Just two short months ago, Toya Thomas, Michelle Dozier and E.J. James did not know one another.
The three women all live in the same apartment complex, Renton Woods. James and Dozier even live in the same apartment block within the sprawling campus. They took care of their kids, ran their errands and kept to themselves.
Now, the three stand together laughing like sisters, although the reason for their newfound friendship is no meet-cute.
Thomas, Dozier and James will have to leave their apartments by the end of the month, kicked out because they hold Section 8 vouchers, a federally funded program that helps low-income folks with a substantial part of their rent each month.
The management company that runs the complex affixed a piece of paper to the doors of apartments rented by Section 8 voucher holders letting them know that they’d have to find a new place to go by Oct. 31. Advocates for the affected families, of which there are at least 23, fought to keep them in place and won another month.
Most people got their notes in mid-August, although Dozier got hers a month later on Sept. 13.
It’s not much time to get through the strenuous process of finding and leasing one of the limited apartments that will accept the voucher. The process also disrupts their jobs, their kids’ schooling and every other aspect of their lives.
Thomas’ son started throwing up at school, she believes because of anxiety. She woke up after a short sleep to find her teenage daughter hunched over the computer, trying to find new leads on an apartment.
“What did we do to you to treat us like this?” Dozier asked of the company.
To be clear, this couldn’t happen in Seattle. A bill championed by Councilmember Kshama Sawant gives renters here protections against “source of income discrimination,” meaning that a landlord cannot refuse to rent to you based on where your money comes from.
Actually, this couldn’t happen in unincorporated parts of King County, which also have such renter protections. Unfortunately, Renton does not, although in response to the plight of the families at the Renton Woods complex, legislation is moving forward to prevent income discrimination.
“At this point, we don’t have current legislation in place yet,” said Preeti Shridhar, deputy public affairs administrator with the city of Renton. “We’re working really hard, urgently to look at what our options are, and also immediately what we can do to help families facing these challenges.”
The matter will come before the Renton City Council at its next meeting on Nov. 7, but it won’t be soon enough to help the Renton Woods families.
Other organizations, however, are mobilizing, including the Tenants’ Union, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and Northwest Justice Project, which provides free legal representation to low-income people. Renton Woods residents attended a meeting at the United Church of Christ in Renton to organize and explore options.
Through these efforts, the tenants unionized and won an extra month at the apartment complex.
They lobbied the Renton City Council, who respected them and heard them out, Thomas said, an effort that will likely result in legislation that will protect people from discrimination simply for having a low-income housing voucher. It’s crucial work to help people who are a step away from homelessness. James, a veteran, and Dozier have both been homeless on the streets of Seattle. Even with a voucher in hand it could happen again.
That’s because Section 8 vouchers cover most rent — voucher holders pay 30 percent of their income to rent, and the voucher covers the rest — but they can’t erase a voucher holder’s history, which often prevents them from getting spots in market-rate housing.
Section 8 voucher holders may have bad credit, little or no rental history or convictions on their records. The program also requires that landlords allow special inspections on the units, which some see as an additional burden.
Seattle’s rental market is infamously tight, but big-city problems are beginning to spill out into the communities to the south that have traditionally been considered affordable.
“Obviously what we’re seeing is the impact of the market,” Shridhar said. “It’s new, but unfortunately it’s happening everywhere. If you go back to the past for many years, many decades, south King County and Renton, these were affordable areas. We didn’t see rents going up, housing going up the way it is.”
Real Change reached out to the management company for comment. They responded with the following statement:
“To Whom it may concern, The Renton housing program is elective and voluntary, after due consideration, Renton Woods has chosen to withdraw from this elective program. Sincerely, Renton Woods Apartments.”