THE Seattle Housing Authority has proposed an untested and risky change to its rent policy that would increase rents for the city’s poorest working families by 500 percent over six years.
Called Stepping Forward, the policy excludes the elderly and disabled but would raise the rent on all others — for example charging $160 a month initially for a two-bedroom apartment, then raising the rent after five years to $850. The policy abandons the current system where residents pay 30 percent of their incomes, which is defined as affordable.
Over time, the new rental policy would shift limited public resources to higher-income tenants. Those who cannot raise their incomes would face eviction or displacement.
Alarmingly, the Housing Authority has conducted no analysis on how this policy would impact different populations. Seventy percent of Seattle Housing Authority households are families, and 51 percent are single-parent households.
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While the Housing Authority claims immigrants make a higher income than nonimmigrant tenants, immigrants represent 25 percent of tenants and changes could radically reshape the diverse makeup of the residents’ community. For the immigrant and refugee community, the change would severely harm new Americans who rely on community networks and family support to succeed in a new country.
Women, too, would be disadvantaged because in Seattle they earn 73 cents for every dollar paid to men, a yearly wage gap of around $16,000.
Responding to these criticisms, the Housing Authority has offered to connect tenants to workforce-development programs. However, the rent increases would outpace potential wage increases.
The average wage achieved by adults from low-income households enrolled in similar programs was less than $12 per hour, according to a 2011 report by the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County. This is far less than the $19 per hour needed to pay the highest proposed rents at an affordable level, defined as 30 percent of income.
Even with a fully implemented municipal $15 minimum wage, this proposal would make public housing unaffordable, by that definition, for any full-time minimum-wage worker.
The problem isn’t that tenants aren’t already working hard; in a post-recession job market, full-time high-paying jobs are not out there. According to the National Employment Law Project, since the recession began there are nearly 2 million fewer jobs in mid- and higher-wage industries. The largest growth is in lower-paying service-sector jobs.
The Housing Authority officials state this change is a response to the more than 9,000 households on waiting lists for units it runs, and the 22,000 people who applied for housing vouchers and did not receive them.
However, the new rent policy would only result in serving 600 more households. Those new tenants would then be in the same unstable position as the other 7,000 people whose rents are going up. The intention of emptying a shelter bed is good, but not if it means another family gets evicted — and then seeks the same recently emptied shelter bed. This is not a solution. It is a revolving door of poverty.
Every housing authority in the country faces the same underfunded realities, but the Seattle Housing Authority is an outlier in proposing a systemwide rent increase.
In fact, at least one other housing authority has specifically reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developmentthat such flat rent policies would not work in high-cost cities like Seattle.
Over time, this proposal would benefit tenants with the least barriers to employment, and evict or displace tenants with the most barriers, whether it is a language barrier, lack of child care or lack of formal education.
This revolving door would ultimately leave those who are pushed out in an even worse position, now with a tarnished rental history due to an eviction record. The Seattle Housing Authority’s proposal does not represent a shift in resources, but a shift in thinking on who deserves housing subsidies and who does not. The Housing Authority and Seattle can do better. Address the affordable housing crisis in a fair, thoughtful and compassionate manner.
Ubax Gardheere is lead coalition organizer for Puget Sound Sage. Jonathan Grant is executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.