Some Seattleites who live in public housing will soon have access to free transit passes, a “life changer,” according to a representative for the city’s housing authority.

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in February that her administration would offer about 1,500 Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) residents free unlimited ORCA passes. “Transit must be reliable and affordable because we need transit to meet our climate goals and because it makes people’s lives better,” the mayor said.

SHA has now begun helping people sign up for their free passes.

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“This is in some cases going to be a life changer,” said SHA spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin. “The majority of our residents are people with very low incomes and they’re often making very difficult choices about what to spend what little money they have on. What may seem like a small amount of bus fare to us may cause them to think twice about going to the doctor or going to see a relative.”

The one-year, $1 million pilot program is narrow in scope. While SHA operates about 8,000 apartments and houses at nearly 400 sites, the 1,500 residents who will get the free cards live in 11 buildings.

“With a limited income, you watch everything,” said Ernestine Robles, 64, who lives at SHA’s Lake City House and expects to qualify for the new program. Robles travels by bus for shopping, errands and doctor’s appointments across the city. “If the laundry goes up a quarter it’s noticeable. It’s noticeable to us because everyone in here is on limited income. It will make a big difference.”

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The ORCA passes and a recent visit from Durkan to Lake City House “will show people they haven’t forgot us,” Robles said. “I think a lot of us thought they had.”

To qualify for the program, residents must be between 19 and 64 years old, live within the Seattle Transportation Benefit District and earn less than 30% of the area median income (or about $23,000 for a single person and $30,000 for a family of three). Residents can learn more about whether they’re eligible on the city’s website.

The voter-approved Transportation Benefit District was designed to buy extra bus service in Seattle through a car tab and sales tax, but Metro has not been able to add all the bus hours Seattle wants.

Other discounted programs already serve seniors and people 18 and younger. Last year, the mayor and City Council approved spending up to $7 million a year to give transit passes to public high-school students and some college students.

SHA interns, some of whom live in public housing, have started outreach to let people know how to get the passes, Coughlin said. She hopes eventually the city will expand the program to more SHA residents, but said the pilot is “going to be great.”

Regional transit officials have recently been grappling with recognition that despite years of effort on discounted fare programs, the people with the lowest incomes still struggle to afford transit.

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A survey of Metro riders who failed to pay their fare found that about 43 percent had a household income of less than $1,000 a month and half qualified for Metro’s discount ORCA LIFT program but weren’t using it.

That program offers riders a discount of 50% or more. “But if you have no money, half-price is still too much,” Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said during a forum about fare enforcement Thursday evening.

A 2018 audit found that King County Metro’s fare enforcement disproportionately hurt people experiencing homelessness. In response, the county overhauled the penalties for failure to pay fare and is considering a new discount program in which fares would be based on income.