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Mayor Picks Nominees For Seattle Housing Authority Board Amid Rent Hike Controversy

Ashley Gross
Protesters disrupt a Seattle Housing Authority hearing on the proposed rent change

Public housing residents in Seattle have been speaking out for months against a plan by the Seattle Housing Authority to hike rents. Now Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has announced two nominees for the housing agency’s board that tenant advocates hope will quash the plan.

The board of commissioners of the Seattle Housing Authority will have the ultimate say about the rent change called Stepping Forward. Under that plan, adult public housing residents who are deemed able to work would no longer pay based on their income and instead would see rent climb fivefold by the sixth year. Residents would also be connected with job training to assist them in finding better-paying positions.

Murray has selected two nominees for the SHA board: Jermaine Smiley, a labor organizer who served on a Seattle Housing Authority advisory committee tasked with helping disadvantaged workers get construction jobs, and Zachary Pullin, who works for SEIU Healthcare NW Training Partnership, a nonprofit that trains home health care workers.

Pullin grew up on the Chippewa Cree reservation in Montana and lived for a while in subsidized housing. He said he’s concerned public housing residents won’t be able to afford the higher rent under the proposed policy.

“My biggest thing is I don’t want people to end up homeless,” Pullin said. “For me it’s just about, let’s step back, let’s listen to the concerns that people have and really put those at the focus of how we create a really innovative policy.”

Murray's Position

Murray has told the Seattle Housing Authority that he doesn’t support the rent hike plan in its current form. Seattle Housing Authority says it’s reviewing feedback on the rental proposal and hasn’t set a date for a vote by the board.

Denechia Powell of Tenants Union of Washington State, an advocacy group that is trying to get SHA to drop the rental change, says she is encouraged by Murray’s choices, though she added that tenants have not had a chance to ask the candidates questions yet. But she said they appear to have strong backgrounds in social justice issues.

“We’re hopeful that the new commissioners will be pro-tenants and vote against Stepping Forward,” Powell said.

SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton has said the rental policy change is a response to expected future federal budget cuts. He says it will also help provide housing to about 600 extra families by the time it’s fully implemented.

In a city with quickly-rising rents, there’s a large demand for subsidized housing. SHA has about 9,000 households on its waitlist for public housing. In 2013, when the agency opened up 2,000 spots on its waitlist for rental vouchers, it received 24,000 applications. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.