Creating homes or homelessness?

Critics have at various times charged the Seattle Housing Authority with a number of failings: favoritism in staffing; top-heaviness in administrative costs; conflicts of interest on construction and development contracts; substandard maintenance in the senior housing program; anti-unionism; manipulation of SHA's extensive real estate holdings; and the Morrison Hotel debacle.

Now, a series of controversies has arisen over SHA actions that, individually, may be defensible, but taken collectively add up to a disturbing trend. They foretell a more prosperous public housing, more fully integrated with the community—but that leaves the poorest of the poor, the folks who most desperately need SHA's services, behind.

The most immediate of the controversies is in the agency's senior housing program. In February, SHA sent out notices to about 1,000 prospective senior residents on the agency's waiting list, giving them four months' notice of a doubling of their subsidized rents— from $125 to $250 a month.

The increase, says SHA, is necessary to meet operating costs—a requirement that the agency backslid on until three years ago, when a financial analysis of the senior housing program revealed that operating costs of the aging units had increased dramatically and threatened the future financial viability of the program. According to the 1982 cooperation agreement between SHA and the city that governs the senior housing program, rents must be "no higher or lower than that which is necessary to fund costs and reserve." The increase, according to SHA spokesperson Ron Atkielski, was designed to cushion the blow for existing elderly residents, most of whom are on fixed incomes. They face only a token rent increase, and are broadly supportive of the changes.

While one might reasonably ask how things got to the state where a doubling in rent for new residents was necessary just to keep up with costs, a more immediate question arises. As with residents, most of those on the senior waiting list are also on fixed incomes, and are ill-equipped to cope with the rent increase. At least half of the people on the waiting list qualify as very low income. And those people, charges SHA critic John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, will be passed over in favor of individuals who can pay the higher rents—leaving them with only referrals to federal Section 8 housing, which is already in short supply.

Once June comes and the rent increases are in effect, there will be no turning back. Efforts by Fox to get City Council Housing Committee head Peter Steinbrueck to intervene and stop the hikes have gone nowhere. According to a Steinbrueck aide, the council's legal staff is telling them that the City Council can intervene only if the increase violates the 1982 cooperation agreement— which, if the SHA has in fact done such a poor job previously of keeping up with costs, it does not.

Fox also wants Steinbrueck's intervention at the Rainier Vista complex, where the SHA is planning to tear down about 650 very low-income units in a remodeling similar to the controversial one now under way at Holly Park. Only about half of the 650 very low income units would be replaced at comparable rent, according to Fox, with the rest at higher prices, including new homeowner units. SHA insists that their policy is that there will be "no net loss" of units for very low-income tenants, but Fox notes that money to build them will be subtracted from any funds available to expand, not replace, housing supply for the poor.

Such money won't be coming from the feds. Key to the Rainier Vista deal is $38 million in HOPE VI federal grant money. (SHA has not announced where the other $120 million or so needed to rebuild Rainier Vista will come from.) The HOPE VI program, everyone agrees, is designed to mix income levels. That avoids the massive "instant ghettoes" public housing is notorious for and creates (in theory) more stable neighborhoods.

In the case of Rainier Vista, there's more afoot; the complex is only a block from a proposed new RTA light rail transit stop. One gets the impression, talking with advocates, that the redevelopment fate of the neighborhood (new shops, increased property values) hinges on not having too many of "those people" in its midst. They will be shuttled away, to some as-yet-unfunded housing source—likely much more than a block away from RTA.

Such gentrification may or may not be good for the city; it wouldn't seem to be part of the mission of SHA. But it's clearly part of the goal of the HOPE VI program, one of the only remaining sources of federal HUD funding for new public housing construction. Nationally, since HOPE VI started in the mid-'90s, some 100,000 units of very low-income housing have been removed; only about 40,000 have been replaced.

As is true nationally, Seattle's supply of very low income housing is shrinking, and prospective residents are being left to compete with each other for scarce resources. These two examples, along with the recently approved privatization of the Ravenna School apartments and the loss of very low-income units in the rebuilding of Holly Park, suggest that by a process of accretion SHA is becoming steadily more attuned to the needs of clients who are poor, but not that poor.

In a sense, this isn't SHA's fault; it's simply going where the money, and the political support, is. State and federal funders want to help public housing residents who are pluckily working their way off welfare, rather than the elderly and immigrant population most in need. The city, sadly, does not seem to be stepping up to meet the difference. After all the lofty bureaucratic and political justifications for the upscaling of public housing are sifted through, one obvious question remains: where are the very poor supposed to go?

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