On Feb. 11, Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) tenants got a chance to ask questions of Mayor Ed Murray’s two nominees to the sha Board of Commissioners, and many left feeling optimistic.
“On the basis of what I heard tonight, both are highly qualified,” said Glenn Slemmer, a member of sha’s Resident Action Council (RAC) and Resident Leadership Development Team. “They speak to my concerns.”
Jermaine Smiley, assistant business manager at Laborers’ District Council, and Zachary Pullin, communications project lead for SEIU Healthcare NW, discussed their backgrounds, goals and priorities at City Hall. Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark called it “a chance for residents to hear directly from people who will have significant policy control over SHA.”
Murray nominated Smiley and Pullin in November to replace outgoing commissioners John Littel and Juan Martinez. Clark said the Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee will vote to confirm the nominees on Feb. 19, given that no strong concerns emerge before then. If confirmed, the nominations will head to a full council vote on Feb. 23.
At the meeting, both nominees reinforced what they’ve said in the past: They are against SHA proposals that would require tenants pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. Stepping Forward, sha’s 2014 proposal to raise rents in order to manage federal cuts, was put on hold in response to resident protests (“Not so fast,” RC, Dec. 23, 2014).
Smiley and Pullin described Moving to Work, a federal program that allows a number of housing authorities more flexibility in determining policies, as a double-edged sword.
“The positive is that it provides flexibility and thoughtful, creative approaches,” Pullin said. “But it also allowed SHA to create Stepping Forward.”
For many residents, those answers were vital. The board of commissioners must approve any change to SHA’s rental structure, so some see these nominations as a way to prevent Stepping Forward or a similar policy from rearing its head in the future.
“They passed the litmus test,” said Kristin O’Donnell, president of the RAC. “I’m feeling really excellent about them.”
Several in the room said the nominees’ backgrounds — Smiley lived in a King County Housing Authority unit in White Center as a kid; Pullin was born on a reservation in Montana — stood out to them.
“They’ve been in the same shoes that we are right now,” said Abdisalan Abdulle, resident of Yesler Terrace. “I’m going to give them a chance and see what they do.”
Smiley also addressed one of Abdisalan’s main concerns: Job opportunities. Smiley said a top priority would be expanding access and awareness of federally mandated construction jobs for low-income people, as well as providing more training and job fairs.
Both nominees said they would advocate for more tenant representation on the seven-person board, as well as more transparency in policymaking. Pullin suggested residents attend board meetings and board members undergo some of the same processes residents encounter, such as filling out housing applications and experiencing appeal hearings.
Residents said the tenant community is very supportive of Pullin and Smiley but is cautiously optimistic about future policies. Considering federal budget cuts, O’Donnell said, “There will probably have to be policy changes that don’t make people happy.”
Lynn Sereda, a board member of the Tenants Union of Washington State, said she sees Pullin and Smiley as a reflection of the way the community organized against Stepping Forward. She added she was happy they talked about creating a more positive public perception of subsidized housing.
“These are two examples of public housing not being a failure,” she said.
Residents said they are excited by the amount of public involvement in nominating Pullin and Smiley. Question-and-answer sessions are not typical for the SHA board, but O’Donnell and others said they want it to be part of the process moving forward, especially with more upcoming board nominations coming up. Murray is due to nominate another board position reserved for SHA tenants, and in March, board president Nora Gibson’s second and final term will end.
Pullin and Smiley said resident involvement is something they want to continue after they are confirmed.
Smiley told Real Change, “What we did tonight should be required of the whole board, Period.”