Locking the poor out

July 31, 2014

Steve Leigh reports on an experimental plan in Seattle that will price many poor people out of public housing under the guise of "incentivizing" work.

THE U.S. is facing a housing crisis. Rents are skyrocketing. Federal funding for low-income housing is down. The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), for example, has cut $16.3 million--almost 10 percent of its budget--since 2011, and expects cuts of $12.5 million per year over the next decade.

These cuts will exacerbate the already severe shortage of public housing. The SHA now provides housing to 5,900 households and Section 8 rent subsidies to 9,000. Yet the waiting list to get into SHA housing is eight years long. When 2,000 Section 8 slots opened up in 2013, 24,000 people applied!

So what is the solution to this crisis? More funding? Building more public housing units? Making decent housing what it should be--a basic human right? No. The "solution" on offer is privatization and blaming the poor.

The SHA has for years moved away from providing accessible low-income housing for the poor. Instead, it has reworked previous public housing projects into "mixed-income" developments. Middle-income "market-rate" houses have been interspersed with apartments for the poor--resulting in a net loss of low-income units in Ranier Vista and Holy Park. Yesler Terrace, an area of prime real estate on a hill with a beautiful view of downtown Seattle, Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, is now going through the same process.

Seattle Housing Authority Executive Director Andrew Lofton
Seattle Housing Authority Executive Director Andrew Lofton

Somehow, it seems that there is always money for such developments--but never enough to expand low-income housing. Part of the rationale of this is that the so-called "culture of poverty" will be broken up by the beneficial influence of middle-income values and lifestyles.

BUT THIS is not the only way the poor are demonized. Now, a new "solution" is being offered. At a national level, the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) adopted what it calls the "Moving to Work" plan in 1996. The plan, according to Seattle's Real Change newspaper, was to allow "a small slice of housing authorities across the country to experiment with rental systems to find more effective ways to help people move off public housing."

These "effective ways to help" public housing residents have included plans like setting "term limits" on how long people can stay in public housing (regardless of their job status) or charging tenants higher rents, but putting a portion of it into a savings account that the tenant can then access only once they move out of public housing.

The idea behind such programs is that public-housing residents lack sufficient "motivation" to get good jobs and move out of public housing--and they need a "gentle shove" from the well-meaning bureaucrats who run public-housing agencies.

In Seattle, that "shove" will come in the form of raising rents on impoverished tenants every couple of years until they reach a certain "cap." Supporters of the program point out that residents will be offered job training. This supposedly will offer an "incentive" for those in low-income housing to find and keep decent jobs.

As Real Change points out:

Under the current system, tenants pay 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. Under a new rent structure now being considered by SHA, a tenant who is not elderly or disabled will pay a rent based on how long they've been in the apartment and the size of the apartment...

In changing its rent structure, SHA is recasting the role of public housing. Once a permanent safety net for Seattle's poorest people, SHA's apartments could function more like a stop on the way to the open housing market.

But don't worry--everything will be fine according to SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton. Regarding the new program, Lofton stated, "We believe [residents] will be successful in securing those living-wage jobs. If they don't, they will have a very difficult time in our housing and paying their rent."

Of course, Mr. Lofton has not been out in the general job market in Seattle for years, or he would know that those "living-wage jobs" are difficult to come by, especially for people in public housing who generally have less-than-average formal education and marketable skills.

The average Seattle public housing household makes approximately $13,000 a year, only 30 percent of the area median income. There are 100,000 workers in Seattle who make less than $15 an hour. Somehow, according to Lofton and the SHA, public-housing tenants are supposed to leap over other low-wage workers and find living-wage jobs?

Lofton joins a long list of out-of-touch representatives of the rich--from Marie Antoinette on down. Living-wage jobs today are about as plentiful as cake was for French peasants.

EVEN SOME public officials understand how unrealistic the plan is. Seattle City Councilor Nick Licata, for example, stated that it's "based on the premise that these people aren't looking hard enough and that the jobs are there. The jobs for these folks are miniscule."

The real purpose of this new plan is to deal with the long waiting list for public and subsidized housing by cycling through tenants at a faster rate. Instead of solving the very real crisis that exists by providing much-needed housing units, the SHA and similar local agencies across the U.S. are instead blaming the poor for their poverty and then using that to deny them housing.

Officials like Lofton need to called to account for their wildly unrealistic expectations and their elitism. Since a disproportionate percentage of the poor and of public-housing residents are people of color, the racism of the housing crisis needs to be pointed out as well.

Most importantly, we need a strong movement that fights for housing as a basic right. Many workers with currently stable incomes are often only a paycheck or two away from poverty and losing their homes. Adequate public housing should be a right in any society that claims to care about human need.

Thanks to Real Change, Seattle's homeless newspaper, for much of the information in this story.

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