Residents Call “Stepping Forward” a Huge Step Backwards

by Curran Knox

Residents gather at City Hall plaza to protest potential Seattle Housing Authority rent increases. Photo Credit: Celia Berk
Residents gather at City Hall plaza to protest potential Seattle Housing Authority rent increases. Photo Credit: Celia Berk

October, 24th Seattle- “Let us fight together, we will win” – Fatimah, a resident from Yesler Terrace called out on the microphone at Friday before last’s rally in opposition to the Seattle Housing Authority’s (SHA) Stepping Forward proposal- one that would affect many South Seattle residents. The protests have reached the epicenter of bureaucratic engagement, City Hall.

On the 4th Ave terrace, there were almost as many signs as there were people. The mostly adult crowd included residents and activists amongst the few trees and stone tiles that approached the seemingly never ending steps that led to the council chambers.

At the rally residents had the opportunity to share their mounting concerns about “Stepping Forward,” including their anxieties over potential evictions that could ensue if the measure was enacted, the struggle to afford rent at its current rate, language barriers that hamper communication with city officials, as well as doubts about any additional assistance the proposal will provide to low income households.

Over the course of the past two months the SHA  has held five Stepping Forward Open Houses across the city, including some at current and former public housing projects, such as Yesler Terrace, New Holly, High Point, in addition to the Rainier and Meadowbrook Community Centers.

At the Stepping Forward Open House that took place at the New Holly Gathering Hall- City Councilmember Kshama Sawant joined community members in organizing counter actions to what they feel is an SHA “public relations” tour.

During the High Point Open House, they successfully led a walkout were a large majority of individuals in attendance made a show of leaving the SHA meeting to occupy the community center’s gym- which had been reserved in advance.

A huge turnout of residents was also seen at the Yesler Open House, all with questions they felt the SHA has yet to address in regards to ensuring that the proposal created and maintained affordable housing in the Seattle area.

In response to an evaluation of the efficacy of the current subsidized housing system, SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton drafted a new proposal that would affect 35 percent of households supported by the Housing Authority. The Stepping Forward Proposal would impact households receiving Housing Choice vouchers (Section 8) who have at least one “workable” adult.

While the proposal would potentially increase rents up to 400 percent over a 6 year period, in turn the SHA would provide additional employment and education assistance to help “workable” adults find sustainable employment.

“Workable” adults are considered to be anyone in a household between the ages of 24-61 who do not identify as having a disability that prevents them from finding employment. Should households be unable to pay the increasing rent then the Housing Authority will have the right to pursue evictions. Households with no “workable” adults will continue to pay income-based rent.

The current policy requires households to pay 30 percent of their income in rent with no fixed yearly increase. SHA has assessed that the resources currently available to households has not proved sufficient.

With the suggested proposal, SHA would also increase services available to tenants and households by providing more resources to obtaining financial success. All “workable” adults will have a workforce assessment plan managed by the SHA staff.

Considering that the SHA identified a lack of support and connection to resources as a crucial issue that exists with the current subsidized housing system, this plan would suggest increased staffing support and overall redetermination of the way in which SHA has been structured to provide support to households and tenants, and investments in city wide partnerships.

The amount of community feedback and protest has caused the Mayor and City council to take notice and question whether or not the needs of the communities in peril are being addressed in an equitable and responsible way. The entire City Council sent a  letter to Andrew Lofton, in opposition to the Stepping forward proposal earlier this month.

Some of the demands that residents and tenant activists want SHA to consider:

-Rejection of the SHA Stepping Forward Proposal

-Tenant activist to be appointed to the Mayor’s Committee on Housing Affordability

-The construction of more affordable housing for low income families

-Tenant representation in the SHA board appointment process

Serving as SHA’s Executive Director since 2012, Lofton also sits on Mayor Ed Murray’s newly minted Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee. In early September Mayor Murray issued a formal Housing Affordability Statement in which he expressed that “many of Seattle’s low-and middle-income workers families, artists, students, and immigrants new to our country are struggling to find homes at prices they can manage.”

Afford 4
Photo Credit: Celia Berk

SHA provides over 8,500 Housing Choice vouchers units, which allows low income families access to rent affordable and privately owned property. SHA also oversees approximately 6,000 public housing units, currently serving over 26,000 people combined. The Seattle Displacement Coalition reports that after the redevelopment of New Holly, Rainier Vista, Roxbury Village, and High Point, over 1000 public housing units have been lost as a result of the newer mixed income housing models. One can only guess that the redevelopment plan for Yesler Terrace housing project will displace some low income residents as well. This Phenomenon isn’t new, and as Jon Fox from the Seattle Displacement Coalition reported “They still think we are taking advantage of the system.”

Organizations that were present at the City Hall rally against the Stepping Forward Proposal included Socialist Alternative, The Tenant’s Union and Radical Women Seattle. This same contingent of protesters made a public address during the City Council business meeting directly following the rally, asking councilmembers to sign a petition in opposition to Stepping Forward. Only councilmembers Sawant and Mike O’Brien signed.

The contingent then took the petition to the Mayor’s office where they had the opportunity to speak openly with Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim. Though adults represented the majority of leadership at the rally, the presence of youth activists was hard to ignore.

“So many people that are great leaders in the community are teens. Let the youth voices be heard, let them speak up and have a voice,” Nimco

Nimco Abdirahman addressing City Council. Photo Credit: Celia Berk
Nimco Abdirahman addressing City Council. Photo Credit: Celia Berk

Abdirahman expressed over the microphone, as one of the few youth voices represented at the rally.  As she addressed both the public and Deputy Mayor Kim, Nimco stated how important safe and affordable housing had been to her family. She also pointed out a potential shift in the distribution of resources that may have something to do with the redevelopment of public housing into mixed income communities.

Nimco spoke to the changing demographics of housing projects, and what this means as far as accessibility and equity within these restructured communities. She wants to illuminate awareness around the idea that there is money out there, but where it is- and why the system seems to continuously withhold options from low income residents in South Seattle- is a question all should be asking.

“No one in this community knows about scholarships,” she mentioned, recalling her own story of learning through a serendipitous occasion about the scholarships offered to youth living in the High Point community. Self-identifying as someone who has grown up in the system, she speaks to the changes seen in access and the equity of knowledge as some of the invisible barriers manifest in what was once a community serving only low income families, but now provides mixed income residents. Only certain people know about the scholarships, and for some reason, word hasn’t gotten around. Nimco expressed that once she found out, she told her mother that my little brother could be eligible for a scholarship and her family started telling others in the community that these scholarships were available so that some of the youth and families would know. Nimco envisions the creation of a youth council to advocate for youth and families in the community, as well as families. She already serves on the High Point Council and she is the youngest member by over ten years.

To help sustain attention around the issue, Radical Women of Seattle held a  forum at New Freeway Hall in Columbia City the day after the rally that consisted of community members, SHA staff, a former SHA commissioner, and residents from both New Holly and Yesler Terrace.

“We need to stop destroying what’s left of the affordable housing in this city, which is getting destroyed rapidly as neighborhoods gentrify, as buildings get sold to developers, as things like stepping forward goes and takes things that are currently affordable and turns them into transitional housing,” expressed Ted Virdone, Legislative Assistant to Councilmember Sawant.

 

Additional Resources:

The Stepping Forward Proposal and potential rent changes can be seen at the link below on Seattle Housing Authority’s page and is available in ten languages: http://seattlehousing.org/about/steppingforward/

Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability Statement: http://murray.seattle.gov/housing-affordability-statement-from-mayor-murray/#sthash.DfJMRnJ9.dpbs

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