OUTSIDE CITY HALL | City’s poorest households face rent increases under SHA plan

If the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) goes through with its recently announced plan euphemistically, called “Stepping Forward,” the agency would instantly turn into the city’s biggest rent gouger.

There are about 4,600 very-low-income families with a working-aged adult in their household living in SHA’s public housing or holding a voucher that helps cover a portion of their rent in a privately owned unit.

Under SHA’s proposal, rents would more than double for any of these families if they hold that unit or voucher for more than four years.

For example, a household earning $15,000 a year now (most SHA households actually earn less) is paying no more than $400 to $500 a month in rent (assuming the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standard is no more than 30 percent of income spent on rent).

Suddenly, in year five, this household would be required to pay $1,200 a month for that same unit.

To afford that, their income would need to rise from less than 30 percent of area median income to about 80 percent — around $45,000 a year. That’s a wage of about $21 to $22 an hour, more than the average Seattle worker earns.

Since the average stay in SHA housing is about eight years, a majority of SHA’s tenants — more than 2,300 households — could face dramatic rent increases. The city’s poorest families, most of them people of color, would be forced to pay as much as up to 70 percent of their limited income on rent. Many would likely be forced onto the streets.

A ‘crippling’ reduction

SHA claims that its current rent structure is somehow a “disincentive to work for some” — as if SHA tenants are not doing all they can to avail themselves of training, schooling and other services they need to find a livable wage and move up and out of subsidized housing.

Setting aside this argument’s moralistic overtones, SHA’s own data tell a different story. The vast majority of affected adults holds down one or even two jobs and vigorously seeks services to access better-paying jobs.

The real reason many households stay longer in subsidized housing is simple: There aren’t enough livable wage jobs available, nor does the market provide an adequate supply of affordable rentals even if they found such a job. Even the average wage earner cannot afford the average priced rental in Seattle.

SHA promises to partner with social service agencies to provide “wraparound” services (job training, counseling, schooling, day care) so affected households can find a good job by year five and either pay the increased rents or move out. But even if SHA comes up with the extra millions to dramatically expand these services (without diverting them from other low-income populations), that still would not change the lack of good jobs and affordable privately owned rentals.

SHA also asserts the change is needed to accelerate turnover in units so it can serve more of the thousands now on their waiting list. We ask how can anyone legitimize the displacement of one group of low-income people to serve another?

According to a February report by Seattle’s Office of Housing, there are about 47,000 households citywide earning at or below 30 percent of median income, but only about 20,000 rentals affordable to this group. And most of those are owned by SHA or nonprofit housing agencies.

SHA raising rents on a couple thousand units would cause a crippling and permanent reduction in the city’s supply of very-low-income housing stock and negate what took years and millions in levy dollars to produce.

Put money where the need is

The solution is to devote more of SHA’s resources toward expanding our stock of very-low-income units. In contrast, SHA, in recent years, has put most of its funds — around a billion dollars — into higher-income housing, such as the 3,000 expensive, high-rise apartments and condominiums planned for Yesler Terrace.

Despite its growing investment in market-rate development earning millions in extra revenue each year, SHA claims federal budget cuts are forcing it to raise rents to cover a shortfall of operating revenues. Our review of SHA budgets, however, shows a series of annual budget surpluses of about $20 million and, instead of reductions, a slow, steady increase in operating revenues.

Further, SHA has accumulated about $70 million in the state’s Local Investment Pool. Where did these dollars come from, and where are they going? Clearly, they’re not being used to keep rents low for our city’s poorest households — the folks SHA is chartered to serve.

And this gets to the crux of the matter: These rent increases likely are just another way to help SHA finance its ambitious move into market-rate development.

In an unprecedented step for a sitting Seattle mayor, Ed Murray says he “cannot support” these rent increases, citing “disproportionate” impacts on people of color and first-generation immigrants. It reminds us of the notorious phrase from the military during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization.

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