Demonstrators Say “Stepping Forward” is Two Steps Back for Low-Income Seattle Residents

by Ariel Hart

Demonstrators gather in front of the offices of the Seattle Housing Authority.
Demonstrators gather in front of the Seattle Housing Authority building. Photograph: Celia Berk

The energy was palpable Monday night as tenants and activists marched through the streets of Lower Queen Anne towards the Seattle Housing Authority Building.

Protestors packed the Board of Commissioners meeting demanding the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), take the so-called “Stepping Forward” program off the table.

If passed, the new initiative will raise rents by over 400% in the next five years for “work-able” tenants. Estimates project that tenants will have to make between $16-$20 per hour to keep up with the rising costs. Families who are unable to meet the increasing financial demands could face eviction.

Currently, SHA rent prices are determined by household income, ensuring that no more than 30% of tenants’ incomes are spent on housing costs. Yet, the Stepping Forward program would make rent unaffordable for over 7,000 households.

Though the proposed plan incorporates “job training” and ESL classes, it fails to address the underlying structural barriers that low-income families face in gaining reliable employment. Many SHA households have poor access to childcare, educational opportunities and are subject to institutional discrimination when trying to find a job.

SHA 2
Photograph: Celia Berk

According to Tenants Union organizer, Denechia Powell, SHA efforts to educate tenants about the policy have been sorely lacking. Though a quarter of SHA residents are immigrants, there has been little targeted outreach to these groups in particular. 

Demonstration attendee, Dr. Gary Perry, expressed his disgust with SHA’s plan and its recent partnerships with powerful developers like Vulcan. “The gentrification we see happening today is more aggressive, [now] public entities are allowing developers to have a land grab.”

Though SHA has framed this policy change as an opportunity to “provide more people access to safe, decent and affordable housing”, in reality, this policy will result in the continued gentrification of Seattle, and displacement of low-income residents.

While the Board decided not to vote on Stepping Forward until early 2015, tenants and activists are committed to continuing to hold these “public servants” accountable.

Ariel Hart is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and an anti-racist activist.

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