Stepping Forward is a Step Backward

Why Seattle Housing Authority’s Plan Won’t Help Anyone

By Mohamed Adan

Originally published in the November 2014 issue.

Despite massive public outcry, the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) says it will proceed with its “Stepping Forward” plan which will substantially raise rents for low-income residents in affordable housing.

If implemented, SHA will no longer assess rent for low-income residents based on their income but rather on the size of their unit and the length of their occupancy in public housing. All current residents will see their monthly rent increase annually for the next six years. For example, a one bedroom house with a current rent of $140 a month will have a rent of more than double that the second year and by year six the rent will be $720.

By dramatically increasing the rent on low-income residents, SHA hopes to “incentivize” higher-wage jobs and departures from public housing.  In defending the plan, SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton told the Seattle Met, “The problem that we’re facing is we have declining resources to serve our population.”

SHA says that Stepping Forward is needed to free up public housing units for thousands of people on waiting lists.

While declining resources and crowded waiting lists are problems that require solutions, Stepping Forward is not that solution. The plan has the potential to make thousands of low-income families homeless.

Stepping Forward assumes that residents whom it deems  “workable adults” will find high-wage jobs (jobs that pay more than $21/hour) within a limited time frame.  Working class jobs with such wages are hard to come by, and this is especially true for the populations SHA serves—people of color, immigrants and refugees, female-headed households. What will happen to residents who can’t find these jobs and pay the new rents? SHA has not been very clear about this.

Tenants have resoundingly opposed Stepping Forward. In public comment meetings held by SHA, hundreds came out to express their frustration with the plan’s lack of foresight and negative assumptions about them. They told Lofton and other SHA executives that they, despite popular stereotypes, work hard to find good jobs and raise their station in life, but that they still struggle meet their basic needs. Community and civic groups have also rejected the plan, including the Immigrant and Refugee Advisory Board of which I am a member.

In a letter to SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton, Mayor Murray also voices opposition to the plan. He writes, “I strongly encourage SHA to take a deeper look at how to mitigate the disproportionate impact [on disadvantaged groups] as well as to refine the ultimate goal of the Stepping Forward proposal.“

In a protest at City Hall on Friday, more than a hundred tenants marched through council chambers and to the mayor’s office urging the City’s leaders to take a stronger stance against Stepping Forward. Mayor Murray was particularly urged to use his power of appointment over the Seattle Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, which currently has four vacancies, to halt the plan.

If Stepping Forward is implemented thousands of low income residents will either lose their homes or be forced to move from the city. Although Stepping Forward has “training and support” components, its dramatic rent escalations, which for some families will reach 400%, and the limited number of high-wage jobs in the city, will make it so that it will be a loss for low income residents if it is adopted.

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