Mayor Ed Murray wrote a letter last week objecting to a new proposal from the Seattle Housing Authority, the independent agency that runs public housing in the city and distributes Section 8 vouchers for private housing, that would upend the current definition of "affordable" housing. "I want to take a moment to express caution about unintended consequences and potential disparate impact" of the proposal, Murray wrote.

The plan, known as "Stepping Forward," would change the way SHA sets rents for its tenants and the thousands of Seattle residents who receive Section 8 vouchers. Currently, rents are set at no more than 30 percent of a tenant's monthly income; for example, if you make $999 a month, your rent should be no more than $333. Under SHA's new proposal, in the future, any household that is "work-able" (that is, a household that has at least one member who is physically able to work) would see their rents rise over time, until they're priced out of the program.

Denny Terrace image via SHA.

The old 33 percent idea (based on longstanding policy set by the federal department of Housing and Economic Development) is that people who pay more than around a third of their income for housing are "cost-burdened," and will have trouble meeting their other financial needs.

The new idea, as expressed in SHA's own documents explaining the plan, is this: From now on, rent will "be based on unit size and the length of time the household has been living there. A work-able household’s rent would rise over time. Each work-able adult, with assistance from a workforce professional, would undergo a workforce and education assessment and develop a self-sufficiency plan. Thus, with help and incentives, more households may be able to achieve financial stability and earn enough to give up their housing subsidy."

SHA's proposal mirrors former President Bill Clinton's 1996 "welfare reform" act, which required families (a group composed largely of single women with children) to go to work or seek job assistance—or forfeit cash benefits from the federal government. 

But, as with welfare reform, it's unclear that SHA's proposal will actually benefit its supposed beneficiaries. 

Under the new policy, which will only impact people who aren't disabled or elderly, SHA will increase rents every year, regardless of tenants' actual income, while providing services and job training for those residents who are, in SHA's estimation, able to work.

"Stepping Forward would," according to SHA, require all "work-able households ...  to participate in training and progress toward higher-paying employment and self-sufficiency." A "work-able" household of one person living in a studio apartment, for example, would see a rent increase from $130 a month to $680 over the next six years."I need a higher level of assurance that we have a different and exciting model that would actually create long-term jobs for folks who are in public housing; that they would be able to keep those jobs and not end up homeless." —Mayor Ed Murray

The idea, SHA director Andrew Lofton says, is to encourage people who are able to work, or who are working in part-time or non-living-wage jobs, to get jobs that allow them to move out of "the program"—that is, SHA assistance, either in the form of public housing or Section 8 vouchers— and to serve more of the tens of thousands of people who have applied for public housing or vouchers.

Currently, the SHA residents who fit that description number just under 5,000. 

"I don't think it's an unfair expectation that people will want to, and will seek to, have employment," Lofton says.

According to a 2011 report from the Seattle Planning Commission, some 34,000 very low-income households in Seattle (those making less than half of the area median income) were actually "severely cost-burdened," meaning that they paid more than half of their income on housing costs. That's about 52 percent—an 11-percentage-point increase since 1999.  

On July 31, Mayor Ed Murray sent a letter to SHA's Lofton expressing "concerns" about the "Stepping Forward," arguing that the proposal would have a "disproportionate impact on women and families of color, in particular immirant and refugee families," noting that 69 percent of the families who would be impacted by the proposal have a head of household whose primary language isn't English.

"Based on the information you have shared with my staff, I cannot support the changes contemplated in the Stepping Forward proposal," Murray wrote. 

When I asked about his objections at a press conference Tuesday, Murray said, "My concern was that unless we have an affordable stock of housing in this city, which we know we do not—and we’re going to launch an initiative later this year on that similar to the minimum wage ininiative—my fear is that all we will be doing is moving people out of the city. 

"Secondly … I need a higher level of assurance that we have a different and exciting model that would actually create long-term jobs for folks who are in public housing; that they would be able to keep those jobs and not end up homeless." 

Longtime low-income housing advocate John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coaltion has found common cause with Murray on this economic justice issue, despite the fact that the two come from different factions of Seattle's progressive community. Fox says: "The obvious intent is to cycle new residents in and get current residents out. Fox's view is  actually echoed by Lofton, who says that "yes," SHA's intent is to cycle people through public housing and vouchers more quickly. 

"From our perspective, the problem that we’re facing is we have declining resources to serve our population," Lofton says, adding that the plan is that "that population would not only move to this new rent structure, they would be given a workforce assessment to identify their skills, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and have access to those services to improve their opportunities ... to move up the income ladder and off of our subsidy." 

Lofton also acknowledges, however, that higher rents mean more revenues for SHA, which he says has lost federal subsidies and needs all the help it can get.

Fox (who claims SHA has a large financial surplus) says the idea of requiring job training and increasing rents for public-housing and Section 8 voucher tenants isn't new, and hasn't worked. "If you want to change the entire rent structure, you need to show that the employment program will hold water and actually work the way it's supposed to," he says. "It's kind of a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality. ... This underlying, paternalistic assumption that there's a bunch of ne'er-do-wells at the public trough is totally false."

The problem, Fox argues, is that the city lacks affordable housing and services (including things like day care and mental health services, as opposed to just "job training") and living-wage jobs—not that the few thousand people availing themselves of SHA's affordable housing are simply lazy.

SHA's own research report, from this June, supports this—low-income tenants at SHA's developments that while they would like to (or currently do) work, the idea that they'll be able to pay market-rate rents within six years is not realistic. 

"Tenants can't control the whims of the economy," one said, according to the SHA summary. Another added, "What if someone is still making the same amount but their rent keeps going up—how can they make it?" 

Tenants Union executive director Jonathan Grant says his group worries that SHA hasn't taken enough of a look at what happens when a housing agency uncouples rent from income, particularly when doing so impacts "folks who cannot replace their income" with a new, high-paying job. (Currently, a tenant would have to make around $22 an hour to make 80 percent of the area median income, which would disqualify them for public-housing assistance). 

"We think that this policy is going to make a bad situation even worse, with rising rents displacing people out of the city," Grant says. "For those folks who might have greater work opportunities, maybe they have more education or greater language skills, they might benefit from this. But for those folks who might be new to the country or illiterate… those folks are going to be subject to eviction."  

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