Driving the poor from public housing

September 24, 2014

Steve Leigh reports from Seattle on a mobilization by public-housing residents.

HUNDREDS OF Seattle public-housing residents gathered September 17 at Yesler Terrace for a hearing to oppose draconian rent increases proposed by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA).

The SHA plan is to increase rent by more than 500 percent over six years for residents who have the "ability to work." The dramatic increase in rent is supposed to be possible after the SHA helps residents find jobs at good wages. At the end of the phase-in, residents with a two-bedroom apartment would pay between $850 and $1,200 and would need to make $20 per hour to afford "low-income" housing. Right now, tenants pay 30 percent of their income on rent.

The rally was organized by the Seattle Tenants Union and supported by many community groups, including the homeless newspaper Real Change. A favorite chant was "Housing is a human right--fight, fight, fight!"

The SHA's rationale for its new plan, dubbed "Stepping Forward," is to give the poor an "incentive" to work. Already, most residents with the ability to work do in fact have jobs, but they earn an average of $22,000 per year (about $11 an hour if working full time). According to the SHA, many residents just aren't trying hard enough to train for the high-paying jobs that supposedly exist.

Safiya Omar knows many in the Somali community in need of public housing (Real Change)

At the hearing, Marlena Sessions, a representative from WorkSource, which is part of the state's unemployment program, assured residents that private employers in the county would hire 60,000 workers per year over the next five years. " It's a great time in our local labor market," she said.

Most public housing families are single-parent families, and many are immigrants with English language challenges. The hearing had simultaneous translation into three African languages and Spanish. In spite of Sessions' assurances , the unemployment rate in the Seattle area is still more than 5 percent. Currently, more than 100,000 workers make less than $15 per hour in Seattle.

The other motivation for the plan is to deal with increased demand for public housing by increasing turnover of residents. Since thousands are on the waiting list for public housing, officials have implied that it is "only fair" to allow more people on the waiting list access to public housing since they are "similar" to the people already in public housing, according to officials. The more rational solution--increasing the supply of low-income housing--is not under serious consideration.

SHA officials generously said they would come up with a "hardship" option for people who can't earn enough for rent...because "sometimes things are not totally in your control." They have yet to establish criteria for deciding who qualifies for "hardship" status. SHA officials didn't seem to understand that being poor in a society with an insufficient social safety net is already hardship enough and that for the poor things are never "totally in your control."

AT THE hearing and the rally before, residents and low-income advocates denounced the plan as yet another attempt to wage war on the poor. "We just need to have more housing for the poor," said Anthony, a Real Change vendor. "Public housing is cheaper than shelters in the long run. It is easier for people with housing to find work. It is harder if you are on the street or in a shelter."

Another resident added: "The market value of this land is so high that SHA wants to screw the tenants to make up for lost revenue that they would make if they just sold off the land. Tenants would end up paying 75 percent of their income for rent." Yet another resident explained that the plan would mean that "the poor will be out in the street." In a guest editorial in The Stranger, Rebecca Snow Landa, a public-housing resident, renamed the SHA plan "Stepping Forward Off a Cliff."

Residents also spoke about their other grievances with SHA housing. Some SHA properties, for example, require ID for any guests of residents at any time of day or night. One resident reported being told that she could not receive mail for her brother at her SHA unit.

Andrew Lofton, the director of SHA, chaired the meeting. Lofton tried to calm people down by saying, "Please settle down, residents are here to find out about the plan." But whenever opposition to the plan was voiced, the room erupted in applause and shouting. For much of the hearing, in spite of the seething anger at the plan, the audience was relatively quiet.

After Lofton went over the details, the audience was finally allowed to speak. Jean Harris, the first woman to speak, opposed the plan--as did every other speaker at the hearing. "I was raised in Yesler Terrace, and my mother died in Yesler Terrace," said Harris. "If we had been forced to function under this, I don't know where I would be. Are you serving more people as you're pushing people out? Are we actually asked to rubberstamp a proposal that's already a fait accompli? I think they [SHA officials] might be a little short sighted in their vision," she said to raucous applause.

The irony of officials who make more than $100,000 a year lecturing the poor on how to run their lives was not lost on the audience. Another audience member said, "Learn Somali or Chinese in the next year--then we'll believe you."

This was the second of five public hearings on "Stepping Forward," and the future ones are likely to attract more mobilizations by angry residents. Three City Council members, including socialist Kshama Sawant, have publicly opposed the plan. Nick Licata, another City Council member, is asking the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate the plan to see if it violates any federal regulations. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is urging " caution" with regard to the plan.

Even if the plan is finally approved, it will take five years or more to fully implement, giving opponents plenty of time to organize.

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