To the outside observer, the Aug. 26 Yesler Terrace Leadership Council meeting looked like a small version of the United Nations, tucked inside the old Jesse Epstein Building on Spruce Street. Residents, including immigrants and refugees from Vietnam, Somalia and Ethiopia, lined the table. Three translators stood around the room waiting for leadership council member Kristin O’Donnell to speak.
O’Donnell, a long-time Yesler Terrace resident, shared some details with her neighbors about a proposal called “Stepping Forward” that would change the rent structure in Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) buildings and for residents who receive Section 8 housing vouchers to rent apartments all over the city.
She spoke in short spurts about how SHA is considering setting flat rents based on the size of each apartment, rents that would gradually increase over the course of six years. While the rents would be capped below market rate, they would still be higher than what many residents pay now: 30 percent of their income, no matter what they make.
The proposed change applies to about 4,600 households considered “work able.” Seniors and disabled residents are exempt.
“We have some very deep concerns about how this would not work well for us and some of our neighbors,” O’Donnell told the group, which included visitors from other SHA neighborhoods, such as High Point in West Seattle. “Many families have many things getting in the way of them getting a better job and making enough money to be able to afford these rents.”
O’Donnell paused, and three translators turned to other residents and translated her words into Vietnamese, Somali, Amharic and Tigrinya.
The crowd of 40 people spoke at least four different languages and came from diverse backgrounds. Some had left war-torn countries looking for educational opportunities and work in the United States.
They were soon all of one mind. The group would protest SHA’s proposal.
They planned to persuade SHA leadership to abandon or change its plans. If that didn’t work, tenants would try to convince SHA’s seven-member board of commissioners to vote against the change.
SHA officials will host a series of informational sessions this month throughout the city to explain the new rent structure. The sessions will include information on a plan to provide educational and workforce development opportunities to help people find better paying jobs to eventually move out of SHA properties and into market-rate housing.
Most of the people in the group said they didn’t need to wait for the sessions. They were ready to protest.
“Go out, wave a sign, say this is not fair,” said Fadumo Isaq, 66, a Yesler Terrace resident. “We go outside and put [up] signs, the government will hear us. If we sit in our houses, nobody will care.
SHA announced the proposal earlier this summer as a solution to a long waiting list of people vying for the organization’s apartments and coveted Section 8 housing vouchers. While SHA provides housing to 13,000 households, another 9,000 are on a waiting list trying to get into housing. To get Section 8 voucher, people have to enter a lottery to make the 2,000-person waiting list.
The housing authority mailed information packets detailing the “Stepping Forward” proposal to all residents on Aug. 18, including potential rent levels. Under the draft proposal, a studio apartment would cost $130 a month in the first year and increase every two years to $680 in the sixth year. A four-bedroom apartment would start at $180 and increase to $1,060 in the sixth year.
Per current federal policy, SHA tenants pay 30 percent of their income. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has included SHA in Moving to Work, a program that allows a small slice of housing authorities across the country to experiment with rental systems to find more effective ways to help people move out of public housing (“the shock doctrine,” RC, July 2).
Other housing authorities under Moving to Work have set term limits, allowing residents to stay no more than five years in public housing. Seattle’s proposal would allow people to stay in their apartments indefinitely, but the rent will increase over time, providing incentive to residents to pursue education and find better paying jobs.
SHA officials said the change is necessary to address the high demand for housing with diminishing federal funding. Officials say they cut $16.3 million from SHA’s budget since 2011. In 2014, SHA’s budget is $172.8 million.
According to SHA, the average person affected by the rent change has lived in SHA housing for eight years. About 25 percent of this population stays in the system for more than 10 years.
SHA will make changes to the proposal based on the feedback it receives throughout September at a series of five community meetings that start Sept. 16. The final decision will fall to the SHA Board of Commissioners.
SHA Deputy Director Anne Fiske Zuniga said she is not surprised that people are worried. She said a lot of the proposal is still in development, including a hardship provision that would exempt some people from the program.
Fiske Zuniga said she supports groups like the Yesler Terrace Leadership Council and its parent group, the Yesler Terrace Community Council, for taking this issue on.
The Yesler Terrace Community Council is like a neighborhood association of low-income SHA residents. It can address a variety of projects, including public safety, community gardening and even actively protesting the actions of SHA leaders.
“Landlords and tenants are in some ways natural adversaries,” O’Donnell said.
The community council is unusual, however, in that a paid SHA staff member supports the group. SHA Community Builder Joy Bryngelson attends meetings and helps the group members with whatever they need, even when the agenda involves pushing back against the housing authority.
“My role is to hear where people are and help them figure out how to pull that energy together to make an impact on the policy they are worried about,” Bryngelson said.
The Yesler Terrace Community Council hopes to have an impact on the SHA’s upcoming information sessions. Residents plan to attend and voice their concerns.
As they prepared to protest SHA’s proposal, residents said they were angry. But they also said they were afraid.
Two days after the UN-style meeting at Yesler Terrace, residents at High Point, a mixed-income SHA neighborhood in West Seattle, expressed their deep fear that the rent-increase policy could leave them homeless.
“Since [the meeting], I couldn’t sleep,” said Hawa Mohamed, 44, speaking through a translator. “I’m thinking about it. I’m worried a lot about what is coming next year."
Mohamed is taking care of two children and a grandchild by herself, earning $800 a month working part-time at a day care. She pays $165 in monthly rent, plus more than $200 in utilities and other bills.
Under a draft proposal of the new rent structure, rents would range from $290 to $420 by the second year of the six-year schedule. By year six, rents would range from $680 to $1,060.
Mohamed said she doesn’t know If she can get a higher paying job when she speaks Somali and little English. Even understanding SHA’s new proposal was challenging: She asked her children to read the letter she received in the mail in August and explain it to her.
Adan Adan, 56, fled Somalia in 1991 to escape civil war. Now in the United States, he and his wife are raising eight children on $2,500, paying $700 in rent.
It’s not enough as it is, Adan said, to provide food and health insurance to all of his children.
“I feel fear, I feel angry, I feel frustration,” he said, speaking through a translator.
The fear among the residents is palpable.
Safiya Omar, 39, a High Point resident, brought more than a dozen people to a playground at High Point to share their stories with Real Change. Most were similar: They had low-paying jobs, families to support, and they feared that, due to language barriers, they could not find a better job to pay the growing rent. “My community keeps calling me saying, ‘We need your help,’” Omar said.
Most of her neighbors at High Point assumed the worst: If SHA goes through with the rent change, they would not be able to find a better-paying job and pay the higher rent.
“I have no choice,” said Fadumo Mohamed, 52, who is raising five kids at home and surviving off $500 he receives each month from an adult daughter. “I’m going to be homeless.”