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Seattle Housing Authority Walks Back its “Stepping Forward” Plan

By Mike Andrew

The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) has suspended its so-called “Stepping Forward” plan. The proposal would have increased rents for thousands of low-income residents of buildings managed by the SHA.

In a December 15 statement, SHA said there would be no rent increases in 2015, and that it might abandon the plan altogether.

“We have decided to put consideration of the Stepping Forward proposal on hold,” SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton wrote in a letter to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

“In early 2015 we will work with our board of commissioners to establish a process and time frame for a new policy recommendation. We are unlikely to put forth a rent policy proposal before 2016.”

According to SHA, 24,000 low-income families have applied for 2,000 available rent vouchers, and some 9,000 households are on its waiting list for public housing.

Rather than increasing the number of units available for low-income households, the ill-named “Stepping Forward” proposal was designed to deal with increased demand for low-income housing by introducing market considerations into SHA’s rent structure.

Under the plan, rents would have been based on size of the apartment rather than household income. Rents would also have increased every year to reflect rising rents in market-rate units.

Like many neo-liberal public officials, SHA Executive Director Lofton blamed low-income families for their inability to pay market rates for housing. The Stepping Forward plan was meant to “push tenants to become self-sufficient,” he claimed.

Predictably, the proposal met a firestorm of protest. Many SHA tenants, advocates for low-income housing, and elected officials came out against the plan, predicting that some households would be unable to keep up with the rent increases and would wind up homeless. It would also have a disproportionate impact on immigrants, refugees, families of color, and female heads of household, they said.

Tenants demonstrated against Stepping Forward at a number of SHA meetings, at a City Council hearing, and in the Mayor’s office in City Hall. Mayor Murray announced his opposition to the plan, and appointed two new SHA commissioners who promised to vote against it.

Housing advocate and PSARA Executive Board member Sarajane Siegfriedt noted that PSARA members participated in the fight to save low-income housing units.

“All PSARA shares in the reflected light of this victory of justice for Seattle Housing Authority’s tenants, whom we and City Hall supported,” she said. “The Tenants Union affirmed the principle that low-income people should pay no more than 30% of their income in rent.”

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who worked to scrap the SHA plan, said that organizing by tenants and activists was responsible for beating back the proposal.

“[W]e should recognize the important work we have done and remain vigilant and prepared to defeat Stepping Forward once and for all,” Sawant said. “We can start by keeping the pressure on City officials to only confirm SHA Board members who are committed to keeping tenant rents at no higher than 30% of income.

“We also need to use the momentum from this victory to build an even stronger affordable housing movement to win rent control and a massive expansion of quality publicly-owned affordable housing, in order to address some of the root causes of the affordable housing crisis in Seattle,” Sawant added.

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