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Politics Northwest

The Seattle Times political team explores national, state and local politics.

September 19, 2014 at 3:10 PM

City Council member asks feds to block Seattle Housing Authority rent change

Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata is asking the feds to stop the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) from immediately implementing a new policy that would raise rents for thousands of poor households across the city.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development should issue new emergency rules for public housing authorities, like SHA, that want to set rents based on variables other than tenant income, Licata said Thursday in a letter to HUD Secretary Julián Castro.

On Friday, SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton declined to comment on Licata’s letter.

The controversial policy that SHA plans to implement, Stepping Forward, would set rents based on home size and time, and it would hike rents dramatically for households with at least one adult capable of working.

For example, Stepping Forward could mean rent for a two-bedroom household increasing from $160 to $850 over five years.

The change would affect about 4,600 households, including people living in public housing and people renting homes using vouchers provided by SHA.

SHA says it would pair the rent increases with job counseling to help tenants secure better jobs and higher wages. The tenants would then no longer need SHA and would move on, the agency says.

The result would be more tenant turnover and SHA would be able to serve more people, it says. There are currently about 9,000 households on SHA’s waiting list for public housing and 24,000 people applied in 2013 for rent vouchers.

Like most housing authorities, SHA currently charges rents that are pegged at 30 percent of tenant incomes.

But the agency says it can change that rent structure because it is a participant in Moving to Work, a HUD demonstration program that allows several dozen housing authorities around the country to experiment with new policies.

In his letter to Castro, Licata said SHA has failed to consider the state of Seattle’s housing market, “where rents are among the nation’s highest and available affordable family housing is scarce.”

Because Seattle’s market is so tight, it will be particularly difficult for SHA tenants to move out on their own, Licata said.

He wants HUD to issue emergency rules requiring housing authorities like SHA to “perform a community housing needs and capacity study” before implementing new rent structures.

In instances where affordable housing stock is scarce, agencies “should not be permitted” to move ahead with their plans, Licata said.

The councilmember is also asking HUD to require that SHA conduct a “fair housing assessment” before it implements Stepping Forward.

He says immigrants and refugees, single mothers and people of color may be disproportionately affected by the change.

Without first conducting an assessment, SHA can’t know “the potential discriminatory effect of this policy,” Licata said in his letter to Castro.

SHA’s seven-member board of commissioners will ultimately decide whether to implement Stepping Forward, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is set to make four appointments to the board this fall.

Like Licata, Murray has expressed concerns about the plan.

Comments | More in Federal government, Local government, Seattle City Council | Topics: Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, Seattle Housing Authority, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

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