Seattleites are used to rent increases these days.
Those living in the private market see rents jump month to month or year to year as market forces push the cost to live in the city ever upward, while regressive property taxes are distributed to the tenant class.
If the federal government has its way, people experiencing the deepest poverty in the United States will get a chance to share in that feeling of insecurity.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a proposal in April that would cause rents to jump up an average of $600 a year for Washington residents in federally subsidized housing, according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank.
That could mean a 44 percent increase in the cost of housing for 4 million U.S. households, averaging as much as $117 a month, according to the analysis.
In a time when a $100 rent increase in the private market is correlated to a 15 percent increase in homelessness, according to an oft-cited study in the Journal of Urban Affairs, the impact on the poorest citizens could be devastating.
“That could make the difference between a sick family member getting the medication that they need, or that money could go out of food budget,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “Really, $100 is a significant enough amount that could make the difference between being able to pay rent and not.”
Local housing authorities aren’t taking the proposal well.
“We are still sorting all of this out, so I don’t have anything I can share with you other than to say this is an unconscionable approach,” wrote Rhonda Rosenberg, director of communications for King County Housing Authority, in an email.
Under the HUD-penned legislation, households in federally subsidized units would see the amount of rent that they are liable for increase from 30 percent of adjusted income to 35 percent of gross income. That terminology is wonky, but adjusted income allows families to lower their reported income by deducting certain expenses related to necessary activities such as medical and child care costs.
That means the poorest tenants would pay a higher percentage of a larger dollar figure than they do currently.
The poorest who pay a “minimum rent” of $50 a month would see that amount tripled.
There are 430 households in housing owned or managed by the Seattle Housing Authority and 1,208 households with Housing Choice Vouchers administered by SHA that pay minimum rent. The latter may currently pay less than $50 a month.
In addition, local housing authorities would have the freedom to impose work requirements on their tenants, forcing them to work a certain number of hours or lose their subsidy.
Although that might sound good to folks in the “just get a job already” crowd, it’s not so simple.
Some laborious “jobs” don’t involve wages, such as caring for a child or an elderly person, Bauman said. If subject to work requirements, such families would have to find child care and shoulder transportation burdens.
“One of the problems with these types of work programs, especially when born out of this paternalistic attitude and ignorance of the population, is that a lot of these people who are subject to work requirements are essentially being treated like children who have never had work before,” Bauman said.
The proposal would also allow housing authorities to establish other kinds of alternative rent structures, such as “tiered” or “stepped” rents. Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) considered such a program in 2014 that would have instituted rents based on the size of a tenant’s apartment. Under the discarded “Stepping Forward” program, a family in a two-bedroom apartment would have paid $160 a month in its first two years in the unit, increasing to $850 in year seven.
SHA put “Stepping Forward” on hold at the end of 2014 after significant outcry from tenants. At the time, Executive Director Andrew Lofton sent a letter to former Mayor Ed Murray saying that the organization would come back with a proposal within the year.
That did not happen.
SHA had the ability to implement the “Stepping Forward” program because it is one of 39 HUD-designated “Moving to Work” housing authorities, as is King County Housing Authority. The designation gives such housing authorities greater flexibility with how they can spend federal money, allowing them to tailor programs to local conditions.
SHA believes that its Moving To Work status would shield it from some of these new requirements, but nothing is certain, said Kerry Coughlin, communications director with SHA.
“There are things that HUD could do to take away flexibility in this case,” Coughlin said.
A reminder: The average SHA tenant makes less in a year than HUD Secretary Ben Carson spent on a dining set.
The potential increase in rents isn’t the only way that this administration, which handed a $1 trillion tax cut to the wealthiest Americans and corporations, wants to take money out of the pockets of poor people.
The Trump administration has approved waivers for states seeking to add work requirements to Medicaid programs. It’s considering similar conditions for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. It has also discussed changing the structure of that program from one that allows people to buy food of their choice in grocery stores to a government-issued box of staples.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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