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Seattle Housing Authority Shelves Controversial Rental Policy Change

Ashley Gross
A packed meeting in West Seattle where protesters chanted, "Rent hikes - no!"

Seattle Housing Authority, which runs public housing in the city, has backed away from a proposed rental policy change that sparked protest, and now the agency says it won't put forth a new plan before 2016.

This past summer, SHA proposed a new policy called "Stepping Forward" in which it would no longer set rent at 30 percent of a tenant's income, and instead would charge rent based on the size of the unit.

Under the plan, rent for a studio apartment could jump from $130 a month in the first year to $680 in the sixth year, a 400 percent increase. At the same time, SHA said it would connect tenants with job training to help them find better-paying jobs. 

Only adults tenants who were deemed able to work would be required to switch to the new rent policy. People with disabilities and people under age 24 or older than 61 would not be part of the program. 

The proposal drew an outcry from public housing tenants as well as opposition from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. Protesters chanting "Rent hikes - no!" and "Show me the jobs!" derailed public hearings held by the agency to explain the plan. 

'We Did Not Succeed In Getting This Message Across'

SHA had said it needed to implement the rental policy change because it's facing the prospect of federal budget cuts. It also said it would be a way to generate more income to provide housing to more people currently on the waitlist. About 9,000 households are on SHA's waitlist for public housing and another 2,000 people are waiting for housing vouchers. 

But SHA executive director Andrew Lofton earlier this week sent a letter to Murray saying the agency will not move ahead with Stepping Forward in the coming year. He said federal budget cuts are still likely in 2016 and "represent real and serious threats" to the agency's funding. But he said SHA failed to adequately explain why it needed to make the policy change.

"With Stepping Forward, we had intended to address this financial situation proactively, but it is clear that we did not succeed in getting this message across through our outreach efforts," Lofton wrote in the letter.

Still, the housing authority isn't giving up possible rental policy changes entirely. 

"We will keep you informed as we continue to investigate a wide range of alternatives that can increase resident opportunity and address future contraction of our federal revenue sources," Lofton wrote.

Concerns From Residents

Lynn Sereda has a housing voucher through SHA and sits on the board of the Tenants Union of Washington State. She helped the Tenants Union organize protests against the plan. 

Sereda would have been exempt from the rental policy change because she collects Social Security disability insurance. But she says many residents were fearful that they wouldn't be able to earn enough to afford their housing. 

"I actually do believe it could have resulted in homelessness of people that are already in the housing authority but wouldn’t be able to afford the 400 percent rent increases, which would have happened in a five-year period," Sereda said. 

SHA had said it would come up with a hardship policy to help people who were struggling to pay rent. 

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.