Seattle City Council rejects ‘Stepping Forward,’ rent hike proposal still under fire

Senhao Liu November 26, 2014 0
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant holds an anti-”Stepping Forward” sign in her office on November 3, 2014. • Photo by Senhao Liu

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant holds an anti-”Stepping Forward” sign in her office on November 3, 2014. • Photo by Senhao Liu

A proposal by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) called “Stepping Forward” was intended to change the rent policy for 4,600 households. The goals of “Stepping Forward” were to expand its affordable housing services and encourage the self-sufficiency of its tenants with workforce training and education. The proposal was also intended to be a way for SHA to generate more money to meet the growing demand for affordable housing.

“Stepping Forward” was rejected by the Seattle City Council last month because the proposal would have also raised the rent for poor and low-income tenants by more than 400 percent over seven years. The proposal, however, may see a return to City Hall in early 2015.

While SHA maintains that low-income tenants under “Stepping Forward” will be able to adapt to the rent hikes with proper guidance and services, city officials and non-profit organizations say the proposal is unfair and must be stopped.

“The purpose is to help our residents to become more self-sufficient,” said Anne Fiske Zuniga, SHA deputy executive director. “We expect our current program participants to benefit from the training and education guidance they will receive.”

Zuniga said that the proposal would allow SHA to expand its services.

“The primary reason [for the proposal] is to serve more people,” Zuniga said, adding that 9,000 households are waiting for public housing. SHA currently serves 16,000 households through public housing and voucher programs.

Under “Stepping Forward,” rent would increase for 4,600 “work-able” households. Households are considered work-able if at least one person in the household is between 24 and 61 and does not have a disability that prevents them from working. These households include tenants who rent public housing from agencies like SHA or use a Housing Choice Voucher, a federal housing subsidy.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said the proposal targets people of color and contributes to gentrification.

“The proposal is not a solution of affordable housing, but another step in the gentrification process,” Sawant said. “Who are the people most affected? Poor people, low-income people, and people of color.”

Sawant said that raising rent on people who rely on affordable housing creates a negative cycle.

“‘Stepping Forward’ is a completely unfair proposal and it is completely out of touch with reality,” Sawant said. “The current tenants who are low-income and poor and will be pushed to homelessness or leave the city.”

Under “Stepping Forward,” SHA would partner with Seattle’s Workforce Development system to do assessments on residents. Together they would develop an education or training plan that would help residents find jobs that paid more based on new skills, Zuniga said.

Estimated hourly earnings in the next six years. Screen capture from Seattle Housing Authority’s webpage.

Estimated hourly earnings in the next six years. Screen capture from Seattle Housing Authority’s webpage.

Estimated rent levels in the next six years. Screen capture from the Seattle Housing Authority's webpage.

Estimated rent levels in the next six years. Screen capture from the Seattle Housing Authority’s webpage.

SHA estimates the hourly earning for tenants after successful training will be as much as $19 in six years, which is higher than Seattle’s recently approved $15 minimum wage. SHA said it will also help English-as-a-second-language residents improve their English skills or find jobs without language requirements. However, all training programs would happen after implementing the proposal. SHA does not currently provide training.

Sawant said training programs do not guarantee higher paying jobs. She said work-training opportunities are not prevalent enough and that SHA has a responsibility to provide them.

“Data have shown that these training programs do not magically match the result in highly paid jobs,” Sawant said. “Why are they not doing this anyway? They should be providing work-related training all the time.”

Working Washington, an organization that unites low-income workers, recently published a public letter opposing “Stepping Forward” proposal. “This proposal would undermine the fundamental promise of affordable housing,” the letter said, adding that the proposal would threaten the stability of many immigrants and single-parent households.

While many low-wage workers will receive the $15 hourly pay, Working Washington said the proposal would not result in tenants making $19 an hour in six years.

Councilmember Nick Licata also wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to express his concern over the proposal. “SHA’s policy fails to consider Seattle’s housing market,” Licata wrote. “SHA has not conducted any assessment of the possible fair housing impacts.”

Licata said that the proposal simply creates a flat rent plan with a high increase in rent that never decreases.

“The proposal [SHA] put forward does not push us forward,” said Rebecca Saldana, deputy director of community affairs for Puget Sound Sage, an organization that works for affordable housing and sustainable jobs. Saldana said that the proposal is not a solution to affordable housing and it needs to be adjusted.

There are 2,300 Asian Pacific Islander households currently served by SHA. Sawant said APIs should build up solidarity to fight against the “Stepping Forward” proposal.

“The only thing you can do is to scrap it,” Sawant said. “If SHA really wants to find a serious proposal towards the affordable housing crisis, I will be happy to talk.”

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