One of the longest-running members of the Seattle Housing Authority’s (SHA) board of commissioners stepped back just as the Seattle City Council was considering her reappointment.
Nora Gibson has been on the board for eight years and Mayor Ed Murray had selected her for reappointment.
Her appointment, along with four others Murray has made this year, is shadowed by Stepping Forward, a controversial plan to change SHA's rental structure that the agency shelved in December following strong opposition from tenants and housing advocates. Stepping Forward would have set flat rents based on the size of an apartment, and the rents would have increased incrementally over the course of six years. The proposal called for flat rents that increase every couple of years until they reached a rate that is below market rate but much higher than what some residents pay now, which is 30 percent of their income.
SHA also planned to provide workforce development training to help people get better paying jobs to afford the higher rents and, ideally, graduate from sha and move into market-rate housing, making room for the thousands of people on the agency’s waiting lists.
This year, Murray has already appointed more than half of the seven-member board — only one was a reappointment. Murray had committed in 2014 to appointing people who would oppose Stepping Forward. He appointed Zachary Pullin, communications project lead for seiu Healthcare NW, and Jermaine Smiley, assistant business manager at Laborers’ District Council, earlier this year. Both were vocal in their opposition to Stepping Forward and anything like it.
On June 8, the Seattle City Council approved two of Murray’s other appointments to the board. Emily Abbey is a new appointment to a seat reserved for sha residents. She lives in a SHA building on Queen Anne Hill and has been a resident member and co-chair of sha’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee.
Aser Ashkir is a reappointment who lives in High Point.
The Seattle City Council was deliberating on Gibson’s reappointment, when she decided to pull her name from the running. Gibson said she had heard that Councilmember John Okamoto would not support her appointment.
“I’m very passionate about public housing and supporting the Seattle Housing Authority,” Gibson told Real Change. “But I feel like it’s better for the housing authority to try to decrease the controversy and allow them to move forward together constructively.”
After a May city council hearing to interview each of the candidates, housing activists and SHA residents mobilized to oppose Gibson’s appointment. People were unhappy with how she talked about the Stepping Forward program, particularly the controversial provision that decouples people’s rent from their income.
Unlike other recent appointments, Gibson did not come out specifically against Stepping Forward and appeared to defend some of the elements, noting that she had employees who wanted reduced hours to prevent their rents from going up or becoming ineligible for housing. At a city council meeting in May, Gibson described how Stepping Forward was intended to work — providing workforce development for sha tenants while raising rents to encourage them to find better paying jobs — and said that opposition was so strong that the agency was unable to make changes to the proposal.
Sawant was not happy with Gibson’s description.
“It’s premised on the assumption that there are better jobs to be had,” Sawant said. “It’s like saying they’re lazy.”
Ashkir, who was also reappointed, described the effort as an attempt to increase the number of people who can access public housing and added that it was not ultimately the right way to go.
“I think it was not the best option; it was not the only one,” he said. “I’m sure we will come up with some other wiser proposals.”
SHA plans to discuss alternatives this year, with its officials saying that the agency faces significant financial challenges in the future as federal funding for public housing has diminished.