Panic is what Rebecca Landa says she felt last month when she first heard about a Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) proposal to raise rents for thousands of tenants.
Like other public-housing residents and people who rent homes using vouchers provided by the housing authority, Landa makes rent payments pegged at 30 percent of her income.
But under SHA’s new plan, the single mother would see her payments increase over five years to a figure greater than her current monthly income, she says.
“It’s really scary. I’ve been homeless before,” said Landa, 40, who has lived in an SHA town house in the Bitter Lake neighborhood for nine years. “This policy, unless some miracle happens, will displace us.”
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The controversial proposal is called Stepping Forward. It would pair rent hikes with job counseling and encourage tenants who are able to work to become self-sufficient, SHA brass say.
But Mayor Ed Murray, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and others oppose the plan, setting up a showdown at City Hall for the future of public housing in Seattle.
SHA will solicit feedback this month at a series of public meetings. The first is 6 p.m. Tuesday at Meadowbrook Community Center, and the second is 6 p.m. Wednesday at Yesler Community Center.
“The housing authority is making a big mistake,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute. “It’s really going to hurt families with children.”
Under the Stepping Forward plan, SHA would use apartment size rather than tenant incomes to set rents.
The rents would begin low and would never reach market rates. But they would increase dramatically over time for SHA households with at least one adult capable of working. There are approximately 4,600 such households, SHA says.
People under 24 and older than 61 and those receiving disability benefits would not be expected to work.
The target households might, in Year 1, pay rents pegged at 10 percent of the area median income, which would be $160 a month for a two-bedroom home, according to SHA.
In Years 2 and 3, they would pay $360 for a two-bedroom.
In Years 4 and 5, they would pay $560, and in Year 6 and beyond $850.
The target households represent about 35 percent of all SHA households.
SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton says the plan is the product of a yearlong conversation inside the agency about how to serve more tenants and generate more revenue.
Lofton says SHA has cut staff 18 percent since 2012 because funding from the federal government has not kept up with operating costs.
SHA meanwhile has 9,000 households on its waiting list for public housing and in 2013 had 24,000 households apply for just 2,000 available rent vouchers.
The households slated for Stepping Forward currently stay in SHA’s system for an average of eight years.
The agency considered several potential solutions, including time limits for tenants and higher rents still pegged to residents’ income, Lofton says.
SHA settled on Stepping Forward because it thinks the plan will move tenants through subsidized housing at a faster clip while increasing revenue via higher rents.
The rent hikes may look daunting, but Lofton says SHA partners like the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County (WDC) can guide tenants into better-paying jobs.
More than 60 percent of the Stepping Forward target households already include an adult with a job, and Seattle’s employment growth is projected to continue, Lofton says.
“There are oodles of entry-level jobs with career pathways,” said Marlena Sessions, the WDC’s chief executive, pointing to technology and health care as robust sectors.
Her work with SHA might benefit from private funding in addition to public dollars, Sessions says.
“This is a good time,” she said. “We believe in the human dignity of work, and we believe that yes, there will be jobs there.”
Stepping Forward’s opponents are less optimistic.
Many tenants rely on SHA precisely because, as single mothers, immigrants and refugees, they face barriers to employment, some critics say.
Roughly 25 percent of the people who head Stepping Forward households are not citizens, Murray noted in a letter to Lofton to July.
“I speak English. I have a job,” said Abdisalan Abdulle, 32, a Somalia immigrant who lives in SHA’s Yesler Terrace housing complex. “But other people, they don’t speak English, and they have seven kids. Their rent is going to go that high? It’s not fair.”
Seattle may be adding jobs, thanks to companies like Amazon. But thousands of people are moving here to compete for those positions, says Jonathan Grant, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.
The pace of change is also a concern, Grant says.
Families could see their rents skyrocket 500 percent in just a few years.
“I don’t know anyone whose income progresses that fast,” said Lee.
Lofton says SHA would provide hardship services to households struggling with Stepping Forward and could seek negotiated move-outs rather than evictions.
But even Lofton acknowledges some people would need to be shown the door.
SHA shouldn’t trim its waiting list by making current tenants homeless, Grant says.
Board to decide
SHA’s board of commissioners will decide whether Stepping Forward is implemented, Lofton says.
But Murray and the City Council aren’t without leverage.
The commissioners are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, and four of them are at the end of their terms.
Murray will make his appointments this fall, likely before the board votes on Stepping Forward, said Jason Kelly, a spokesman for the mayor.
And then there is Sawant and her bully pulpit. She says more than 200 people turned out for a meeting she hosted Sunday at SHA’s NewHolly complex.
Sawant wants to build a grass-roots affordable-housing campaign like the movement to raise Seattle’s minimum wage, and she says Stepping Forward is where the new push should begin.
“There is outrage in the community,” she said. “We need to have a serious conversation about other, progressive sources of revenue. We need to go where the money is, with the corporations and the superwealthy.”
Up north in Bitter Lake, Landa has her fingers crossed. SHA wants tenants like her to move up and out, and that would be nice, says Landa, whose last job was working as a part-time parent advocate in the juvenile-justice system. But she says the scenario isn’t realistic.
“We’re vulnerable people and that’s why we live in public housing,” she said. “That’s what it’s for. It’s a safety net.”
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org