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This Week, Seattle Made Moves to Help Low-Income Residents

The threat of a coronavirus outbreak looms, but free bus passes and a winter evictions ban offer potential relief in other areas.

By Benjamin Cassidy and Marisa Comeau-Kerege February 28, 2020

More people will be able to ride these now.

It’s been a week of foreboding for the U.S. when it comes to protecting its most vulnerable residents. On Tuesday, health officials announced that it’s not a matter of if but when the coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, will spread rapidly throughout the country. Though the threat of COVID-19 looms over all, it’s a particular burden for those with inadequate health care in America, where the system’s shortcomings have fueled political debate for years.

But locally, Seattle's lowest income inhabitants may have received a couple measures of relief this week, too. On Tuesday, mayor Jenny Durkan decided not to veto the City Council’s ban on some residential evictions between December 1 and March 1, allowing it to become law and, perhaps, preventing some in our community from facing the coldest part of the year without housing. Durkan’s choice was hardly a ringing endorsement. She didn’t sign the legislation, arguing that the bill was merely a legal argument to be used in court, where evicted tenants often fail to appear. Basically, Durkan believes that the legislation won’t actually solve the problem at its core—homelessness at the most dangerous time of year—and feels funding preventative programs is a better plan. Yet, she chose not to actively block its path, either.

In less controversial news that day, the King County Council voted unanimously to approve free Metro cards to those with very low incomes. The annual program will be offered to those that make less than 80 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would be around $21,000 per year. Participants must also qualify for other aid programs such as Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. According to King County Metro, as many as 54,000 people would be eligible this year.

“This legislation will be life changing to our neighbors living in poverty by enabling them to have mobility, to pursue opportunity, and to live their lives,” said King County Council member Rod Dembowski, one of the sponsors of the legislation.

The program is set to start in the middle of this year. Those who qualify would get a yearly ORCA Lift pass good for rides on Metro buses, Access vans, Seattle streetcars, King County Water Taxi, Trailhead Direct, and Via Shuttles. (Sound Transit hasn't signed on yet.)

The previously established Orca Lift program that began in 2015 gave those with the card discounted fares on all Metro transit. The income qualifier for that program was higher: $51,500 for a family of four. But after conducting rider surveys, Metro found that about half of the riders that qualified for the program still paid the full fare simply because they didn’t know about the program, or they preferred to pay cash.

Hopefully, amid all the virus clamor, the county will get the word out this time.

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