a litmus test question and no one will get through the process if they don’t oppose [Stepping Forward],” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said. “I think it is a much better process if this proposal were no longer on the table, and we could appoint board members based on a broader set of measures.”
Most councilmembers have opposed Stepping Forward, specifically questioning whether SHA’s method of raising rents is an effective tool to encourage tenants to find better jobs.
“It seems completely DOA — dead on arrival — right now,” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said to SHA officials at a Sept. 20 city council briefing on the Stepping Forward program. She added that many think the program will push people out of their housing.
“I know that’s not what SHA is trying to accomplish, but it sure feels that way,” Bagshaw said.
Stepping Forward was developed to help people find better jobs and graduate out of housing. The plan applies to some 4,600 existing households considered work-able, meaning the residents are younger than 61 and do not have a disability.
The proposed program’s higher rents are projected to bring in $13 million a year for the organization. The money, SHA leaders said, will help house 600 more families, provide workforce training for residents and manage a backlog of repairs and other capital projects the agency needs to address.
SHA officials say the program will open up space for the 9,000 people who are on a waiting list to get into housing. Another 2,000 are on a waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, which provides a subsidy to rent market-rate housing. But to make that list, people have to enter a lottery.
Executive Director Lofton has said the program provides people an opportunity to get better jobs and gives them predictability in their rental system. Currently, if any tenant receives a raise, a third of it will go to rent.
Many councilmembers disagreed at the council briefing.
“You said, Mr. Lofton, that this will provide more predictability,” Councilmember Sawant said. “What [makes residents] worried is that this will predictably make them homeless.”
Since that Sept. 20 briefing, councilmembers Bruce Harrell, Tim Burgess, Sawant and Bagshaw sent letters opposing the measure. Councilmember Sally Clark drafted a letter that all councilmembers signed opposing the rent increases and encouraging SHA to pursue the workforce development programs alone.
Burgess wrote that Stepping Forward relies on workforce development programs to help people find better paying jobs. He said his office researched workforce development programs a few years ago and was disappointed by what he saw.
“Frankly, we found a maze of workforce development programs, lack of coordination between programs, a lack of accountability and performance metrics and less than stellar outcomes,” Burgess wrote.
Councilmember Jean Godden said she was skeptical about the program, but was not ready to rule it out. She suggested that SHA start the workforce development program as a pilot before raising the rents. She was doubtful that SHA would be ready to finalize the program by January 2015.
Cabdi appreciated the council’s comments and support, but said they would need to take stronger action against SHA to stop the program, such as appointing new commissioners to the board or denying requests SHA makes to the city — the agency relies on the city council to approve projects such as the Yesler Terrace redevelopment.
“At the end of the day, you can write letters and make statements, but unless they put genuine pressure on the Seattle Housing Authority, they’re not going to back off,” Cabdi said.