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Thursday, December 18, 2014 - Page updated at 12:00 p.m.

Seattle Housing Authority retreats on rent-raising proposal

By Daniel Beekman
Seattle Times staff reporter

In response to widespread opposition, the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) has shelved its controversial plan to raise rents for thousands of its tenants.

There will be no rent policy change until 2016, and the SHA might scrap the plan altogether.

“We have decided to put consideration of the Stepping Forward proposal on hold,” SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton wrote Monday in a letter to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

The SHA board of commissioners was initially set to vote on the plan by the end of 2014. No longer.

“In early 2015 we will work with our board of commissioners to establish a process and time frame for a new policy recommendation,” Lofton wrote. “We are unlikely to put forth a rent policy proposal before 2016.”

Stepping Forward would have used apartment size rather than household income to set rents for SHA-assisted households with at least one adult capable of working. The rents would have increased over time. The plan would have paired the rent increases with job counseling for tenants.

In proposing Stepping Forward earlier this year, Lofton argued the plan would help the SHA serve more people, cope with impending budget cuts and push tenants to become self-sufficient.

The SHA has about 9,000 households on its waiting list for public housing and recently had 24,000 households apply for 2,000 available rent vouchers, he said.

But many SHA tenants, advocates for low-income housing and elected officials came out against the plan, predicting that some households would be unable to keep up with the rent increases and would wind up homeless.

Tenants demonstrated against Stepping Forward at a number of SHA meetings and at City Hall. Murray opposed the plan, saying it would have a disproportionate impact on immigrants, refugees, families of color and female heads of household.

Lofton wrote Monday: “Although we heard support for the concept of connecting our residents to workforce training opportunities, there were many questions and concerns about the availability of living-wage jobs.”

The tipping point might have come last month when Murray appointed two new commissioners to the SHA board and indicated they would support his point of view.

The mayor hailed the SHA’s decision in a statement Tuesday. “We must know more about how coordinated workforce-development programs support rising incomes before we can expect families to be able to pay increased rent,” he said.

Abdisalan Abdulle, 32, a father of seven who lives in the SHA’s Yesler Terrace housing complex, had mixed feelings about the news.

“They’re backing it up for one year, but 2016 is going to come,” said Abdulle, who took part in demonstrations against the plan. “I hope they get rid of it for good.”

While investigating alternatives to Stepping Forward, the SHA will launch “a pilot program to improve the availability and effectiveness of employment support services,” Lofton wrote.

City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who lobbied loudly against the plan, attributed the SHA’s retreat on Stepping Forward to forceful organizing by tenant activists.

She said the decision should be a starting point for a larger discussion about affordable housing. Seattle needs more of it, Sawant said.

Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or dbeekman@seattletimes.com


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